I don’t think I’ve interviewed a more laidback person than Jay Bakker. Sitting at my desk, safe from the sweltering humidity of what had to be one of the hottest days all summer, I dialed Bakker’s cell phone number at our scheduled time to chat.
“Hi, Jay Bakker?” I inquired.
“Yes,” the voice on the other end replied.
“I’m Matt Comer, with Q-Notes in Charlotte. Is this a good time?”
“Well…I need to finish up some laundry. Can I call you back in about 15 minutes,” Bakker asked with a slight laugh.
The young and vibrant Christian leader — who many folks still remember as “Jamie,” the even younger son of influential televangelists Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner on “The PTL Club” — has an easygoing attitude that extends far beyond his casual relations with the media. The way he lives his life and performs his ministry have made him the beau idéal of a growing movement that eschews the pent-up, pinched-off attitude of old-time religion.
As one of the founders of Revolution Church — with congregations in Atlanta, New York City and Charlotte — Bakker has taken traditional Christianity by storm. Like the Biblical voice crying out in the wilderness, he beckons those deemed unworthy by conservative evangelical leaders into a faith community free from condemnation, judgment and cold shoulders.
It’s no surprise that his radically inclusive and unorthodox approach to worship and fellowship have drawn ire from his conservative peers — who are more than willing to continue their adherence to doctrine and dogma that excludes far more often than it embraces.
Bakker’s work with Soulforce, a national interfaith organization fighting “spiritual violence” and religious prejudice, has led him to join with LGBT families to visit some of America’s largest and most conservative mega-churches and their charismatic leaders.
During the latter half of this month, just prior to his arrival in Durham for the NC Pride Fest and Parade, Bakker will work with Soulforce and its Seven Straight Nights for Equality national organizing event.
In the following interview with Q-Notes, Bakker opens up about the impact the PTL scandal had on his life, the lessons he learned from his father and recently departed mother, his ministry and the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the Church.
Tell me a bit about your history with Revolution Church. Where did the idea come from? How did it get started?
Revolution was started in 1994 by me and two friends in Arizona, so I’ve been doing Revolution for a while now. We’ve done it in Arizona and L.A. and Atlanta and now I’ve been in Brooklyn for two years. We meet in a bar here every Sunday at 4 p.m. It really is a ministry for people who may feel like they’ve been outcast from church or feel they don’t belong or maybe they’re just a little bit different.
Your churches in Atlanta, Charlotte and New York have made efforts to reach out to communities that have often been ignored by the traditional church. Where do you see the LGBT community fitting into the life of your church and the universal, global Church?
I think the LGBT community fits into our church because we welcome everybody, for one. For me personally it has been a goal of mine to see equal rights for all people. I believe that the LGBT community is going though a civil rights issue, as far as marriage is concerned. We want to reach out to that community and say, “Hey, we love you and we don’t think your lifestyle is a sin and we accept you the way you are.”
Hopefully, the Church in the world can change, too. Hopefully, we can encourage people to be more open and, at the least, tolerant. I’ve worked a lot with Soulforce and the American Family Outing, going to different churches working on this issue.
You grew up in the home of conservative evangelists. How did this affect your view of LGBT people?
My parents were always very open to people and they were loving and always showed grace. I think that as I grew up I was just building on a foundation that, especially my mother, built of loving people where they’re at. In a way, it encouraged me to become more open-hearted and open-minded. After my parent’s troubles with PTL, seeing how a lot of church people reacted, I saw how quick the Church is to turn their backs or to judge.
There seems to be an eagerness in the Church today to call people sinners and point out people’s faults and use it as an excuse to separate people. That’s just not Christ to me, the way I know and understand the Bible.
In your mother’s later years, she embraced LGBT people and had a strong following in the community. What was it like seeing her move toward acceptance of LGBT people and their place in the Church?
It wasn’t such a huge transition for her. In the 1980s she did an interview with a pastor from the Metropolitan Community Church on PTL. She also had a person who was dying of AIDS on the show. She was always kind of ahead of her time and always had a message of God’s love and grace. It was encouraging for me to see my mom always loving people.
Many people in North Carolina, including gay folks, grew up watching your parents on PTL and many can still remember the impact the ministry had on their lives. Your ministry is decidedly different from your father’s past and current ministries, so how do you and he relate on issues of faith? What have you been able to learn from your father as you continue to build your own ministry?
With my dad I’ve learned that, one, you should always forgive your enemies and, second, never compromise. During the PTL troubles, he just got to a point where he had to raise so much money to run Heritage USA that he compromised the message.
One of the reasons I was able to take a stand was because I was taught, and I thought, it was more important to follow my personal convictions rather than to worry about money or finances — even though it cost me a lot of speaking engagements and financial support for the church.
You’ll be participating in several activities during NC Pride Fest weekend, including a guest appearance at St. John’s MCC in Raleigh. They’ve had to move that Sunday morning service to a nearby high school auditorium. Why do you think so many people flock to your message?
I think it is because it’s really not my message — it’s the message of Christ and it’s the Good News. I think people saw my mom as a survivor and I think they see the same thing in me. That’s part of it. I’m not always packing things out, though. Sometimes I only speak to 60-70 people. I didn’t even know they’ve had to move the service. That’s exciting to hear. I think the LGBT community sees a lot of hope. That is encouraging.
If there was one Biblical passage that could sum up your ministry, what would it be, and why?
I guess one of the Scriptures would be when Jesus is sitting with his Disciples at the Last Supper and he says to them, “The world will know you belong to me because of your love for one another.” It is so important. We are to be known for loving each other and how we treat each other. To me that is really powerful.
The Bible’s idea of loving is never keeping a record, always being faithful. That is something that encourages me. God loves us no matter who we are and what we’ve done. Those are things that drive me to love others as Christ loves me.