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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.

Donnie Earl believes he can deliver that message through an alternative to the traditional hustle. He says he's pulling in his line and packing his tackle, heading from the high ground to the low. One of his philosophies (his others include the one about how marijuana is no worse than cigarettes and how adultery is nowhere near the world's worst sin) is that in order to build a great congregation, its new members need not come from nearby neighborhoods and churches -- or even from religious backgrounds. They should come from the realm of skeptics and outcasts, the nonbelievers and the uninvited. He's looking specifically for minorities from all over Atlanta -- including gays -- to fill the empty seats.

Here's where some current congregants, especially the ones who've been attending the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit for decades, gasp. That's OK. It won't be the first time a pastor there has shocked. Nor will it be the first time an unorthodox marketing campaign has brought more congregants to the Cathedral.

The integration initiative didn't start with Donnie Earl but with his uncle, Bishop Earl Paulk.

In 1972, the year Donnie Earl was born, the bishop moved what was then a 200-member church called Chapel Hill Harvester from its Little Five Points home to south DeKalb, then a landing pad for white flight. Bishop Paulk was merely following his members to what was then untouched bounty. He eventually bought 100 acres and birthed a vision of greatness.

The vision soon would materialize, but in unexpected ways.

"Our church grew more than we ever anticipated," Bishop Paulk says, stretched out in a leather chair, ankles crossed, in his office two doors down from Donnie Earl's. "It went from a couple hundred to a couple thousand."

As the numbers changed, so did the colors. Within a decade of the church's arrival, affluent blacks began moving to south DeKalb, too. Simultaneously, the church's music turned a hair more gospel. The energy level of the sermons was pumped up. Dancing in the aisles was not frowned upon. And the sea of white faces slowly was speckled with more and more brown.

"The church became kind of a microcosm of what was taking place in the surrounding community," says Thumma, an Emory-trained theology professor who's studied megachurches -- and specifically the Cathedral -- for more than a decade. "The church did what not a lot of congregations do, which was to allow the influences of the community into the worship service."

By the time of Thumma's first visit to Paulk's church, in 1985, the bishop had appointed his first black pastor, Kirby Clements. Meanwhile, two neighboring churches, one Assembly of God and the other Baptist, relocated north. "They couldn't handle the integration problem," Bishop Paulk says. "So we bought them out and turned the buildings into schools."

The church compound eventually would become a one-stop shop for education, personal counseling, daycare, volunteerism, entertainment, you name it. It's practically a city unto itself.

"Whether we deserve it or not," the bishop says, "we are credited with the development of south DeKalb."

Regardless of who developed the area, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit did manage to capitalize on it impressively. By the early 1990s, the church boasted 12,000 members.

"One of the geniuses of Earl Paulk was that he was willing to sense the needs of the community and adapt and shift his own vision to include what he saw the needs of the community to be," Thumma says.

Put simply, the bishop knew how to attract customers.

Bishop Paulk was set for success in 1991, when construction was complete on a 7,700-seat cathedral to shadow all cathedrals. Current tithes would more than cover the $260,000 monthly mortgage.

Then came a handful of women congregants and church employees alleging affairs with pastors and the bishop. Dissent spread among the congregations, and some members started leaving, urging an exodus. The bishop's lawyers replied by filing a slander and conspiracy suit. A few church members counter-sued, alleging misuse of funds. Larry King chimed in, inviting the bishop and one accuser to appear on live television. The bishop denied everything. His accuser -- who described a two-year sexual affair -- did not relent.

"We saw a lot of stuff that just looked suspicious then," Pam Slappey, a former church member and defendant in the slander suit, told CL last year. "We tried to tell everybody then that it was happening."

That was not good for business. Not with the paint barely dry inside the $12 million sanctuary and members bolting by the thousands -- and taking an estimated $90,000 per week in tithes with them.

Donnie Earl was not yet 20. His own father, Pastor Don Paulk, was caught in the tangle, having admitted an affair with both a young teacher at the church's school and a congregant.

Yet Donnie Earl's not bitter -- at least not toward his father. "I don't think what happened here had anything to do with morality," he says of the exodus. "It was an excuse for white racists to move further out into white suburbia."

Those people really left, he claims, when white teenagers started dating black teenagers.

In a way, he says, it also helped make the men on the pulpit real, enabling congregants to say: "As I struggled through my weaknesses, this man of God struggled through his weaknesses."

Donnie Earl may be stretching his philosophy to cover his family's dirty laundry. Yet longtime congregants like Raye Varney don't seem too bothered by the mess. "My assumption is that the guy on the platform is just as flawed as I am," she says. "Just because he's preaching God doesn't mean he is God."

Furthermore, no one can deny that Donnie Earl has emerged victorious after having dealt with such emotional trauma. He, too, is a victim of the scandals -- and his experiences can engender much sympathy from the thousands of congregants who didn't abandon ship. Perhaps directly because his forefathers broke the ice, Donnie Earl can now speak openly about such temptation as adultery. His audience applauds his easy-going style, although his uncle warns him to not make himself so vulnerable.

"They say I'm too candid in preaching," Donnie Earl says. "But the younger generation likes that. I think the non-church person appreciates that. I've cussed in the pulpit before. I think people appreciate the realness."

The young pastor taps the square toe of his $300 loafers on the edge of his leopard print rug. He is leaning back into his deep leather chair, nearly disappearing into its enormity. His blue eyes dart around his office, spoiling the cool calm on the rest of his face. "How do I package my ministry to these people?" he asks. "I become all things to all people. I've got to give them a little of what they want. I shout and dance a little bit. As we say, I've got to take them to church. It sounds sneaky. It sounds underhanded. But my heart isn't sneaky."

