Time magazine called him “America’s Best Preacher,” and there are thousands of listeners across America who wouldn’t disagree. After building a strong church in South Charleston, West Virginia, T.D. Jakes led 50 families from that church to Dallas to create The Potter’s House, which within five years grew to more than 28,000 members. Today Bishop Jakes is also known for his weekly national television broadcasts and his arena events held across America, as well as a string of best-selling books. Under his leadership, The Potters House has also taken a variety of initiatives to meet human needs through ministries to the homeless, drug abusers, prison inmates, and many more. Preaching editor Michael Duduit sat down with Bishop Jakes recently to discuss the place of preaching in his ministry.
Preaching: One of the fascinating things about your ministry is that your ministry has engaged the interest of women in a significant way, yet at the same time your Dallas congregation has a higher percentage of men than a typical church. How do you explain that?
Jakes: It’s hard to explain it. I’m not sure that it was something we purposely set out to do. One thing is I do the “Woman, Thou Art Loosed!” (WTAL) conference, which has brought national visibility, but I also do a men’s conference called “Man Power” that is growing by leaps and bounds. We had around 25,000 men last year. We’re expecting 50,000 men in Atlanta this year at the Georgia Dome.
I’ve tried to deal with the entire perspective of the family from the women to the man and vice versa. My ability to connect with women has come from being a counselor and a pastor over half of my life, and 27 years have been behind a desk listening to people talk about the deepest issues and area of their lives. That gives you a unique opportunity to hear and to understand and to translate that language into some order. Sometimes we really have to answer inside of ourselves but we don’t put it in an order where we can really hear what’s going on in our own heart.
Preaching: How did the WTAL emphasis come about?
Jakes: The WTAL started out as a Sunday school class. It was supposed to be one class for about forty women. I was inspired to do it because I had counseled so many women who were going thru similar devastating childhood issues and scars that were affecting them in the current context of their lives. I decided to bring them together in a Sunday school class because I believe that there are Biblical answers to all of the sociological ills that we face today. I thought that not only would they find encouragement from things that I had to say, but the deeper encouragement would come from them seeing that they were not alone. For them to look across the aisle and see another women who was being touched or ministered to as well would cause them to know that there is a sense of community which is critical for our well being.
What started out as one class – being long winded, I didn’t finish and decided to carry on for a second week and twice as many women came. By then I just added some more to it. I could have finished but I added more. By the fourth week we had women standing outside of the door to hear me talk about this subject for which I had no name. I later called a friend of mine – the now deceased Reverend Archie Dennis – and said to him “I am teaching this class for women and it is growing in leaps and bounds.” He said, “Why don’t you come to Pittsburgh?” I was then living in Charleston, West Virginia. He said “why don’t you come to Pittsburgh and do it in my church”. I said OK. He said, “What do you call it?” I said, “I don’t know.” I was teaching out of Luke 13 and I said, “Well, I guess we’ll just call it ‘Woman, thou art loosed!’ That is what the scripture said.” And he said, “OK.”
I think I touched a nerve where there was a need in the pews that evidently we had not touched in that way before. Now we’ve gone from that to our largest crowd. We had 86,000 women at the Georgia Dome. I didn’t plan it. It just kind of happened.
Preaching: Do you think that the response you’ve had perhaps reflects that much of the church is not connecting or engaging in the lives of women?
Jakes: I think that we are doing a better job now than we used to but we have not always been as sensitive as we should have been. Partially because there are so many men manning the helm of the church that we are preoccupied with men’s issues, leadership issues, theological issues and we approach ministry from our own perspective. In order for ministry to really be effective, I think it needs to be approached by what does the congregation need more than what does the pastor need to talk about.
God, when He gets ready to minister to us, does it by coming where we are. He came in the person of Jesus Christ to embrace the human experience and then offered the solution, and I think it is critical for Christian leaders that we don’t lose touch with the people we serve. We have to do what Christ did. Sit where they sit, feel what they feel and then speak out in a deep sense of compassion because we are one with the people that we seek to minister to.
Preaching: In your messages, how do you connect both with the needs of women and the needs of men?
Jakes: I think it is a challenge when you try to do it in the same message but one of the great things about having a woman’s conference, or a women’s book, a men’s book or a men’s conference is that you can focus. I think it’s the difference between a general practitioner in medicine and a specialist. That specialist can be more precise in his evaluation of your condition because he’s localized all of his attention to one particular area and thereby he can do a better job. Any time ministers are afforded an opportunity to amass leaders or support groups or women’s ministry or men’s ministry, then we can fine tune our texts and adapt it to the concerns of the crowd that we seek to serve.
