Pastor Larry Lea is a far cry from the stereotype of the mass-media evangelist. His hair is not piled in a shiny pompadour; his ready smile is neighborly, not frantic and beseeching. He looks like the captain of the varsity team or the president of the student council, all grown up. He reminds you of the guy down the street who’s doing well in business these days-and in fact, Lea’s doing very well indeed.
Lea’s Church on the Rock, located east of Dallas in Rock-wall, boasts a membership roll of 11.000 and packs an average of 9.000 believers into Sunday services. The annual budget for Church on (he Rock would shame a medieval pope-$7 million. Not associated with any denomination, Church on the Rock has become a denomination unto itself, with satellite churches in thirty-nine states, a network of associated churches rapidly falling under its sway, and missionary outposts in ten countries.
At thirty-six, Larry Lea shepherds an impressive flock of immaculately groomed, well-dressed, middle- and upper-middle-class believers who put their money where their faith is. And this may be only the beginning for Lea, whose billboards once proclaimed that he “presents Jesus” every Sunday. Even before the tumultuous events that rocked the electronic church this past spring, Lea was already one of the rising stars of fundamentalist Christianity. Now, after the Jim and Tammy Bakker scandals and Oral Roberts’s bizarre your-money-or-my-life pleas, Lea is poised to become a national leader of born-again Christians.
Larry Lea is no stranger to controversy or the limelight. In the early Seventies, he was youth pastor of Oak Cliff’s Beverly Hills Baptist Church, a congregation that practiced speaking in tongues and public faith healing. The church soon found itself on the wrong side of a schism; in 1974, the Dallas Baptist Association passed a resolution calling on Charismat-ics to desist from such practices or withdraw from the association. The Beverly Hills faithful did neither, and in 1975, the church was expelled. A few years later, Lea was asked to guide a prayer group of thirteen in Rockwall. From these humble beginnings came the giant Church on the Rock.
Though they believe in heaven and hell, damnation and salvation, demons and spirits, Lea’s followers are taught a gospel that emphasizes success in the here and now. Artfully blending the language of the Bible and the modern world, he exhorts his congregation to tithe and then to give more. He wants them to pay the mortgage on the S15 million building by 1990, in order to take the church and its grounds from the world and give it to the Lord. And he has been criticized for promising that the tithes and offerings will be repaid a hundredfold-in legal tender and riches in the here and now. In Lea’s success gospel, there is nothing wrong with laying up treasures on earth.
Lea has no plans to make Rockwall a miniature version of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of Oral Roberts University- though he does look forward to a flock of 50,000 members holding services in Texas Stadium. But Lea is already looking beyond Rockwall. He had planned to start his own seminary at Church on the Rock, but so impressed Oral Roberts that he was appointed dean of the seminary at ORU. Already a regular guest host on the Richard Roberts show, Lea is likely to share leadership with the younger Roberts and could dominate the empire when the patriarch is finally called home.
Lea refers to the near future as “the time of the church.” Decoded, this means that the new emphasis will be on institutions rather than personalities, though there is still room for Charismatic leaders-big brother types like Lea rather than messianic figures like Oral Roberts. Lea, attuned to the desires and sensibilities of the middle class and skilled in the uses of mass media, should be a power in the fundamentalist kingdom for decades to come.