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Selling God to the masses

God's Man in Texas is fictional, but the play asks some real questions for today's ministers: When is a church too big? And when does a preacher become merely an entertainer?

SHARON TUBBS
Published June 17, 2004

In God's Man in Texas, the ministers want to keep the people coming, so they preach "folksy" sermons the members like. They coif for TV cameras and christen buildings designed to entertain: a dinner theater, a bowling alley, a gym.

Then one character discovers that he has strayed from God's will, becoming nothing more than a local celebrity and a salesman artfully peddling Scripture to increase his customer base.

Inspired by the ministry of the late Baptist powerhouse W.A. Criswell, who led a Dallas congregation of nearly 30,000, God's Man in Texas is among the most successful plays in regional theaters nationwide. It plays at Tampa Bay area venues throughout the summer. Ministers say it touches on core issues for pastors during an era when the very definition of church is changing.

Church used to be a building with a cross hanging near the entrance, with an altar, a pulpit and pews. The preacher preached on Sundays, and people came.

Then megachurches emerged, with pastors on TV, with gymnasiums and cafeterias, with thousand-seat auditoriums that could swallow up traditional sanctuaries like Jonah in the belly of the whale.

Undergirding the philosophy that mega is better, conferences and books now teach techniques to "double your church in five years or less." Megachurch leaders talk of services with perfect lighting, timing and entertainment.

But at least one question lingers among church leaders, onstage and in real life. Can a minister become so consumed with putting on a good Sunday show that he loses sight of God?

* * *

If God's Man in Texas were God's Man in Tampa Bay, Randy and Paula White would be the main characters. With 20,000 names on the roll, their Without Walls International Church in Tampa is the largest congregation in the area. The church has more than 200 ministries, including an adoption agency, foster care training program, cosmetology school, cafeteria, call center and TV show (Paula White Today). A tram runs from far parking lots to the entrance.

Some churches are still doing puppet shows for kids and sticking pictures of members on Velcro-like flannel boards, Randy White said. They still have a woman standing behind a lectern reading church announcements.

"We live in the 21st century, and the church has to step up to the plate," he said.

At Without Walls, children worship in their own sanctuary, called the "Faith Fortress." Ministers dress in costume as members of the "Bible Squad" to deliver the messages.

In the adult sanctuary, prerecorded announcements are broadcast on big screens like the evening news. Charisse Strawberry (wife of former baseball star Darryl) acts as the anchorwoman, articulating the week's upcoming events. An outline of White's sermon appears on a PowerPoint display as he speaks. Studies show that people typically have a four-minute attention span before they need a "commercial" or a new idea, so he tailors his messages to hit points quickly and move on.

He suggests that every pastor go to a secular concert to get tips on lighting and format.

"I don't think the church competes with what the world is doing. I just think (some ministers) say, "It's ministry, so if they come, they come.' And that's why a lot of churches are empty."

The goal is to grow, to have an impact on the Tampa Bay area, he said. "The city is our church."

So is this ministry or marketing?

"I believe everyone needs to believe in their product," White said. "Well, what is my product? My product is Jesus."

Other local churches appear to be on their way to mega status.

First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks hopes to more than double its membership of 6,000 within the next five years, the Rev. Charlie Martin said.

Aside from various ministries to help the needy, the church has a skateboard park and a coffeehouse for college-age adults. It is building an assisted living facility for seniors.

But Martin says he doesn't let the church's outreach efforts distract him from teaching the word. He doesn't consider himself a good speaker, so his church's growth must be a product of the Holy Spirit moving in his sermons, he said. "God hasn't called me to be an entertainer."

The Rev. Ken Whitten is the spiritual shepherd for about 8,000 members at Idlewild Baptist in Tampa. He uses some of the same tactics that White does, displaying sermon outlines on big screens during the service.

"We're not driven by technology, but we're not afraid to use it," Whitten said. "We believe that people are visual."

Idlewild is building a new sanctuary to seat 5,000 near Van Dyke Road. Already, the church offers recreation for about 2,000 people every Saturday. At its Centre for Music, instructors give music and voice lessons. And Idlewild's LifeChange University offers seminary courses.

But Whitten said that a church's size and technology are relatively unimportant. God calls some churches to be large, some to be small.

