Upside and downside for pastor of Phila. megachurch

The Rev. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church with a photo of himself on the lap of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church with a photo of himself on the lap of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Posted: April 18, 2011

The Rev. Alyn Waller was 29 when Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church asked him in 1994 to lead the 364-member Germantown congregation. By 2003, it had 5,000 members and broke ground that year on a 94,000-square-foot church at 2800 Cheltenham Ave. Today, Enon counts 14,000 members - the largest congregation in the Philadelphia area. Waller spoke with Inquirer religion reporter David O'Reilly.

 Question: Did you expect to make Enon into a megachurch when you arrived?

The Rev. Alyn Waller: It was the farthest thing from my mind. I did feel the Lord had called me to serve in an urban context, but I never expected it to develop into what it's become.

Q: Is there an upside and a downside to leading so large a congregation?

Waller: There are trade-offs. In a small church, there is an intimacy between the people and the pastor, and you lose some of that in a church our size. But there are ways to create intimacy. And a large church has the people and resources to do ministry and outreach on a large scale. We can do things big and well.

When I started, people would call me "Rev." It was very informal, even teasing. Now I'm "Pastor," and everything gets quiet when I walk into a room. . . . I miss being "Rev."

Q: Does a church Enon's size draw members away from other congregations?

Waller: That's a phenomenon, but we've found that about 55 percent of our new members are coming from no church, or no faith practice. So I don't feel we're draining other churches.

Q: Does Enon ask members to tithe 10 percent of their income?

Waller: We tithe because I think percentage-giving is much fairer than fixed dues. A person who earns $100 a week only gives $10. Someone who makes a $1,000 gives $100.

We also tithe as a church. Over the past five years, we have given $4.7 million to 150 organizations in the community and the mission field. We support missions in Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa.

Last year, we started an Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cape Town, which is very involved in combating human trafficking. It's autonomous from us, but we support them. In September, 100 of our people traveled there to work with them.

Q: Why has Enon invested so much in youth sports?

Waller: I believe most of us who are successful can find another champion in our lives - someone who taught us life skills. My wrestling coach was my champion. So we have football, baseball, basketball, track, soccer, double-dutch jump-roping, chess, and a martial-arts ministry.

I have a black belt and also teach it on the side. It's sort of my escape hatch from being a pastor.

Q: Many evangelical churches are uncomfortable with AIDS and HIV, but Enon is proactive about testing. Why?

Waller: The evangelical community has not figured out how to address this disease, because it's so caught up with complex issues of sexual activity and sexual orientation. But it's more than an issue of morality. It's a health issue.

I buried my best friend to AIDS in 1995. If we're ever going to put it in the polio category, we have to find out where it is. We tell people that as a responsible Christian, you should "know your numbers."

In 2008 and again last month, we created a testing center in the church. The first time, we had over 1,000 men screened not just for HIV but cholesterol, blood pressure, prostate cancer. Last month, we had more than 800.

My liberal friends say the churches should adopt a pro-homosexual agenda. My conservative friends want to come in and anoint [heal] homosexuals. My feeling is we can address the health issues without getting bogged down in the ancillary arguments.

Q: Tell us about this photo over your desk of a small boy sitting in Martin Luther King Jr.'s lap.

Waller: That's me. It was taken in September 1967, when I was 31/2. My father was a pastor in Ohio, very involved in civil rights and friends with Dr. King. For his fourth pastoral anniversary, [King] preached at our church.

From them I learned that a right relationship with God is going to lead you back into a social agenda of righteousness and reconciliation - that you sow back into the community.

Q: You're still a young pastor. Is there a pastor in Philadelphia you especially admire - someone you look to as a role model?

Waller: That would be Dr. William J. Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist [in West Philadelphia]. He's a consummate pastor and leader - a statesman. When I grow up, I want to be just like him.

[For eight years, Shaw was president of the National Baptist Convention, on whose board Waller served.]

 Q: Have you figured out your Easter sermon?

Waller: We don't call it Easter, which is a name from a pagan fertility goddess. We call it Resurrection Sunday. While I'm not waging war with Easter eggs and bunny rabbits, I think it's important we stay focused on its true meaning.

And, as we have for the past 12 years, we're holding services at the Liacouras Center. What began as a need for space has turned into a way of calling the city together to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. It's open to everybody.

As for my sermon: No, not yet. But it will center on how the Resurrection translates into our lives, that our victory over the grave through Christ is also a promise for victory in our individual lives. The Christian life is a way to have fulfillment in this life and eternal life when this life is over.

I really believe that. It's not just preacher talk.


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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