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RELIGION AMAZING PLACE

The ascension of Prestonwood Baptist
By W.L. Taitte |

PRESTONWOOD Baptist Church physically dominates the part of the Golden Corridor that stretches north of LBJ Freeway but is still within Dallas city limits. Looking eastward from the parking lot of Preston-wood Town Center or looking westward from the football stadium at Richardson High School, the huge building with its sloping roofs sheathed in copper alloy is the area’s outstanding visual landmark, looming over the surrounding neighborhoods as definitively as St. Peter’s looms over Rome. The modern design by JPJ Architects Inc. evokes a wide range of reaction. Some people think that it’s handsome, even daring- especially for a Baptist church. Others are less sure. One man who lives a couple of blocks away from the church hates it: “The way the roof slopes down reminds me of a great big water slide.”

At least as impressive as the church building is the size of its congregation. Prestonwood has been the fastest-growing church in the Southern Baptist Convention for the last two years. In its four-year existence, Prestonwood has attracted more than 4,200 members and is nipping the heels of Park Cities Baptist Church in a race for the second largest Baptist congregation in Dallas. (Park Cities presently has more members, but Prestonwood claims a larger crowd at each Sunday’s services.)

A Methodist pastor of a small country church in South Carolina remarked about this extraordinary growth as he drove past the new Prestonwood building: “When you see a church succeeding in attracting people like that, if you investigate, you will usually find that it is because of the pastor. He is able to convince people that there is something exciting going on in his church, something that they should be a part of.”

It doesn’t take much investigating to track down Dr. Bill Weber, the pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church. If you get to his Sunday morning 10:50 service even a few minutes early, he’s liable to find you to shake your hand and look you curiously in the eye, even if you’ve retreated to an inconspicuous pew. You might say that he works the house like a politician, except that politicians rarely succeed in conveying the tone of inquisitive sincerity that Weber has mastered.

Weber, who looks a little like actor Ken Howard, does indeed set the tone for his church. If he doesn’t corner you and force you to introduce yourself, several of his aggressively friendly, name tag-bearing brothers will. Weber’s well-cut navy suit and maroon silk tie are quietly sophisticated, as is the interior of his mammoth church. The plum-colored fabrics and the glass-and-chrome banisters of the broad staircases that lead from the main part of the sanctuary to the balcony behind-even the bouquet of exotic flowers on the speaker’s platform-

would fit more comfortably into one of the posh new Far North Dallas hotels than into an old-fashioned Baptist church.

This glossy overlay transforms many of the traditional elements of the church as well. The choir, numbering more than 200 people, occupies steeply rising tiers in front of the modernistic, abstract cream, blue and red stained-glass artwork behind the speaker’s platform. Along with the organ, the singers are accompanied by two huge, black Boosendorf grand pianos-the Austrian-built Mercedes-Benz of the keyboard. The sanctuary is shaped like an amphitheater. “It’s in a fan shape,” says Weber, “so that people don’t just see the back of other people’s heads. They can see each other smile. If you see somebody smiling, it makes you want to smile. And this kind of seating- although we can bring in chairs enough for a special occasion like Easter Sunday to accommodate over 5,000 people -helps people not to feel like they’re way off somewhere.”

The service begins with various musical numbers, sometimes ranging from pop vocal trios to classical violin solos, as well as the usual invocations and announcements. Somehow, Weber manages to slip into one of the chairs on the speaker’s platform almost unobserved. “I don’t like to parade out at the beginning of the service like the great king,” he says. About halfway through the hour-long service, the lights finally dim for his sermon. On Sunday mornings, Weber deliberately dips into a wide variety of illustrations and quotations, in order to attract those who are usually put off by churchly attitudes; he may drag up Janis Ian and Winston Churchill in successive breaths. On Sunday and Wednesday evenings he allows himself to be more theological and dogmatic, but on Sunday mornings he tries to appeal to those sitting on the fence by stressing human relationships. A sermon starts out: “I want to be on the people-building crew, not on the people-demolition crew.. . By your handshake, by the way you greet people, you affirm them. That’s what this church is all about, and that’s what your life ought to be about.”

The introduction of new members who have joined the church during the last week shows that Weber is reaching his audience with his message. More than 30 people are introduced, one by one. Most are attractive, well-dressed suburbanites.

When asked about the success of his church, Weber is happy to explain. “Whatever segment of society they come from, everybody has the same need for inner peace and love, but they are skeptical of churches. Baptists have received a lot of negative publicity over the years-some of it justified. We have been known more for what we are against than what we are for. But most peopie know they are sinners. If we can also let them know that God loves them, we can give them some hope and some help.”

Weber defines the special blend of old-time religion and modern approach that characterizes his church. “Some teach the truth, but people still don’t come back the next time. We are theologically very conservative, but we try to say, ’Hey, here’s how that fits in today.’ “

Weber’s own background is squarely in the middle of the classic Baptist tradition. His father, Jaroy Weber, was president of the Southern Baptist Convention for two years while he served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lubbock. Earlier, his father had been a minister in West Monroe, Louisiana, where Weber grew up and went to high school. He graduated from Baylor in 1964, then attended Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Afterward, he was pastor of a small church in Alvarado, then of another in Oak Cliff. He met his wife, Robin, at Baylor; they have four children.