In many ways, Donnie Earl has followed in the bishop's stead, and yet the differences between them are glaring -- and partly owed to generation. The bishop has grandchildren older than Donnie Earl. Or, as Donnie Earl puts it, "The bishop's music is too white." On the flip side, the bishop and other elder pastors have been accused of certain impious acts to which young Donnie Earl remains impervious.

But what matters most is what Bishop Paulk and Donnie Earl have in common. Not only do the septuagenarian and the Gen X-er share a similar kinship with the Holy Spirit, but their business acumen is comparable, too. You can't maintain a megachurch with "the gift" alone. You need members, members, members -- and the moolah that accompanies them. Donnie Earl is the logical heir to the bishop's empire not only because he's got the Holy Spirit, but because when it comes to the money side of things, he just might have the Midas touch, too.

In the business of religion, the megachurch is the epitome of the American Dream; had Arthur Miller's Willy Loman been a Bible salesman, he'd have aspired to be a megachurch pastor. To comprehend the aspirations of such a pastor, it's necessary to understand the culture that reared him. Like the monstrosity of the shopping mall and ubiquitousness of the fast-food franchise, the rise of the megachurch is a phenomenon that is distinctly American.

Drawing on the 15 years he spent researching megachurches, Thumma claims he's never met a megachurch pastor who's in the business just for the money. Thumma, who started his life work after a visit to Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, says the crux of a megachurch pastor's calling is always saving souls -- as many as possible. Yet Thumma can't recall one leader who wasn't a shrewd businessman, either.

"It's a tough line to walk between," he says, "being a crass, consumer-oriented spiritual entrepreneur and being a true man of God."

But before there can be a pastor who dreams of a megachurch, there must be people willing to worship in one.

Raye Varney is one such person, although she's neither a Bible beater nor the type of woman easily wowed by charismatic preaching. A former Baptist, educated in English and drama, employed by the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts and residing in fashionable Brookhaven, Varney was drawn to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in the 1980s because of its open-minded atmosphere and its reputable dance and music conservatories.

"There's not an opportunity like that at a church of 500," she says of the Cathedral's weekly productions and annual plays. "It's not your typical church cheesy."

On any Sunday, a gospel group and a jazz-influenced band take the church stage, backed by a 100-member choir and choreographed by a stage manager, walkie-talkie in hand. The service typically starts with four songs, more evocative of Broadway than baptism, and an interpretive dance by black-clad ballerinas.

The Raye Varneys, who seek a little hip-shaking entertainment with their weekly dose of psalms, will not be disappointed. Nor will the rest of the well-heeled, middle-class professionals -- mostly black and some white -- with whom sermons about personal empowerment ring true. It's all about inspiration for the well-to-do.

The Cathedral, therefore, fills a niche that its neighbors -- New Birth Baptist and World Changers -- miss. At New Birth, Eddie Long preaches near-traditional religion to a similar but slightly less upscale sect. World Changers, on the other hand, is home to a specific brand of "prosperity" preaching, in which the charismatic and aptly named Creflo Dollar promises his less-well-off constituents that if they contribute in tithes, they'll be compensated -- financially -- by God. It's the church of those who want to be millionaires.

There have been Cathedral defectors, however, and for obvious reasons.

"Clearly Creflo and Eddie Long and a couple other folks around there present a different understanding of the gospel," Thumma says. "But they're also black. That makes a huge difference, too."

The Cathedral has had a harder time keeping its edge. As a result, the church has grown increasingly creative in its campaign for congregants.

Enter Donnie Earl, doubtlessly the chosen one -- the personality who might take churchgoing itself to another level.

About six years ago, Donnie Earl -- then a self-described "dumb jock" -- was hit with a vision. He says he realized it was his life work to pick up where his uncle left off. It happened during a Pearl Jam concert.

Up until then, Donnie Earl had been content leading the church's youth ministry. He came home from work one night, flipped on MTV and saw Eddie Vedder's mastery over a crowd of 200,000 Woodstock goers.

"God pressed on my heart," Donnie Earl says. "He said, 'You can have that, but you've got to change things first.'"

Donnie Earl started by preaching the occasional sermon. He would read U2 or Lenny Kravitz lyrics, which he finds to be religiously inspirational. The congregants just stared.

He recalls how one of his cousins then came to him and said, "Look, I know what you're trying to do. But you've got to learn about propaganda. People will buy anything. It just depends on the packaging."

Now the mission is to slide a little bit of cool into every sermon. Donnie Earl intends to eventually incorporate all things seemingly secular into the realm of religion -- from alt rock to homosexuality. "Obviously, my inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit," he says. "But it comes from different places, too. It can come from watching MTV. It can come from watching 'Queer as Folk.'" If he can just manage to please both the conservative elders and the progressive -- and traditionally church-shunning -- teens, Donnie Earl thinks he'll be a success. And his victory will far exceed the boundaries of one little old megachurch in south DeKalb.

If a Southern white guy descended from generations of conventional preachers, an "unapologetically heterosexual" uber-male, can convince both blacks and whites and straights and gays of his sincerity -- and if he's able to instill his open-armed beliefs in the minds of the thousands reared, as he was, in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit -- then who knows? Maybe the religious and secular worlds he lives in will begin reinventing themselves in much the same way that he and his church has.

"We're raising a generation that will be politicians," Donnie Earl says. "We're raising a generation that will be educators. We're raising a generation that will be scientists. We're raising a generation that will be secular musicians, actors and actresses who you may see in a risque scene.

"It's OK to do that," he says, "to gain enough influence to say things and have people listen."

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com

 

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