Preaching: Thinking now about your Sunday services at The Potter’s House in Dallas, how do you plan or develop what you are going to do in preaching?
Jakes: I think I spend a lot of time in prayer and a lot of time in observation of the needs of our congregation. Lord, where are we now. I don’t presume to know where we are just because I am there. God’s perspective is higher and wiser than mine. What do I need to minister? Our services include thousands and thousands of people – we make up 20 different nationalities. We have everybody in our congregation from judges, lawyers, attorneys, and millionaires to homeless people. There is a wide range of people. It is not just a typical inner city church where it is all inner city people. It’s not a suburban church where there are all people from the suburbs. I have just an amalgamation of every type of person imaginable, so I need divine intervention to know what to do.
What I have had to look for amidst that vast array of persons and personalities are common denominators. There are so many that I am shocked. There are common issues that concern both the person who’s living in a shelter and the person who’s living in a palatial mansion in north Dallas. The desire for betterment, the desire for emotional stability in a chaotic world, how do we deal with aging, how do we deal with loneliness, grief, depression, fear – those things thing have no color, they have no culture, they have no economic, sociological context.
I try to develop series that will minister as a pastor to a multiplicity of needs. Sometimes those series are born out of message where you strike a nerve – you didn’t even know there was going to be a series and you create a series. You say, “come back next week, I am going to talk more about this.” The crowd often teaches the preacher how to preach. Their response, their reaction, how well we have affected them. So many times we walk out of the pulpit and we think we did a great job because we said something that inspired us, but if it fails to reach them . . .
Communication is not complete until the person who hears you is receiving what you have to say. It’s not how well you speak; It’s how well they hear what you are trying to say. When you make contact with those persons you want to continue in that vane until there is a feeling of satiety that exists both in their hearts and yours. The Bible said that the word of the Lord would not return unto Him void but it would do that thing where unto it had been sent, so we can’t stop that word until it has accomplished that thing where unto God has sent it.
Preaching: Are there some ways that you read the congregation to determine whether you’ve connected or not?
Jakes: I find it difficult – and it’s funny, because I am leaving here to go to a stadium full of women, some 70,000 women – yet I find it difficult to connect with a crowd where I can’t see in the eyes of at least a wide range of those persons. You read people’s eyes and hearts. Preaching is really a conversation. It is not a monologue; it’s a dialogue between you and the congregation. Even though it’s not always that they verbally respond – they are talking back to you if you take the time to listen, to feel the atmosphere in the room, the anointing. As you speak on certain issues, it lets you know that now you’ve hit it. You’ve hit what God wants to say – now that you are through saying those first five minutes with all the things that you wanted to say – and finally you hit a sentence where you feel that push behind you, that surge that says now you have dropped into the vein that God really stood you up to say. And when you hit that vein, why move? Stay right in that track and allow God to guide you. The Holy Spirit was given to us to guide us. I think that even as we minister we must be guidable and allow the Holy Spirit to influence. It doesn’t matter what I have in my notes to say. It doesn’t matter whether I get my favorite point in or not. I matters that I am guided by the Holy Spirit to that precise area of need in the lives of my congregation.
Preaching: How do you go about preparing a message?
Jakes: It can vary for me, after twenty-seven years of ministry in the gospel. Sometimes it begins with the text and I have to find the subject and the outline. Often it begins with the subject and I have to find the text that helps me to describe the subject. Many times the story of the text becomes a metaphor that points to the issues and the lives of a person. I think that sometimes when we get so engrossed in the text that we lose sight of the congregation we’ve lost the point, because the text is only a backdrop to help me reach the lives of the congregation. If I am so consumed in talking about Esther that I forget about Ruth or that I forget about Mary who is sitting on the third row or Elizabeth who’s sitting on the fifth row then I’ve lost the point. Esther is only used as a tool to help me enhance Elizabeth’s life or Sister Sally’s life who is sitting out there in the congregation.
I go through the Word of God looking for illustrations from a biblical perspective that will enhance the congregant’s experience. I have a recipe for preaching that I have used for 27 years – it’s not original, I read it somewhere. I can’t remember where but it stayed with me. It is a four step process.
