At Their Service

Mega-churches Tap Into Secular, As Well As Spiritual, Needs To Draw Faithful

April 05, 2009|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to The Baltimore Sun

It's a recent Sunday morning at Set the Captives Free Outreach Center, a sprawling church housed in a former warehouse in Woodlawn.

There's a pulse of energy rippling throughout the cavernous room, outfitted with large video screens and rows of chairs instead of pews. A gospel singer raises her voice to the heavens, and a group of spiritual dancers swirls to the music.

Meanwhile, members of the large African-American congregation - a mix of young and old, singles and families - stand and sway with arms outstretched. Shouts of "Hallelujah!" fill the air.

As the Rev. Karen Bethea takes her place in the pulpit, she scans the sea of faces.

"Somebody ought to give God the praise!" says Bethea, beginning to deliver an energetic sermon that blends Scripture and a folksy preaching style. "Bring your troubles to Jesus. Let it out. You can't do this at work. ... But here in God's house, you can praise him!"

Bethea, who shares pastoral duties with her husband, the Rev. Linwood Bethea, launched Set the Captives Free in 2000. Since that time, the nondenominational church has grown from fewer than a dozen people meeting in a hotel room to some 2,000 members, and it has a weekly televison broadcast on WNUV-Channel 54.

Baltimore has long had its share of predominantly black churches with large, active congregations - places of worship such as Bethel AME, New Shiloh Baptist and New All Saints Catholic Church. Still, a newer wave of mega-churches in the city and surrounding suburbs is steadily drawing worshipers.

Their formula often merges spirituality, marketing and an array of services, ranging from day care to fitness classes.

In today's society, people are seeking a church that can "meet every dimension of who it is I am," says the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church in Northwest Baltimore.

Founded by Bryant in 1999 with a small group of devotees, the church now has some 10,000 members, including online followers in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world.

"I think what mega-churches have done is almost consistent with what Wal-Mart has done to the corner store. You can get everything [there] from a broom to a bedspread," says Bryant, whose church has a slick Web site, advertises on hip-hop radio stations and maintains a presence on MySpace, YouTube and Twitter. "The church in the millennium has got to offer more. ... It must offer services."

Boot camp, book club

Empowerment Temple, which has a church site on Primrose Avenue and a family outreach center in West Baltimore, boasts a boot camp for physical fitness, a single parents' ministry, a book club and meetings for entrepreneurs.

At Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Prince George's County, congregants have access to a credit union, an online bookstore and various health ministries. A transportation team provides rides for students from the University of Maryland, College Park.

The holistic approach of mega-churches is not only appealing to young people, especially those who have not traditionally been church-goers, but to worshipers of all ages, including those who've strayed from previous religious affiliations.

"I was raised Baptist, but for years, I really didn't go to church regularly," said Evelyn Gaines, a telecommunications manager who lives in Owings Mills. "I'd visited churches in Baltimore, but something was missing."

About a year ago, Gaines says, her hairstylist suggested she visit Set the Captives Free.

"The moment you walked in, you could feel the love," says Gaines, a married mother of two. "The greeters hugged me. I thought to myself, 'Wow!' I also thought Pastor Bethea was genuine. So I kept coming back."

Indeed, many mega-churches take great care to ensure that newcomers return. At Set the Captives Free, new members are enrolled in a 12-week information class, then feted at a quarterly brunch, where they are asked to complete surveys to determine how the church is doing.

At Empowerment Temple, says Bryant, new members are given a list of available ministries and services to "find their niche."

Bryant adds that sharing the Gospel at Empowerment Temple has taken various forms. For instance, on Saturday mornings, he and other members of the men's ministry "canvass the community and pick up trash," he says.

"A lot of young men on the corners see us and want to know, 'Who are these men?' We've gotten new members that way."

Social concerns

Just as black churches played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, some African-American mega-churches have taken on important social concerns, including issues such as addiction and HIV/AIDS.

Our mission is to "break people free from all types of bondage that can entrap them, and empower them to live abundant lives," says Minister Tiffany Love, the marketing director at Set the Captives Free.

The church's ministries run the gamut from career planning to health and wellness. The church offers regular HIV testing and related resources.

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