Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the 2021 summer issue of RELEVANT.
T.D. Jakes is 63 years old but he seems ageless. In bearing, in voice, in presence, he seems to transcend generations. He emanates a robust demeanor that would be intimidating if he wasn’t so warm. It’s easy to see why people flock to the Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas — the megachurch Jakes has led since 1996. Both energy and experience flash from behind his eyes. This is a man who has worked directly with U.S. presidents of both parties, been lauded by Oprah Winfrey and named one of America’s top ten religious leaders. TIME Magazine put him on the cover in 2001 with a provocative question: “Is This Man the Next Billy Graham?”
Today, Jakes is tired. If he hadn’t said so, nobody would guess it. But early in our interview, he confesses that it’s been a difficult day, though he doesn’t go into details. He doesn’t need to. At the time of our conversation, COVID-19 was keeping churches shuttered as fresh waves of the pandemic rattled Texas. Since then, Potter’s House has been enormously effective at helping Dallas overcome the pandemic, setting up a vaccine hub in its facilities. Jakes hosted a panel with Dr. Anthony Fauci and other scientific experts, encouraging Christians to get the vaccine and assuring them of its safety.
“This is your body, this is your health, these are your children, these are your parents,” Jakes told local reporters at the time. “And as a pastor who has had an exponential increase in burying Black people, we have to change the way we buy into legends in the face of a crisis.”
But on the day we talked, he was tired. “There’s something about the way that I’m wired,” he explains. “I escalate under attack. I think I have the Superman complex. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to wear my cape and big boots through last year.”
He’s concerned about the culture, and what he perceived as a diminishing ability to speak to each other without tearing ourselves apart. This isn’t exactly a novel observation on his part — “divisive culture” has become a buzzy topic though, true to the problem, everyone wants to blame someone else for it. But Jakes feels this at a deep level. Probably because, as a man who’s devoted his life to communicating well, he’s distressed to see society around failing to do so at a profound level. So now, Jakes is ready to do something about it. He wants to instruct our culture to start talking to each other again.
“We speak in tweets,” he says.
When asked about the source of this deterioration, Jakes is confident: social media is a problem. He likes technology — Potter’s House used it a lot of it to keep its vast congregation connected during the pandemic — but he’s convinced that as online rapport has become our primary means of talking to each other, we’re losing something vital to the communication experience.
“Dr. King could not have tweeted his way into a Civil Rights revolution,” he says. “There’s something about the human voice and its tone and its pitch. It’s not just about vocabulary. It’s body language and expression. The motion that’s emitted as we talk to each other that communicates on such a higher frequency. I don’t just read your words. I read your eyes. All of that helps to digest what you’re trying to tell me.”
For Jakes, this is much, much more than a “kids these days” rant. The way he sees it, God created humanity with a unique ability to communicate for a reason. And the further we get from using all our created resources to communicate, the further we get from the full power and potential of talking to each other well. We’re trying to tweet our way across a divide, and Jakes just doesn’t see that working.
But it’s more than just a lack of expression and body language. Jakes also sees the way social media is forcing us into silos, spending most of our online time ingesting thoughts, discourse and media that confirms our own biases and drives us to fury at anyone who doesn’t agree.
“We don’t get that cross-pollination that is necessary to have fruitful humanity,” he says. “We have slipped into our own traps and reinforced our own beliefs. We’re hitting gridlocks on things that we should come together on. We talk at each other, not to each other.”
This has less to do with “coming to the middle” — compromising your own beliefs for the sake of everyone getting along — than it does promoting a culture in which rigorous debate about topics of importance is freely encouraged and mutually productive, and arguments are thoughtful and compelling instead of loud and irritating. For that to happen, Jakes says we need to do more than learn how to talk. We need to learn how to listen.
“You cannot be a great speaker if you’re not a great listener,” he says. “So I’m not sure that we’ve lost our speech, but we’ve definitely lost our hearing.”
Think about it this way. When was the last time you had an online debate over an important issue in which your mind was genuinely changed? It’s probably been awhile. Now ask yourself: is that because you’ve got it all figured out and there’s nothing your mind needs changing on? Or maybe — just maybe — is it because you’re not really interested in learning?
If that sounds a little direct, that’s Jake’s point. As far as he can tell, we are all logging onto Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, whatever, spoiling for a fight. “We come on social media with a predisposed point of view, and we are there to defend it, not to learn about the other person, because the art of speaking is listening.”
