- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

ATLANTA — Tens of thousands of worshippers are expected to fill the Georgia Dome tomorrow for what is being billed as the country’s largest Easter service — and certainly one of the most extravagant.

The insignia of suburban Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church will loom large over the crowd, which organizers estimate will swell to 40,000, including most of the church’s 25,000 members and thousands of homeless and poor who are offered free haircuts, hot showers and new clothes on site.

Those who attend the four-hour event will celebrate one of Christianity’s holiest days against the backdrop of a thunderous 500-voice choir and deafening applause likened to a pep rally.

“We turn the Georgia Dome into a huge church. … It is a production,” said Lee May, an 11-year member of New Birth, referring to the annual service held in the home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

New Birth is one of the few churches in the country with a congregation large enough to fill a stadium. The Potter’s House in Dallas also will hold its first Easter service at Reunion Arena, former home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. Organizers of that celebration are predicting 20,000 worshippers.

For both of these so-called megachurches, the services are a rare opportunity for their massive congregations to meet under one roof at the same time, and for them to worship alongside the less fortunate — many of whom watch wide-eyed at the extravaganza.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the fanfare, and you can really see that a lot of people get into all of that. But it helps bring people to the church,” Mr. May said.

As part of its Easter Sunday outreach, New Birth has given more than $500,000 in services and goods to the Atlanta area’s homeless since 1994, said Bishop Eddie Long, the church’s senior pastor.

“We treat them like kings and queens,” Bishop Long said. “A lot of times, many of them become members of our church, or some church. We get some of our greatest testimonies from Easter weekend.”

Bishop T.D. Jakes of Potter’s House Ministries will hold a similarly spectacular service in Dallas at a two-hour observance of Easter. Bishop Jakes said the focus tomorrow will be evangelism, not membership.

“The goal is winning people to Christ, not to our church,” he said. “We’re drawing people to church that wouldn’t come at other times.”

Megachurch researcher and professor of sociology and religion Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut said these services far surpass the traditional Passion play or Easter pageant productions.

“Megachurches always do things bigger than anyone else. I suppose it fits that they should also go all out for Easter,” Mr. Thumma said.

Easter week activities also help the megachurches raise extra revenue to fund their projects and charitable work.

Gospel icon Fred Hammond, a member of Bishop Jakes’ congregation, was scheduled to perform at a Good Friday concert at the Potter’s House, along with previous “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard. Proceeds will help fund a planned K-12 college preparatory academy, continued assistance to Hurricane Katrina survivors and an initiative to build wells in the African nation of Kenya.

At New Birth in Atlanta, R&B; singer Patti LaBelle performed Wednesday to raise money to help fight homelessness and fund HIV/AIDS treatment and research.

Megachurches often fly under the radar for their good works, Mr. Thumma said.

“Megachurches have been maligned because the impression is that they only care about their own folks, building up their own kingdoms, and taking care of the needs of their members and no one else,” he said. “People don’t fully realize just how much is going on through the resources of these megachurches to provide social service and ministry to the less fortunate.”

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