The first one is to study yourself full. Gather as much information as possible on the subject that you are going to speak. The second one – which I think is perhaps even more critical than the first – is to think yourself clear. If you study yourself full but don’t think yourself clear, when you get up to speak you give a lot of facts but the facts have no continuity. I call it theological indigestion – you’re just sputtering up information that’s not put into a palatable format. The first one is study your self full the second one think yourself clear.
The third one is pray yourself hot. If you don’t have a real passion about it you can’t preach effectively. If it’s not hot to you, it won’t be hot to them. The fourth one, which is critical, it is let yourself go. Don’t be inhibited in the pulpit. You’re just an instrument. Don’t be so self-conscious that you’re not God-conscious. If you will let yourself go on stage and you are relaxed, then that relaxes the congregation. If the pastor is tight the congregation is tight. Then the whole hour, or whatever it is, is laborious because nobody is comfortable. It is like riding with somebody – if you’ve ever gotten into a car with a driver who is nervous, their nervousness is contagious. You can feel them holding the wheel and shaking, and you’re sitting up there thinking something is wrong. That’s what happens when somebody mans the pulpit who will not let themselves go. If you study yourself full, think yourself clear, pray yourself hot, and let yourself go you have a great experience.
Preaching: When you’re getting ready for next Sunday in your home church, are there what would be the day to day activities for you getting ready to preach?
Jakes: I’m a night stalker. I get up during the night when I am really excited about something – while everybody else is asleep – and I get on my computer and I’ll just wail it out. I used to carry around a suitcase full of books. Now thank God we got a PC you can put all of those books and with one click of a button you can reach anything you are trying to reach. Then I study those things that I think are very, very important to me; I may spend the day thinking about those things.
My days are rapid pace: often traveling here, there, and everywhere, board meetings, dealing with issues. I’m not only pastor but I run a couple of companies besides. I can find myself in a business meeting that takes me way away from theology all together. But in the back of my mind that message is still turning that I had during the night and it builds, it develops. It’s almost like you take a piece of meat and you marinate it for a couple of days before you cook it. I like to marinate a message – sometimes a few days and sometimes a few weeks. I’ve got messages in my head that have been in the back of my head for months. One of them has been in the back of my head for a year. I haven’t preached it yet. I just haven’t found that right time or that feeling of readiness and I don’t like to preach it until I’ve got the right message for the right setting.
Preaching: We recently did a survey of readers of PreachingNow (our email newsletter), asking who were the preachers that have really influenced them significantly. Billy Graham and Chuck Swindoll topped the list, but you were one of the top five preachers that was identified as influencing the lives of these current pastors and preachers. Who are the preachers who influenced you?
Jakes: It’s really funny because I would like very much to be able to present some distinguished list of renowned names – and there are certainly some great ones – but I grew up in the hills of West Virginia. I had a very rural background where very few famous people ever come. The people that impacted me the most about Christ were people that nobody would ever know. I had a Sunday school teacher names Inez Strickland who live to be 103 years old who taught me as a little boy about Jesus Christ. She was never famous. I don’t think she was ever on TV or written up anywhere. She taught me to love the Lord. Sitting on the front porch drinking ice tea with Ms. Strickland left an indelible impression on my life.
There were old country preachers in the hills of West Virginia who didn’t even preach with microphones because their congregations grew to the flowing mass crowd of 50 people, but they knew God in a phenomenal way. I often tell people that everybody that’s famous is not great and everybody that’s great is not famous. The people who meant the most to me were just real people, simple in their delivery, concise in their ideology and passionate about their conviction. I have tried to maintain that perspective as life has carried me into situations beyond my wildest dreams.
Preaching: How has your preaching changed over the years? How have you changed?
Jakes: I don’t think the preaching has changed much at all. I think the environment has changed. I think that the preaching is what it is. God fashions us in obscurity and then brings us to some visibility, and I think that it is very important that you resist the temptation to change who you are as God brings you into the light. I think God wants who He called. Sometimes when God calls us we start trying to become something that we think we ought to be, but God called who He wanted. I’ve tried to remain very close to what I was before. They told me that if you get on television that you need to polish up, you’re too country, you’re too loud, you’re too wild, you’re too passionate. I am going to do my thing. Either love me or hate me America. I am who I am. I’ve tried to hold to that.
A lot of things have changed around us. The environment, the requirement, the demands of leadership, how we pastor has changed drastically because there is a great deal of difference between pastoring 28 people and pastoring 28,000. There’s a huge difference in how we do what we do. But the core gospel message shouldn’t change.
