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Jakes Fits 2 Worlds Under His Tent

Preacher takes a modern tack to spread old-time message


Super-Bishop T.D. Jakes fits right in with the other gnawingly tele-familiar faces sprinkled through the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. In the last quiet minutes before the dinner rush, he lingers with the rest of the semi-incognito. Undercover Brother Eddie Griffin, in a bandanna, lounges on the terrace; Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White, in a crisp cream suit and Jackie O shades, strides through the lobby. But Jakes doesn't take note of them at all.

He has traveled from his home in Dallas to the center of the land of handlers and cell phones, accompanied by his own dark-suited entourage, a busy network of mobiles set on vibrate and devoted to "keeping Bishop on schedule."

This stop, on the cusp of evening, is sandwiched between a morning at the Christian Booksellers Assn. International Convention in Anaheim and a Hollywood signing to promote his new book (the 26th!): "God's Leading Lady: Out of the Shadows and Into the Light" (Putnam), the latest chapter of his attempt to heal women "broken" in spirit. He'll take his message to Hollywood in an old-style tent revival.

Not just a super preacher in the old-fashioned sense--a man with a big church, bigger following and lots of spin--Jakes is a super-hyphenate, a televangelist-playwright-lyricist-life coach-author-CEO-husband-father-etc. Modern life is complex, and Jakes has addressed it by becoming conversant with myriad worlds and disciplines. Being a modern minister, he explains, means "being relevant and sensitive to the needs of the people that you are serving. And in order to do that, you have to do more than study Scriptures, you have to study people." He settles into a plush chair for a quick dinner of Caesar salad and chicken. "I've just about cut my diet down to just chicken and fish," he says, handing the waiter the menu. "Not for religious reasons, mind you. But for dietary reasons. Obesity reasons. I've gotta be able to fit in my suits!" He lets out a gust of a laugh.

Indeed, Jakes is a big man with a big reach and big voice that he plays like an instrument--he burnishes his vowels and purrs appropriate consonants, though not in an ostentatious way. Even his whisper has colors and texture. And a slight lisp adds softness.

This evening, his dress is as casual as his demeanor. In an oyster gray short-sleeved shirt and loose slacks, with matching gray ostrich-skin open-toe sandals, Jakes seems ready for a walk along the pier rather than a speaking engagement--and that has long been a key aspect of the charismatic style that led Time magazine to dub him the best preacher in America. It's an approach that's brought him steady success. In 1996, he moved to Dallas from his native West Virginia and founded Potter's House, his multiracial, multidenominational dream church. In just over five years, it has expanded from a 50-family flock to a congregation of more than 28,000 named as one of America's fastest-growing churches by Christianity Today. His live and internationally televised appearances reach tens of thousands each year.

Jakes--the T.D. stands for Thomas Dexter--keeps upping the ante. He has wired his "smart church" with Internet ports to download sermon notes, provides an in-house service that instantaneously translates pastor's message into one's language of choice and has installed a microwave dish atop the church that beams Sunday sermons to prisons in real time. Ministering to so many, Jakes has been big on constructing crucial comfort zones for his audience. "When it comes to spirituality--the culture of spirituality--there aren't rights and wrongs, it's just different shades of gray."

In his 25 years at the pulpit, he has positioned himself as a "meet you where you are" sort. "You've got to look at the demographics," he says, "tailor the message to the continuity of their need. And you have to be versatile enough to deliver it in a way that is palatable to that particular audience and not to be one-dimensional ....When your message is not relevant, people tend to drift away."

Though social justice has historically been the hallmark issue of black church leaders, Jakes argues that many other arenas demand equal attention. "That isn't to say that the original challenges do not exist. But there are additional issues that are so much more relevant to what our--African American--people are facing today. Developing family structures. Economic empowerment is a critical issue. Redefining families from the traditional idea of the mom, the pop, the 2.5 kids and the one-and-a-half car garage. That isn't always our experience," explains Jakes, who lives with his wife Serita and five children.

"It may be two sisters who have been divorced and they've moved in together and they have children. There may be blended families. There are Grandmamas and Big Mamas raising children. And those are issues in our community that we have to deal with."

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