NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — On just about any Sunday, as many as 10,000 people may fill the pews of The Potter's House, Bishop T.D. Jakes' Dallas-area megachurch. Believers say he has an uncanny way of connecting with his audience anyway.
"It doesn't matter about the size," says Faith Johnson, a 13-year member. "It's almost like nobody else is in that church, but me."
It takes some help for leaders of the largest megachurches and national ministries to make believers reject the idea that a smaller church is more intimate and personable. A big staff of associate pastors and elders is indispensable.
Steve Doubet is an elder at Jakes' church. He says Jakes and his wife, Serita, are down-to-earth people who create a friendly, intimate atmosphere that "rolls down through their associate pastors and right on into the pews."
"I love this place because it feels intimate and it feels small," Doubet said. "Week ... to week, whoever you're sitting next to, they're open. You can attend churches that are tiny, and are so uptight, you don't want to go back."
Jakes is undoubtedly busy. Besides ministering at Potter's House and satellites nationwide, he speaks abroad, is a bestselling author, and also produces movies. His film "Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day" debuts this month, and "Sparkle," the last movie featuring the late Whitney Houston, is scheduled for release in August.
Jakes and other mega-pastors credit their ability to stay in touch with their members to strong church leadership. For instance, Jakes has 12 associate pastors and numerous elders. Doubet said the congregation still receives a strong message on the rare occasion that Jakes can't preach.
"It's important for him to have heavy hitters to be able to come in after him," Doubet said. "Because after you've attended the church there for a while, you have an expectation that you're going to get really well fed. His associate pastors all can hit it over the fence."
Despite his hectic schedule, Jakes says he takes time to personally oversee funerals — and even makes hospital visits.
"I enjoy being there for the family in times of crisis to try to stir them and encourage them in a personal one-on-one way," he said. "I take very seriously my responsibility to feed the flock. We ... provide every service that we did when we were still small churches."
Pastor and gospel singer Marvin Winans has a congregation of about 4,500 at Perfecting Church in Detroit. Winans, who gave Whitney Houston's eulogy in February and preached at a megachurch in Nashville last month, said part of having an effective ministry is having dependable disciples.
"It cannot be a one-man show in order for it to properly work," he said. "The first thing Jesus did was get some disciples ... for the work of the ministry to carry on."
Pastor Matthew Cork knew he'd have to rely more on his leadership when his nearly 6,000-member Friends Church in Yorba Linda, Calif., committed to building 200 schools in India over the next 10 years for dalit children, who are part of the country's lowest caste. He's also promoting a book and movie about the number of dalits who end up being trafficked as sex slaves.
"We have a teaching team, so I'm not teaching every week, which gives me freedom to do some of the other things that I do," said Cork, who speaks about twice a month at his church. "It's worked great for me and my schedule."
James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, said a church's pastoral staff is one factor considered by people deciding whether to attend a megachurch or a much smaller congregation.
"Do they want a great spiritual leader who is a charismatic preacher who can move lots of people, or do they want someone they can talk to about the fact they've lost a job, or a relative?" he said.
Another issue, he said, is the amount of involvement. A person who wants to just observe the service may not be able to blend in unnoticed at a small church like they would at one with hundreds of people.
"They're going to notice you and ask you to lead Sunday school, or usher," Hudnut-Beumler said. "There is virtually no dropping in and just sort of observing church. With a megachurch, you can stand on the periphery and have great service."
Nevertheless, Angela Bingham says she enjoys the intimate atmosphere at Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., which has a membership of about 230.
"You're not just a number," said the 49-year-old school teacher, who has attended the church most of her life. "They know you by name, by face."
In Chesapeake, Va., Martez Layton acknowledges it's possible to "feel like a number" at the 7,500-member Mount Lebanon Baptist Church that he and his wife, Woodrina, attend. But he said they don't because they're both active. The couple, who have been married for over 20 years, heads a marriage counseling ministry.
"It's being involved in the activities in the church is where you begin to build your relationship," he said. "It's not like ... we can have a dinner after church and everybody get to know each other."
Like many megachurches, Layton said he enjoys having abundant resources. For instance, he said the church fed 400 families for Thanksgiving.
"I know at a small church there's no way you can feed 400 families," he said.
But others say just because a church doesn't have "mega" in front of it, doesn't mean it's ineffective.
Richard W. Sibert is pastor of Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church. Despite the size of the church, he said it's about the business of caring for its members, and the community.
"Smaller churches are utilizing their talents and abilities on a smaller scale," he said. "Some of them are actually more together than the megachurches."
At St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Laurel, Md., where Robbie Morganfield is pastor, only about 150 people regularly attend the service. But Morganfield still has a vision to build a community center adjacent to the church and believes it can be done if his members commit themselves.
"I think you can be a small church and have a mega-ministry," he said. "It's about vision. A hundred people ... can do a lot of stuff if they're really committed."
Lucas L. Johnson II can be reached at twitter.com/LLJohnsonAP
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