I am afraid that the church is becoming worldly in its need to come up with something new and different. Anytime something is new we either have to improve it or it deteriorates from what it was before. How can the gospel be improved? How dare we deteriorate what is already perfect? I have tried to hold it pretty close to the way God gave it to me. Everything else about it has changed – staff, needs, requirements, obstacles, enemies, adversities. All of that has changed but the core message. I could show you some tapes of me preaching in the store front and – aside from being a whole lot smaller and a lot more hair – I was pretty much the same guy, a little younger.
Preaching: One of the things I have read is that Mrs. Jakes has played such a key role in your ministry. I read a quote from one of your members that said that “part of the attraction that women have to your ministry is the way you treat your wife.” Does she play a role in your preaching? Do you discuss ideas or sermons?
Jakes: Rarely, rarely do I talk a lot about a text. Sometimes I do. My wife is an encourager. It amazes me that after all of these years she still gets excited when I preach. I think that is a great compliment for somebody who lives with you to still like you – to still have an appreciation for what you do is the greatest affirmation that I have ever experienced in my life. For me to walk off the stage and for her to rant and rave about something I preached is invaluable to me.
Really our greatest strength to me in our relationship is not so much what she does on stage but how she grounds me off stage and gifts me. Something I think can easily be taken away with notoriety. She gives me normalcy, she gives me tranquility, she gives me a sense of being a person and not just a personality and let’s me not be sucked up into some gospel television machine. She grounds me and that’s very important.
Preaching: Is there an ongoing struggle to deal with the issues of celebrity versus being a pastor, being a servant of a congregation?
Jakes: From a perspective of arrogance it is not a struggle to me because I’m not really attracted to notoriety. I actually love normalcy. I don’t enjoy being famous. I enjoy normalcy. I never set out to be well known; I set out to be effective. Being well known is something that I live with. In my prayers I ask God to teach me how to live with it, not give me more of it. I can do without it. Yet, I am willing to give up the things I love – the privacy I crave, the individuality that I still yearn for, if I can help somebody. The day that I cease to be a servant to Him in that way, then please let me do like Peter. Let me go a fishin’. I would much better be in a boat with a couple of friends with a fishin’ rod in my hand than to be in front of thousands of people who really don’t know me.
Preaching: As you look back over your ministry are there some things you know now that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Jakes: Yes, I think if I had it to do over again I would have done it slower. I would have moved slower. I would have taken more breaks along the way. I’m a type ‘A’ workaholic sort of person. I drive straight ahead like there is not going to be a tomorrow. Twenty-seven years into it I find out there was a tomorrow and I found out that if you don’t get it all done today it is OK. I would have forgiven myself for not finishing. That would have been something critical. I would not have charged myself such a high bill of responsibility when somebody that I was trying to win failed and blamed myself as if I were the savior of another person. That would have been different. More time with my kids, that would have been different.
There are a lot of little things that I learned along the way. I would have learned not to grieve over dreams that didn’t come true, buildings that we were trying to buy and couldn’t get, doors that were closed in our face, opportunities that didn’t come to pass. I wouldn’t have taken it all so seriously. The older I get the more I realize it really doesn’t matter – that what God has for you is for you. God has a plan and when He opens the door no man can shut it and when He shuts the door no man can open it. Not to get in front of the door and wonder what I did wrong or right that caused it to shut or open. These are the things that experience teaches you. You learn to calm down.
The other thing that I think is very, very important is that I find that success is not complete without a successor. Many, many times people enjoy what you do but they don’t learn how to do what you do, and the best thing you can do in all of your life is to pour what you do into somebody who can repeat it – who can actually do it, not just enjoy it. To work yourself out of a job – that is critical so that you will ultimately reach your destiny and not be like David. Almost lost his life killing giants in his later years, repeating what he did in his younger years. I think it is important that you kill your giants in your youth and not try to reduplicate that issue over and over again for the long run.
Preaching: You’ve just written a novel. How does writing a novel compare to preaching?
Jakes: It is very similar to me because I am a story teller. My mother said I had a wild, lascivious imagination! Nothing about little Tommy has changed. He is still telling stories. Doing Cover Girls (Warner Books) gives me an opportunity to discuss a story, to introduce characters – fictitious characters but they’re not totally fiction. They are little threads of many women that I have met along the way. I have had the rich opportunity of meeting president’s wives, presidents, kings, princes, nobility, actors, actresses, homeless people. I have been on death row with people before they were to be executed. I’ve been in the hospital room when babies were born dead and I’ve been in the room when mothers were gasping for breath and went home to be with the Lord. I have seen the very best and worse moments in life – divorce settlements, marriages reconciled, marriages terminated. I have been in the room with the groom right before he got married and calmed down the bride because the groom didn’t show up. I’ve done a lot of things. When you read these characters they embody all of those rich experiences, and Cover Girls is just a pitcher of water pulled from the brook of an experience that is too vast to put in one book. But in that pitcher of water you get a taste of everything that is in the brook.
