Every Sunday morning, a dozen school buses deliver hundreds of children from across five Baton Rouge area parishes to Sunday school at Life Tabernacle Church on Hooper Road.
The ministry has grown so fast, Pastor Tony Spell said, several more buses have been ordered, with a goal of running about 20 in the near future.
Located at 9323 Hooper Road, the church has tripled attendance in recent months because of the bus ministry, which also has made it more culturally diverse. Average attendance is 630 people, Spell said, but this year’s Easter service broke the record.
“When we had 1,256 (people) at Easter, it was so moving to see Vietnamese, whites, blacks, browns, everyone in the same area getting along with no racial tension. I wept openly because it should not be that in 2015, no one is not welcome in a church because of the color of their skin,” Spell said.
The 37-year-old pastor said the church is offering help that many cannot find elsewhere.
“The government has failed them. The school system has put many of them out because they’re out of control. The parents are not there for them,” Spell said. “There are fewer fathers in the home today than there were during World War II when America’s fathers were overseas. So the men of our church have taken on these children and helped them financially and spiritually.”
The bus ministry has prompted the church to order a half-dozen new buses and construct a new 12,000-square-foot Sunday school building behind the sprawling, modern sanctuary. When completed this winter, it will include a multipurpose basketball court, commercial-grade kitchen and classrooms. The church is home to Apostolic Truth Academy, an accredited, pre-K through 12th grade school, with 80 students and volunteer teachers. It is a member of the Worldwide Pentecostal Fellowship.
A formula for success
Spell and his grandfather, Bishop B.A. Spell, who founded the church with 17 people in 1959 in Port Allen before moving it to Baton Rouge, are following a successful formula of church growth based on door-to-door visitation and busing that blossomed in the 1960s, they say.
“We started a bus ministry in 1962,” said the elder Spell, who is 85. “We have people attending this church who are adults that we picked up when they were children.”
In 1965, they built a large building at 8930 Plank Road, then moved to this 14-acre campus 10 years ago.
Bishop Spell turned the pulpit over to grandson Tony five years ago, but he still manages the books.
“We go into what we call ‘bloody knuckle’ neighborhoods, where nobody answers the door, to pass out our fliers. All you walk out with is bloody knuckles,” Tony Spell said. “We go into apartment complexes and trailer parks, and people flock to us because we’re showing them love. We’re showing them what Jesus would show. He said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ ”
Some churches, he said, want affluent members — doctors, lawyers and professionals.
“That’s not who we are going for,” Tony Spell said. “The bus ministry is a long-term goal. Jerry Falwell knew that and Jack Hyle knew that. And now, after 56 years in Baton Rouge, we’ve proven that.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, when the megachurch movement really got underway, it was led in part by the late Rev. Jack Hyle, of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell termed his methodology “saturation evangelism,” with volunteers knocking on doors, running bus routes, making follow-up phone calls, and radio and television programming.
In his classic 1969 book, “The Ten Largest Sunday Schools and What Makes Them Grow,” the Rev. Dr. Elmer Towns, now 86, credited Hyle’s church as the largest Sunday school in America, with more than 30,000 people riding over 200 buses. Falwell’s church neared that with 23,000 and more than 60 buses in 1973, according to a biography written by his widow, Macel Falwell.
A church of riders
Darrell Badeaux, Life Tabernacle’s bus director, said he started the first bus route with 27 riders. Now, riders average between 400 and 500, with 11 buses running last Sunday.
“We knock on between 1,000 and 2,000 doors every Saturday,” Badeaux said. “Each one of our bus teams do their own outreach. We try to do 150 doors per bus. We also go back and meet the kids and their families.”
The Rev. Cornelius Williams has been Tony Spell’s assistant pastor for two years and drives a bus in the Florida Boulevard area.
“Church for us starts when the first kid puts his foot on the first step of the bus,” Williams said. “Before we even get here, we’re singing on the bus, we’re praying on the bus.”
When the children arrive, the younger ones go to a large meeting room in one wing of the sanctuary building, and the junior high and high school students go to 10 school classrooms at the other wing.
“When we started (six months ago), maybe we had 10 to a classroom, and now the classrooms are overflowing with an average of 30 students per classroom,” Sunday school Superintendent Emily Holt said.
Gary McDonald, children’s church director, said an average 150 to 200 children, ages 8 to 11, attend each week.
“Usually we feed them breakfast, but this week they get nachos and cupcakes baked by our church teens,” McDonald said. “Six months ago, we would have one or two participate in the altar call because they didn’t know how to pray, but now it’s the whole mass praying, lifting their hands, worshipping. They’re being baptized, repenting of their sins, seeking the Holy Ghost — it’s remarkable.”
Regardless of age, ethnicity or education level, everyone is welcome, said Tony Spell, adding the idea is to make their church look like heaven.
“Every nation under the sun will be there,” he said. “All kindred, nations, tongues and tribes will be in heaven. That is the basis of our bus ministry. People ask me, ‘Do you go into Scotlandville or Zion City?’ ”
Spell said his answer is the same one Jesus gave to some cynical Pharisees who questioned why he was eating with sinners: “They that are well are in no need of a physician.” (Matthew 9:12)
For information about the church, call Tony Spell at (225) 485-7833 or visit ltcbr.com.