Redefining the megachurch 

Keeping it real and keeping them coming: the legacy of Donnie Earl Paulk

Most in the congregation don't doubt that Donnie Earl Paulk has the Holy Spirit. He's heir to men who've had the Holy Spirit before him. This -- the plush office, the church academies, the television broadcast and the cathedral -- is his legacy, handed down from 10 generations of preachers and, ultimately, his uncle. Donnie Earl is a megachurch bishop in the making, a creation of the kingdom in which he was reared, and he's got all the right marks: the charismatic stage presence, the devotion of his followers, the eye for Versace suits and the heart for society's outcasts.

But there are other things about Donnie Earl that don't fit. And in the end, those qualities might make him more unimaginably successful than pastors before him. Donnie Earl is progressive where his predecessors were stodgy, young where they were old, hip where they were square. He aspires to host a spot on MTV, produce films, launch a record label and invite Lenny Kravitz to guest preach at his church. Once Donnie Earl takes over the south DeKalb kingdom of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, with its multi-million-dollar operating budget and its 7,000 members, he plans to extend his reach into a secular entertainment empire.

It's no coincidence that Donnie Earl's preaching style -- he uses "par-tay" as a verb and speaks of the Holy Spirit and a Lakers game in the same reverent tone -- is hitting a stride. Donnie Earl is tailored to fit a congregation that's inexorably changing. Twenty years ago, the church was 80 percent white. Now African-Americans make up at least 70 percent of the congregation, whites having moved on as the neighborhood around the church morphed and as church founders -- Donnie Earl's uncle and father -- ran into scandal after scandal. The result? More than any other metro Atlanta megachurch, integration is in full swing at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. "It's probably one of the most racially mixed congregations that I've ever been in that large -- and probably ever will," says Scott Thumma, a megachurch expert. "It's a very unique place."

And no pastor within that place is as unique as Donnie Earl. Close your eyes and listen to him talk inside the mahogany-paneled walls of his office, and the voice brings to mind an upper-middle class twentysomething, well-versed in pop culture, ambitious yet soft spoken and white -- all of which he is. Close your eyes during church service, and you'll hear something akin to the James Brown of holy entertainment. He sounds slick and talks jive.

It makes good sense, both spiritually and economically.

Like entrepreneurs of the secular sector, the pastors of Atlanta's biggest churches rely on a specific lifeline: incoming congregants. And Donnie Earl is up against some formidable competition.

Metro Atlanta has one of the highest concentrations of megachurches (with 2,000 or more members) in the country. Only the suburbs of L.A., Houston and Dallas compare. One Atlanta suburb also happens to have three behemoths within uncharacteristically close range -- Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Decatur, New Birth Baptist Church in Lithonia and World Changers in College Park. Not surprisingly, the churches -- which measure power by number of members -- have been known to get feisty about attracting and keeping congregants. After all, the church's economic health (which, measured in tithes, can total more than $100,000 a week) hinges on how fully the pews are packed.

"We're all fishing in the same little pool," Donnie Earl says, "elbowing for room, crossing lines, checking each others' lures to find out who's catching what with what."

And remarkably, a white guy has managed to hold court with equally charismatic black preachers at nearby megachurches.

"Here go these white pastors that not only have a church that's predominantly black in a predominantly black neighborhood, but they live there," says Dana Dean, a 27-year-old black church member who considers the Cathedral a model for his own future church. "It's not just lip service. They've integrated themselves into the community. And it takes a lot on both parts. They could move away to a more affluent area and gain more momentum."

As for the black members, "I think it's a step for the congregation to submit to an authority that's a different color than them," Dean says. "There's a lot of places I can be, a lot of places that would make it easier to be there, because of the race issue. But the message here is so holistic."

He describes the church's message as "an ability to gain influence in world systems," meaning that it urges secular and segregated sectors to embrace religion and integration.

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