This is also detrimental to our own ability to communicate well, because we’re not really trying to be understood. We know no one’s listening. We’re just trying to argue. In a way, we’re not even really thinking about what we say. We’re not, as Jakes puts it, “pondering before you speak and trying with all of your might to leave some indelible impression on the hearer, so that even if we don’t agree, at least we walk away feeling heard and feeling understood.”
It is not likely that all or even most debates will ever end with any of the participants taking the L and admitting that they were wrong. However, if we learn to elevate the way we listen, it may be possible for more of our debates to end with all parties feeling heard. “There’s something gratifying to the human soul to know that you understood me,” he says. “And I don’t think that we will accomplish that if we allow the things we create to replace the ones who created it.”
You might think there’s a bit of irony in Jakes — Bishop T.D. Jakes — saying all this. He’s a famed communicator, but if you’ve ever heard him, it’s almost certainly not in conversation. He’s a preacher. He talks from a stage. If there is one thing this generation doesn’t like, it’s getting “preached at.”
But Jakes says preaching — rightly understood — is actually a great tone to take for bridging a divided culture. In fact, if more of us communicated like good preachers, we might all do a better job of being understood. “Preaching for us has never been a monologue. It’s always been a dialogue,” he explains. It’s a conversation with the congregation.”
“And believe me,” he chuckles. “They will let you know what they feel or think one way or the other.”
Good preachers know their audience. They think about what matters to the people they’re talking to. They don’t just shout into the void. They strive to communicate in ways that relate to the people they’re talking to. “Age is a factor. Race is a factor. Socioeconomic levels of life are a factor,” he says. “Walk into the room fully armed, not only with what you prepared to say, but how they listen.”
Maybe this all sounds like a lot of work. Pastors should be expected to know their audience and tailor their messages for the people who hear it, but most of us aren’t pastors. We’re just posting online or trying to muscle through tough conversations at the family reunion. Isn’t this all a little …much?
Well, maybe. But take a quick look at the world around you and the crumbling levels of discourse that are driving us all further and further apart. In other words, ask yourself this about your current ability to understand others and be understood by them: How’s that working for you? Do you want to keep things the way they are? Or are you ready to connect?
“And you can’t connect without considering me,” he says. “You can’t just consider what you want to convey without considering me. If you convey it but it doesn’t connect to me, then you fail.”
What If You’re Wrong?
All of this is swirling around an uncomfortable topic: embracing the idea that someone else might be right and you might be wrong. This is difficult — particularly for American Christians, for whom certainty is such a tempting idol. An idol, Jakes notes, that gets in the way of listening to others humbly and understanding them well.
“I think today what we do is we’ve become paralyzed by the level of truth we perceive,” he says. “We do not leave room for the possibility that there might be a higher principle. Progress comes because somebody is open to the possibility that it could be better.”
Jakes notes that even the Apostle Paul — writer of most of the New Testament — wrote in Philippians 3 that he did not consider himself to have perfectly “apprehended” the full truth of God.
“If he didn’t count himself to have been apprehended, then certainly we have the right to evolve and grow and develop until we have finished our course,” Jakes says. “That ambiguity is where faith is born. That ambiguity is where trust is born. That ambiguity is where conversations are born. And most importantly a mutual respect. You cannot speak effectively to an audience that you do not respect. When you get to the point that you think that you are absolutely right about absolutely everything you are starting to decline.”
“You start thinking of others, ‘You don’t know what I know and therefore you don’t know anything,’” he explains. “Well, I might not know what you know but I know something. And so let’s sit down at the table and you bring what you know, and I bring what I know. Let’s make a meal.”
A New March
Jakes knows that he’s asking a lot of the next generation, but you can hear his concern in his voice. He started writing a book called Pass the Mic about preaching, but it became about a lot more as he grew more concerned about the number of great communicators who passed away recently. Rep. John Lewis. Famed evangelist Fred Price. He sees the baton is being passed on and, as he puts it, he wants to make sure the next generation gets not only a baton, but sheet music as well.
“Ultimately, you may create a march we never thought of,” he says. “That’s what generations are all about. But the raw material that makes faith is ageless. It’s ageless.”
There’s that word again. Jakes may be tired, but the work isn’t done yet. He’s still trying to bridge divides, but he’s hoping the tools he passes on will mean he’s not doing it alone. “I’m just handing them the raw materials. I’m handing them the baton. I’m handing them the score,” he says. “They have to come up with their own rhythm.”