In the year 1990, when Nicholas Smith was 8 years old, Bethany Baptist Church of Lindenwold, New Jersey had 29 active members. In the year 2003, Bethany Baptist had 16,500 members, Nicholas was 23 years old and he was Bethany’s Executive Pastor. You are awake now! That got your attention, didn’t it?
The usual notion of big news is the unusual. Journalists are taught to look for “man bites dog” stories–the events that raise eyebrows and make us think, “Wow!”
News of the ordinary also makes the cut in media outlets, of course, but it’s not what sizzles, and it’s not apt to get onto front pages or prime-time broadcasts.
For every spectacular event, there are many others—just as terrible or just as wonderful—that barely register on the media Richter scale because they’re happening all the time. What’s earthshaking in people’s lives is often barely visible to the hype-hungry media eye.
Every case study is “unusual” in that God uniquely works through local churches. God uses gifted people to reach communities in entirely different ways. Yet, the story of Bethany Baptist and Nicholas Smith stands out. A vibrant ministry of Bethany reaches the urban world with dynamic programs—and people are responding. Yet, why did Bishop Evans choose such a young XP? The reason may be in the spiritual DNA of the church.
Introduction to Bethany
In order to understand Nicholas Smith and his ministry as an Executive Pastor, one needs to gain perspective on Bethany Baptist Church. Executive Pastor Nicholas Smith summarizes the ministry by saying, “It’s high on evangelism. That’s a main priority. We have a heavy focus on worship. The worship services are out of the ordinary. They are high on creative arts, such as dance, drama and poetry. We function on excellence, nothing is half-baked.”
The Faith Life Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote an extensive article about Bethany. The article was published in that newspaper and reprinted by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. The Institute claims itself to be an “Impartial News and Analysis of Faith-Based Social Services” and is a part of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York.” The article provides introductory information about Bethany:
The traffic is known to back up as much as a half-mile these days on little Gibbsboro Road. Day and night, people flock to the gleaming white complex on a sandy corner of Lindenwold called Abundant Harvest Plaza.
The folks aren’t going shopping, and the 32-acre plaza isn’t the mall. It’s church. Abundant Harvest is home to Bethany Baptist Church, a boom congregation whose red-hot growth over the last three years has made it a phenomenon in the Philadelphia region.
Bethany claims a membership of 16,500 people—nearly the population of Lindenwold itself—and it says its rolls are growing by nearly 4,000 a year.
Bethany has also gained attention as one of the two African-American mega-churches in Camden County. One of the faculty of Rutgers University has written a thirty-nine page case study of the two churches. Dr. Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, writes:
African-American mega-churches in Camden County, New Jersey are compared to distinguish how, why and which churches assist impoverished communities in the City of Camden, the second poorest city in the United States. Living Faith Christian Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and Bethany Baptist Church in Lindenwold, New Jersey, the two African-American mega-churches in Camden County, provide insight into the practices of both independent/nondenominational and denominational churches, respectively. They are both suburban churches chosen from a metropolitan area where the impoverishment of urban life in Camden, New Jersey contrasts the affluence in surrounding townships like Cherry Hill. This environment, characterized by racial, class and political diversity, reflects the various realities of African-American political life.
Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe has demographic data from 2002. When compared to the data from the Remsen’s article of 2003, the church growth is clearly seen:
Bethany Baptist Church has roughly 14,000 members, increased from nine hundred in just twelve years. Approximately ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of the congregation appears to be African American. Members live, not only in the immediate community, but also in nearby Burlington, Atlantic and Cumberland counties, in towns of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, such as Allentown, Phoenixville, West Chester and Dover and Newark, Delaware, as well as in cities in the region, including Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton, and even Baltimore and Newark, New Jersey … Bethany’s congregation is dominantly youthful, approximately equal in the proportion of males and females, even in leadership positions. The congregation is composed of roughly fifteen percent youth between the ages thirteen and eighteen years, approximately eighty percent adults between the ages of twenty to sixty years and thus, less than five percent adults older than sixty years … Their annual operating budget is approximately $5 million, ninety-nine percent of which is funded by tithes, offerings and donations.
