Beliefnet
c. 2000 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS -- Among this city's African-American Christians, faithhas long been dominated by Catholicism and the richly texturedsmall-church tradition of Baptist life, two wellsprings that producedthe gifts of Xavier University and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

But a reshaping of black Christian worship is well under way here,signaled by the emergence of a handful of new, mostly Pentecostalmegachurches dwarfing the churches that once dominated the city'sreligious landscape.

In a city where in years past a big African-American Protestantchurch usually was Baptist and had 500 to 1,000 members, these newchurches usually are Pentecostal and the congregations are three, fiveor 10 times bigger.

Pentecostals emphasize the power of God in the Holy Spirit and filltheir worship with exuberant praise. But beyond preaching personalsalvation in Jesus Christ, they emphasize the Holy Spirit's everydayavailability to deliver miracles, physical healings and deliverance fromemotional and financial troubles.

That extra dimension "is why you have the word `full' in `FullGospel,"' said Bishop Robert Blakes Sr., of New Home Full GospelMinistries, a pioneer in the New Orleans movement.

"You go to a traditional Baptist church, they're not going to callyou out, lay hands on you and tell you you're going to be delivered thatvery night," said Bishop Paul S. Morton, 49, another founder of themovement in New Orleans. "People want that kind of experience."

No one professes to know the implications of such growth.

Among the pastors whose churches are growing explosively, there isno consensus on where their new congregants are coming from, whetherfrom Baptist ranks, Catholic, or from those previously unchurched.

At one level, New Orleans is merely tapping into the spiritual powerof Pentecostalism, the fast-growing stream within Christianity that oncecarried superstars such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and, sincetheir downfall, has replaced them with immensely popular nationalevangelists such as T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn.

But there also are more practical reasons closer at hand.

First among them has been the emergence in the New OrleansPentecostal movement of a corps of relatively young pastors -- onlyBlakes is over 50 -- with sharp marketing and pulpit skills and awillingness to deploy technology in service to their churches.

"We're living in the 21st century now, and I'm trying to acclimatethe church to the world," said Bishop Darryl Brister, 33, who usesMicrosoft Powerpoint software displays to buttress his weekly Biblestudies at Beacon Light Full Gospel Baptist Church, a Pentecostalcongregation despite its name.

"Ministers have become more corporate in their thinking," said theRev. Robert Blakes Jr., the elder Blakes' 35-year-old son, who is pastorof a New Home Ministries church of 3,500 members in eastern New Orleans."We understand vision; we understand our abilities; we understandmarketing."

The trend gathered speed throughout the last half of the 1990s.

One thread traces back to the 1980s, when Morton, who had grown upattending the Pentecostal church in Windsor, Ontario, and moved to NewOrleans in 1972, began injecting Pentecostal thinking and worship intoGreater St. Stephen Baptist Church. Its 650 members made it one of thelargest black Baptist churches in the city when Morton took over itspulpit in 1975.

While keeping the name Baptist, Morton soon added Full Gospel to thename of the transformed St. Stephen's to signify that it had been dousedin Pentecostal Christianity.

By the early 1990s, Greater St. Stephen had exploded to 10,000members, then to more than 20,000 today.

And in due course, Morton, having assumed the title of bishop, beganto franchise the success by helping proteges transform other traditionalBaptist churches into new, supercharged "Full Gospel" Baptist churches.

One of those is Beacon Light, whose membership mushroomed from 150to 7,000 when that nearly moribund church in 1993 offered its pulpit toBrister, Morton's young top aide.

And there's Life Center, led by Bishop J.D. Wiley, a 12,000-memberFull Gospel church that did not exist before Morton recruited Wiley fromMichigan in 1993, convinced him to start a church in suburban NewOrleans, and loaned him some of his own key people to get Wiley's churchoff the ground.

But there is another stream of black Pentecostal spirituality in NewOrleans springing from the elder Blakes.

Operating separately from Morton, who would follow a roughlyparallel track at Greater St. Stephen, Blakes expanded his churchthroughout the 1980s.

Turnover was enormous, he said. Unnerved Baptists walked out; othercongregants arrived in even greater numbers. Now Blakes claims 7,000 on the rolls at the the ministry's motherchurch. More important, he is head of New Home Ministries, anindependent Pentecostal enterprise. The work includes two sons, RobertJr. and the Rev. Samuel, and a total of six churches in and around NewOrleans.

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