Features: Mega-Church Phenomenon

Where Herb Lusk’s church is happy to take government money, other local black churches are building from within

This is a national phenomenon. The Potter’s House in Dallas, with 30,000 members, is probably the biggest black church in America. L.A. has its share of 5,000-plus-member black churches; the Church of God in Christ in West Angeles — Denzel Washington’s house of worship — has some 24,000 members and a sanctuary that seats upwards of 5,000.

Philadelphia’s three very large and growing churches in three different neighborhoods have one common mission: “We’re trying to reach as many unbelievers as possible,” Richardson says. “Nothing has changed much about that.”

What has changed, though, are the needs of their growing congregations.

“One of the things driving this growth,” Richardson says, “is the breakdown of families. Churches that meet those needs are growing. We are reaching out to people who are dysfunctional, to single-parent families. Churches must become surrogate fathers and families.”

All three churches have strong men’s ministries — which focus on issues like raising children, employment counseling and returning from prison — and all are attracting youth, drawn with social and recreational activities that are open to non-members. It’s common to see teenagers in the signature white t-shirts and blue jeans at Sunday worship services. At Enon, a new young adult (ages 19-30) ministry called “Fire Escape” features open mike and rap nights. At Sharon Baptist, Pastor Reed interrupted his vacation one August Sunday to oversee the opening of new breakout services for the growing number of teenagers in his congregation.

“We’re calling it Church with a TWIST: Teens Worshipping In Spirit and Truth,” Reed told his congregation. “We’re excited about it.”

And they are excited about a new family-oriented crisis intervention service that they’re unveiling at Sharon Baptist on September 11th.

“We’re on a precipice,” Reed told his church. “He’s taking us somewhere we’ve never been before.”

Elmer Smith is a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News. E-mail: mail@phillymag.com