Bethany has received media and academic attention, which makes it easy to document its growth and demographic data.
The prelate of the Bethany Baptist Church is 53-year-old Bishop David G. Evans. The Bishop says: “The Lord revealed to me six years ago that we are in a 25-year season of growth,” he said. “It might calm down to normal then, but I don’t know what normal is. Normal is this: Growing.” Though Bethany was founded in 1967, “My ministry started in 1990 with 29 active members.” From the 2003 article, Remsen also notes “Abundant Harvest Plaza, a $13 million worship center that opened three years ago. It features a 3,000-seat arena sanctuary with a waterfall that empties into a baptismal pool on display behind the 80-foot-wide pulpit.”
The church says about itself that there are “over 33 acres, of which 20 houses the worship center. The worship center has 70,000 square feet of space. The sanctuary has an overflow section that can seat an additional 800. Two giant video screens are used to broadcast the worship services. The church has a formal banquet hall, a full service kitchen, 13 meeting rooms, 13 administrative offices, a nurse’s station and a bookstore.”
Bishop Evans sees a 25-year period of growth. In this light, “After a tour of the premises, Evans said the plaza is only a way station. An agent is already scouting around for more land a few minutes’ drive away. “We’re going to build another church on 75 acres, with a 9,500-seat auditorium,” he said. “
In describing the two churches of her case study, Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe gives an historical perspective on the worship style of Bethany:
Each church provides Charismatic and Evangelical worship and outreach, determinedly distinct from the traditional practices of the characteristic “Black Church.” Both Bethany and Living Faith conduct worship services that are highly emotional and spirit filled. However, both emphasize a literate understanding and development of faith. Both emphasize teaching ministries and target rites and practices to particular segments of the congregation. Sunday School is provided based on age, special worship services are provided for young children, and Bible Study sessions are organized in local areas, close to members’ various residences and scheduled to accommodate the schedules of working families.
Remsen continues with his description of the church:
Bethany calls itself “the church that never sleeps” and offers its flock a seven-day, seven-night array of classes and support groups that teach fundamentalist beliefs, promote financial discipline and tithing, and demand “Christian excellence.”
“David is in the vanguard of church ministry,” said the Rev. Herb Lusk of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, who licensed Evans as a minister.
Lusk attributed Bethany’s success to “an eclectic mix” of elements. He cited the church’s strict Bible preaching and powerful choirs, both of which are Baptist hallmarks, and two more-controversial stances: Evans’ elevating of women into ministry, and his avowal of speaking in tongues and other Pentecostal expressions.
Defying many labels, the church has many dimensions. Bishop David Evans commented in an interview to Dr. Gramby-Sobukwe and, “has been known to exclaim from his pulpit, “We’re just church. Don’t let what’s in the name fool you–we’re Baptist, but we’re also Pentecostal and Apostolic.” Let us now turn our attention to Bishop Evans and understand the pastor of the church.
There is a wide variety of source material about Bishop Evans. The Philadelphia Inquirer writes:
Megachurches are usually built on the dynamism of a lone, charismatic pastor. The king of the mountain at Bethany is the Rev. David G. Evans—a strong-willed, entrepreneurial preacher versed not only in Scripture but in high-tech worship, marketing, education and finances.
Religion scholars have noted that many of today’s megachurch pastors are trained in law, finance and other fields and go on to apply those disciplines to their ministries. Evans, a West Philadelphia native who majored in economics and education at Lincoln University, is no exception.
In his sermons, and in his classes for new members, Evans stresses financial responsibility as “part of God’s will for your life.” Bethany also has set up an employment agency and hosts a weekly home-ownership training program in conjunction with a local lender.
Evans is a spellbinding preacher who gives long teaching sermons at Bethany’s two Sunday services.