Weber was the minister at Northway Baptist Church in North Dallas (where he increased the attendance from 350 to about 1,400) when he established a small mission outreach program many miles to the northeast in 1977. The group met in the Fretz Park recreation center on Belt Line. Members of the church whose affiliation goes back that far speak of those early days with a kind of reverential awe. Weber tended both flocks for two years. But in 1979, the mission established itself as an independent church. It had 150 members.

Prestonwood Baptist was not destined to retain that kind of intimacy for long. Weber remembers a day he sat across the street from the site where the building now stands. “I looked at that vacant lot, and I saw a big church standing there, with thousands of people coming in. And the people came because they were able to share that vision.” A small interim building was erected, and, in 1981, ground was broken for the 90,000-square-foot, $8 million sanctuary.

The people streaming into this building come from many backgrounds. Their former denominations may not have been Baptist at all. By Weber’s definition of the “unchurched (people who haven’t been to church in at least six months),” more than SO percent of those who come to Prestonwood for the first time fit into that category. One member remarks that “because of the scarcity of remaining land in these Far North Dallas neighborhoods, not many churches are going to get built out here. That’s just another reason it’s important that we reach people.”

Just as Dallas’ First Baptist Church (which is the world’s largest) has its share of celebrity speakers ranging from Billy Graham to Raphael Septien, Prestonwood has attracted a lot of well-known local names quickly. One of the most prominent parishioners is Mary Kay Ash, who was a member of Northway when Weber was pastor there and whom Weber credits with encouraging him to develop the mission outreach that led to Prestonwood. Ash was chairwoman of the building committee for the big sanctuary and proudly introduces Weber as her pastor when he gives the invocation to the thousands of pink-suited women at the annual seminars of Mary Kay Cosmetics saleswomen. Paula Stringer became an enthusiastic member of Prestonwood after a friend invited her to attend a service. A number of athletic notables, including golfer Lanny Wadkins and his wife, also attend.

Weber says that one reason Prestonwood has attracted so many people is that it understands what he calls “the Dallas mentality”: “Dallas has a cross-section of people from all over the world who have the ’achiever syndrome’; they want to do better this year than last year. I think we show them you can have achievement-orientation in your spiritual life as well as in other departments.” He says that the basically conservative orientation of the church’s theology is naturally a prerequisite for reaching the typical Dallas achiever.

Does the orientation toward success reduce Prestonwood Baptist to some sort of country club? “Some people might feel uncomfortable here because of social distinctions and background,” Weber says,”but I would hope that we would do everything to say to them that we love you anyway.” One lay leader of the church says that there is such a thing as the “up and out”-as distinguished from the “down and out”-people who have achieved success but don’t seem to get much fulfillment out of it. Weber believes that the church has a special obligation not to judge people or to condemn them, whether they are conspicuously wealthy or disadvantaged-especially if they have not been obviously pious, churchgoing types. “If we are not careful, Christians will become isolated because many just want to reach ’our kind of people.’ Jesus, on the other hand, was harder on the religious crowd than on any other.”

What effect does the success of the church itself have on the church? Weber is convinced that “although people have to give up something in intimacy, the programs we can offer and the sense of being part of something that can have an impact in the community in a big way are worth it. I think a large church says, ’I’m serious about what I’m doing, and I’m on the winning side.’ ” Some of the long-term members of the church (relatively speaking, of course) miss the flavor that the church had in its infancy and note something of a spiritual dilution because of its rapid growth, but they agree that the compensations are worth the loss.

It’s a good thing they feel that way because, by Weber’s projections, the growth of Prestonwood Baptist isn’t nearly finished. “In the next 12 months, we should have 1,300 to 1,500 new members, and I would guess that in about 18 months we will have to go to two worship services on Sunday. In five years, I visualize having 10,000 people here every Sunday in worship services and Bible study.” Already there are more than 40 Sunday school classes each week, spread out in locations all over North Dallas and locations in the small building, the church and 11 portable buildings on the site.

To accommodate all these educational activities, a second major building is being constructed: a 157,000-square-foot, $7 million Christian learning center that will be three floors high on one side and four on the other, with a mall-like area in between. Soon it may be hard to distinguish Prestonwood Baptist from its namesake shopping mall a couple of miles east. And how will the church pay for all this, in addition to the current debt of $4.5 million? “If people are being helped, their lives enriched, the finances will take care of themselves,” Weber says. He admits that there have been some close calls financially in the life of the church, but the church has survived them. He also claims not to preach money and tithing from the pulpit more than a few times a year, and, indeed, the financial pitch at Prestonwood -despite the lavishness of the place-does seem very soft sell.

Weber’s goals for his church extend far beyond mere numbers and edifices. Video cameras discreetly operate in the church,and the services are now being shown on theAddison-Carrollton cable system. By nextyear, Weber hopes to broadcast the worshipservices locally. Further along, he envisionsmaking enrichment programs available bysatellite to small churches all over the country. Prestonwood also plans to start what itcalls a “personality enrichment institute”:packages of six-week courses dealing withtopics like divorce, alcoholism, grief andmarriage communications. “If people arehurting, we want to provide things forthem,” Weber says. “A lot of times, churchesare only providing answers for the questionsthat people are not asking.”