Preaching: Why did you call the book Cover Girls?
Jakes: I find that one of the strongest proclivities that people have – and women in particular – is a tendency to hide who we really are. It has lead to more divorces than anything I have ever seen, the inability to share with another person who we really are for fear of rejection. It causes companies to fall apart. It wrecks staff relationships. It kills giftings in ministries. Even in the church – where there is such a pressure on us to be a certain way and live up to a certain standard or image – we often hide who we really are.
The characters in Cover Girls are very, very different – some white, some black, some rich, some poor. Some women who have been through child abuse, some women who have been very, very successful,;there is one character who is afraid of getting old. There is one character who is deeply religious. But the one thing that each one of them ultimately finds out that she has in common with the other woman is that she is hiding something. Hiding something that she’s afraid that anybody will see but also hiding something that she’s afraid nobody will ever see.
We hide from people who we really are and hope that they don’t see. But secretly we wish that somebody would look behind the mask and care enough about us; to become involved with who we really are and not what we do or what we have. I call the book Cover Girls because these women are afraid to reveal what God longs to heal.
My mother said something to me when I was a little boy. I had a cut in my hand and the nurse at school had covered it up with a band-aid. When I got home my mother took the band-aid off and she said, “Let it get some air baby cause things that are covered don’t heal well.” I found that to be very true the rest of my life. Things that are covered. they really don’t heal well. So I called the book Cover Girls.
Preaching: Does your experience with preaching make you a better writer?
Jakes: Yes, I think it does. Though when I do sit down to write I always feel like it pulls a different part of me out. First of all when you preach and say something you can never erase it. The wonderful thing about writing is that you can delete it all and say “oops.” You know, when you’re preaching you can’t take it out once it is out there, so I like that about it – the extra five seconds that you get to think about what you are going to say. Because preaching is a rhythm. You can’t have dead spaces. You can’t stop in the middle of your sermon and say, “Hmmm, I need to think about that awhile,” and then reflect and talk on it 10 minutes later. But writing you can get up and have lunch and come back to it. You can try it again tomorrow and say this is a bad day. That is a great experience.
I think that when you write, writing is the nectar of preaching. I think it gives you the opportunity to give a concentrated, reflected thought not necessarily bound by spontaneity and time. It releases a deeper dimension of truth. Writing anything has been a joy for me.
Preaching: If you could talk to young pastors and give them any counsel as they begin their ministries, what would you tell them?
Jakes: A young man asked me years ago: if I had to sum up in one word what a young pastor had to be in order to fulfill his dream, what would that word be? And I looked at him and said “relentless.” Anybody who’s ever been successful at anything – whether you are talking about somebody who’s a rock star or somebody who is a successful businessman, no matter what the area – they are going to constantly be bombarded with reasons to quit. Every time you get out of bed in the morning there is always a reason not to get up out of bed. If you are a person who will accept defeat – because defeat is always on sale and it comes cheap – and if you choose to buy that, you can die at any time along the way.
But if you are relentless – if you can wipe tears and discouragement and frustration out of your face and still jump up out of bed and say I’m still going to do it – you can get great things done for God. Many of the men that God called were people that we would have never touched. Men like Peter, who was just a brawler and a wild man; or David, who was lustful and lascivious. Every one of them, whether you are dealing with David or Peter or Paul or anyone else They beat Paul half to death – they thought he was dead and he got up and went to preaching again. Anybody who ever did anything mighty for God had to be relentless.
I would say to a young minister to be sure that God called you. Have no question about it; don’t let it be ego. Don’t let it be your grandmother who said you have a preacher’s head. Be sure that God called you. Don’t let the university call you. You can know about God’s word and not be called to preach. Those are two different things. If you are sure that God called you and that your life will never be complete until you do this one thing. If when you stand up to preach and you begin to talk and there is something that rises up out of your soul that says I was born to do this, I was absolutely born to do this, then don’t let hell or high water stop you from reaching your dream. You must stay relentless.