Streaming Faith calls itself the world’s largest faith-based video portal, with more than twenty 24-hour video networks, ten 24-hour radio stations, and over 350 live events every month. The internet portal says that Bishop Evans “is passionate about serving Christ and leading others to Him. An anointed and gifted teacher, preacher, and leader, Bishop Evans is known for his down-to-earth and realistic approach to proclaiming God’s Holy Word.”
Cornerstone television says: “Bishop Evans is the Presiding Officer of the Abundant Harvest Fellowship of Churches, an international full gospel fellowship with churches in the United States, Africa, and India. AHFC’s fundamental mission is to evangelize the lost, edify the believer, equip the saints for ministry and grow the local church. Bishop Evans is the CEO of David G. Evan’s Ministries which produces the Dominion TV Broadcast (cable & satellite); Dominion Radio Ministries and “On Point,” a live call-in radio talk show (nationwide, via satellite).”
The church also gives information about Bishop Evans: “A Dean’s list student and multisport athlete, Bishop Evans graduated from Lincoln University in 1973, where he majored in Economics and Education. His experience includes serving as a Vice President for a commercial lending corporation and as the owner/operator of a commercial cleaning company.” His business background is paralleled in many other pastors of mega-churches:
Third, these professional church leaders integrate and utilize their education and skills among middle class congregants to advance a dual message of individual success and service. Educated in business schools and management programs, the clergy of the mega-church has promoted a theology of empowerment and financial prosperity for the individual. At the same time, they have reinvigorated the church in its traditional commitment to serving the black community by providing soup kitchens, drug and youth programs and community development to build black institutions.
In a personal touch, the Bishop’s email address is given on the church’s website. While one doubts that he would personally respond to every email, it does demonstrate a desire to be approachable. The church describes its Bishop and the extent of his ministry:
Membership has grown from 75 to over 21,000 presently. Bishop Evans was called to the office of Bishopric in March of 1996 as the Presiding Officer of the Abundant Harvest Fellowship of Churches an international full gospel fellowship with over 100 churches in the United States, Africa, and India. Our fundamental mission is to evangelize the lost, edify the believer, equip the saints for ministry and grow the local church.
Recognizing the magnitude of needs throughout the southern New Jersey region, the vision has extended to the creation of a non-profit community development corporation Generations, Inc. Under Bishop Evans’ leadership, as chairman of the Board of Directors, Generations, Inc. addresses the life-span needs of southern New Jersey residents through economic development and a broad range of human services. Bishop Evans is a HUD Youth Build Partner for South Jersey, Fannie Mae Advisory Board Member, Chairman of the National Home Owner Initiative and the originator of Harvest Transitional Homes for Women. In addition, he initiated the South Jersey Foster Care Provider Program. Projects in progress include Harvest Senior Housing (2006), Harvest Recreation Center (2005) and Harvest Medical Center (2005).
In an interview with Executive Pastor Nicholas Smith, the Abundant Harvest concept was explained:
In 1996, seven churches came to Pastor Evans to have him help build their churches. As it developed, he was consecrated as a bishop over the seven churches. Later it grew to fifty churches—thirty in the United States, twelve in India and twenty in Africa.
Bishop Evans “pastors the pastors.” He recognizes that they need help and fathering. There are quarterly meetings where they all come, talking and growing together. He teaches how to build and run a church—where he had to learn the hard way.
The Abundant Harvest Fellowship is a fellowship—a coming alongside of other churches. It does provide some financial help if needed. The Elisha ministry will send people to help, such as with ushers for 3-6 months.
The growth of the ministry is stunning and the extent is so large as to be daunting to easily describe. The “Bishop doesn’t take his own interpretation,” Hairston said later. “He teaches the Word as it is. A lot of churches are scared to offend and won’t preach on it. He’s like a big brother who tells you what is best for you.”
One can read the doctrinal statement of the church in Appendix I.
It always does well to let the principals speak for themselves. Bishop Evans writes in a question and answer section on the church website:
1. What is the Fellowship Stance on Spiritual Gifts? We believe in the entire