"There is a point at which a church is too big," he said. "But I don't think it has to do with numbers."

A church is too big when the focus is no longer on ministering to the people, he said. That can happen with a church that has a couple hundred members or one that has several thousand.

"It's not about volume and it's not about the bottom line," Whitten said. "What's important is what God called you to do."

* * *

"One of the hardest things for any religious leader is to remain authentic," said the Rev. Louise Baker, after watching God's Man in Texas during a preview screening with other ministers at American Stage in St. Petersburg. "There's that fine line between worship and performance."

In the three-man play, the Rev. Jerry Mears (Matt Carlton) plays a minister who becomes co-pastor of Rock Baptist Church, called the "Baptist Church of the universe."

As co-pastor, working alongside the aging Rev. Phillip Gottschall (Warren Hammack), Mears loses his humility and becomes focused on figures: the number of people in church, the increase or decrease in the offering basket.

His time is spent at extracurricular church activities. At the church's bowling alley, for instance, Mears thanks God for "six new lanes and all-you-can-eat popcorn."

Hugo Taney (Henry Haggard) is the pastors' right-hand man, who knows everything that goes on at Rock Baptist. He's also the play's comic relief. "You got 'em with it," Hugo tells Mears after his first fiery sermon.

But Hugo suggests that Mears make the next sermon more "folksy" if he wants to really grab the people. That's how they like their sermons at Rock Baptist.

The play was almost "too real," said Baker, of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg, which has about 200 members. At times in her ministry, she said, she has felt pressure to please people, rather than God. "I've found myself struggling with that," she said.

The Rev. Louis Murphy Sr., pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, said it's not unusual to want a larger church, because bigger churches mean more people are believing in Jesus.

His church has about 3,000 members. "All of us want to do more for God," Murphy said. "But it can get distorted if you focus more on members than on ministry."

Ellis Hodge, pastor of Word of Life Fellowship Church in St. Petersburg, nodded at Murphy's comments. "The leadership of a church may try to make you into who they want you to be, instead of what God calls you to be."

For Marty Hager, a retired Baptist pastor from Dunedin, the play had another strong point. An underlying theme is the retiring pastor's reluctance to give up his pulpit.

Hager, 64, could relate. He transitioned into retirement by bringing in a co-pastor. "I can't say I didn't feel a lot of what Criswell felt," he said. "He's human. We all have those feelings."

* * *

In any church, though, large or small, people tend to see things differently - sometimes very differently.

God's Man in Texas is a good example of that. Playwright David Rambo said the work was inspired by the real-life events between Criswell and Joel Gregory, Criswell's successor, who quit in 1992 after less than two years on the job. Gregory complained that Criswell wouldn't step aside and let him run things. In 1994, Gregory wrote Too Great a Temptation about his ministry and problems he said he encountered under Criswell.

Rambo, who is now a staff writer for the TV drama CSI, said he read Gregory's book, as well as books about Criswell and news accounts of their relationship. He visited megachurches and studied various preachers' sermons. In the end, he concocted three fictitious characters. Though press accounts nationwide have said the play was based on Criswell's story, Rambo stresses that Criswell's life was only the inspiration.

But some people who knew Criswell and Gregory say the book and the play unjustly defame Criswell, blurring the lines between truth and fiction. He was not reluctant to retire, they say. In fact, it was Criswell who initiated the process to hire a replacement, said Jack Pogue, a close friend of Criswell's, who was with him when he died.

"When Joel said there was a power play going on, it was an absolute lie," Pogue said.

God's Man played in Dallas a few years ago, but Pogue didn't see it and said he never will. "To me, it would be a slap in the Lord's face and Dr. Criswell's face."

Gregory reportedly went on to become a door-to-door salesman. He later spoke at a number of churches but was not a pastor. He is now the publisher of Chile Pepper, a Cajun food magazine, based in Fort Worth, Texas. He did not return a call seeking an interview.

-- Sharon Tubbs can be reached at 727 892-2253 or tubbs@sptimes.com

If you go

God's Man in Texas, American Stage, 211 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through July 24; Smith Black Box at Tampa Preparatory School, 727 Cass St., July 29 to Aug. 14. For times or tickets ($20-$29) for both locations, call American Stage at (727) 823-7529. Actors are also available to perform the play at area churches. Call American Stage if interested.

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