Channeling Jesus

Pastor Bob Coy is at the pulpit. And he is not alone. God is with him. As are more than 2000 Bible-toting worshipers. They are seated on folding chairs and theater-style seats in the warehouselike building that is the sanctuary of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. Like Pastor Bob the congregants are dressed in anything but their Sunday best on this Wednesday night in December: jeans, T-shirts, sandals, halter tops -- even camouflage. The drums, keyboards, and electric guitars have quieted, but the TV sets provided for those sitting in the far reaches of the sanctuary still flicker with Pastor Bob's genial, boy-faced image.

Dressed in khaki pants and a short-sleeve shirt, he is teaching the first book of Samuel, chapter 11. The book has been the subject of his weekly Bible study for three months now, and 20 chapters remain. Pastor Bob is more self-help guru than fire-and-brimstone preacher, and he says today that earthly bliss and eternal salvation are the rewards for those gathered and for anyone else who will follow one simple prescription: Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.

The service falls well short of full Pentecostal fervor. No one speaks in tongues or heals people with his or her hands. In his trademark high-pitched voice reminiscent of Dana Carvey, Pastor Bob decries the traditional Sunday school view of Jesus Christ as a "very spiritual Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo." He throws in Barney and Big Bird for good measure.

The laughter that follows is long and loud. But the humor masks a darker question Pastor Bob is posing to his mostly 25-to-50-year-old, middle-class, ever-growing flock: Are you willing to become a "soldier" in the Lord's army? "When's the last time there was enough righteous indignation in your heart to do anything?" he asks, castigating them with a smile.

At least one person in the sanctuary tonight is a member in good standing in God's army. Nine years ago Mark Kielar was a 30-year-old millionaire television producer and lapsed Roman Catholic contemplating the purchase of a Rolls-Royce. Instead he read the Bible from front to back, and, somewhere between Genesis and Revelations, he discovered God. Now he hopes to spread the Word of God to the masses. Last October Kielar, in partnership with Pastor Bob and Calvary Chapel, launched Cross TV, a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, Christian cable television station.

Cross TV is the logical next step for Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. Since Pastor Bob, former entertainment director for a Las Vegas casino and a onetime cocaine dealer, arrived in Fort Lauderdale 13 years ago, he's seen his flock grow from three people praying on the beach to a total of about 10,000 congregants who attend six weekly services at the church on Gateway Drive in Pompano Beach. In 1998 about 2300 people came forward during services at Calvary Chapel to be "saved," or accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. On Christmas Eve 17,000 people -- Calvary's congregants as well as friends and family members in town for the holidays -- gathered for a special service at the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise.

And the church continues to grow. In February Calvary Chapel will move to a new building being constructed on a $21 million piece of property on Cypress Creek Road in Fort Lauderdale. The new facility will house a cafeteria, a Borders-size bookstore, athletic fields, and a sanctuary that seats 3400 -- not to mention a fish tank to rival that of Rainforest Cafe. Actually, the building isn't big enough. Plans have already been made to construct yet another building, one that will accommodate 5000 worshipers. After it's built the smaller sanctuary will be converted into a gym and youth center, according to Calvary Chapel officials.

You can't build without money (or at least the promise of it), and Calvary Chapel has plenty. According to its audited financial statements, the church collected $6.7 million in tithes and offerings in 1997. Contributions are expected to total $9 million for 1998. Part of Calvary Chapel's fiscal might is due to entrepreneurial savvy. On its premises the church operates a bookstore, cafe, and cassette tape-sale service that, combined, brought in another $1.1 million in 1997. The SonShine bookstore hawks not only Bibles but also more consumer-friendly items such as "Yo Quiero Jesus" T-shirts and "WWJD?" (What Would Jesus Do?) neckties.

As casual and friendly as Calvary Chapel and its congregants seem, the church is comprised of born-again Christians who, under the local leadership of Pastor Bob, take a hardline view on what's right and wrong. They are literalists when it comes to interpreting the Bible, and, despite denying that he's politically motivated, Pastor Bob does advise his congregants on how to vote when it comes to moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko