Features: Mega-Church Phenomenon

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

It’s an hour before 11:30 service on an overcast Sunday morning at the height of vacation season. But the lots at Sharon Baptist Church are all full.

Robert Taylor, an attorney with the Defender Association, sheds his pinstripe suits on Sundays and dons a bright orange reflecting vest to direct traffic in the main lot surrounding the massive stucco structure in Wynnefield Heights. “It’s like this every Sunday,” Taylor says. “A lot of people from the eight o’clock service stay late. People for the next service are just starting to come in. Pastor [Keith W.] Reed hoped to get the members together in one service when we built the new church. But we just don’t have enough parking.”

If the new church is short of anything else, you can’t tell it at a glance. The buff-colored edifice with its varied roof-lines capped in kelly-green tiles is set well back on a tree-­shrouded lot on Conshohocken Avenue. It houses a large sanctuary, a full-service café, a childcare center, a bookstore, and an administrative wing with offices for the ministerial staff and a few dozen in-house and outreach missions.

By 11 a.m., the expansive foyer is starting to fill with worshipers waiting for seats that are about to be vacated by the early-service attendees. In the main sanctuary, giant video screens flank a pulpit large enough to stage a Russian ballet. Smaller screens broadcast to parishioners sitting too far back for a clear view — though the more than 2,500 upholstered theater seats on the floor and in a balcony that overhangs half the auditorium wouldn’t fit half the worshipers if all 7,000 members showed up for any one service.

Like Herb Lusk’s Greater Exodus Baptist Church, Sharon Baptist and other local mega-churches have learned to deal with the seemingly intractable problems of families — ones that used to bypass them on the way to government-run social services centers — by reaching out to their minority communities. But unlike Lusk’s church, these larger churches are reluctant to break the long-held black allegiance to the Democratic Party to tap into the funding streams recently opened by the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiatives. They are all able to fund myriad programs through donations from their skyrocketing memberships.

Which is, in turn, pushing them out of their current locations. Enon Tabernacle of Germantown is building a cavernous new worship center for 5,000 congregants on the site of the Temple University football stadium. The campus will include a 94,000-square-foot domed sanctuary, a separate activities center, and 700 parking spaces. Meanwhile, Pastor Alyn Waller’s large and growing Enon congregation is divided into a weekend worship schedule that begins with an unusual Saturday evening service and continues through three services Sunday morning. As with Sharon and Enon Tabernacle, Christian Stronghold Baptist Church’s expanding 4,000-member congregation has outgrown its sanctuary. The sprawling building at 47th Street and Lancaster Avenue is its fourth “new” location in West Philadelphia since pastor Willie Richardson and a handful of charter members founded it 39 years ago. Next, Christian Stronghold hopes to break ground for an $11 million worship center near its current location. The size of these churches — and the range of services they offer — makes them as complex as small corporations, and their pastors are a little like CEOs.