Pastor brings cinematic style to Bethany Christian Discipleship Church

NEW TAMPA

Vonnie Smith remembers listening intently to the sermon, as beads of sweat glistened from the pastor's forehead and veins popped from his neck.

"Now is the time to focus on yourself, to not give up on yourself," he said. "If you're going to be steadfast, it's going to happen."

Smith gasped.

He's talking to me. It's like he's inside my head.

Now Pastor Richard Lockett's messages continue to speak to Smith's personal circumstances. She eventually joined Bethany Christian Discipleship Church, a predominantly African-American congregation with a leader whose preaching style is so entertaining, some just call him crazy.

"All I can say is he is awesome," said Smith, a 44-year-old insurance contract manager from Wesley Chapel. "And crazy."

The church, which celebrated its first anniversary in New Tampa in February, meets at the Muvico Starlite 20 theater off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Lockett is the only African-American minister to lead a New Tampa church, but he does not want his ministry to be defined by race.

His goal is to attract a diverse congregation where all can "seek refuge, renewal and resurrection."

"I believe the problem of the day is so many people are just trying to exist when Christ didn't die for people to exist. He died for people to live," Lockett said. "It's not about surviving. It's about living."

Lockett, who is married with a young son and a newborn daughter, preached on a recent Sunday about getting rid of the bad influences in life. The late-night partying and bar-hopping and the short skirts?

"Hell to the nah!" he said, mingling urban slang with spiritual principles.

The people laughed, some doubled over.

"Go 'head, pastor!"

With a three-member band at his back, he worked the theater like comedian Chris Rock works the stage. Except Lockett's message is clean. And he is high — but on God. Someone handed him a towel to dab the sweat from his face.

"How are people raising daughters thinking it's okay to go out with boys who honk the car horn from the driveway?" he asked. "Who is raising boys to honk the horns from the driveway?"

Church members, sitting in soft, stadium seats, nodded in agreement.

Lockett won't give the total membership of his relatively new congregation, but he did say that 200 people have joined in the past 120 days.

"Most churches see their strength in their numbers or the number of people on their R-O-L-L," he said. "I see the strength in their R-O-L-E."

The church, he said, is small enough for him to know his members by name, but growing.

Locket said he has worked in various churches in the past 15 years. But his latest stint was as a member of the Potter's House, a Dallas megachurch that boasts 28,000 worshippers and is led by the well-known Bishop T.D. Jakes. Lockett didn't preach from the pulpit, calling it his "season of silence." A few years ago, the Lord led him to Tampa, where he has found great peace, he said.

Initially, he started ministry at the movie theater in WestShore Plaza. The church left WestShore, and he moved the church last year to New Tampa, where he owns a home.

He believes he has brought a sense of unity to New Tampa's African-American community.

"We have doctors, lawyers, professors, entrepreneurs. They've all come together," he said.

For people like Vonnie Smith and her husband, Ernest, the church is a blessing. After church ends every week, the couple discuss the sermon over lunch.

"By the time we walk out the door, we understand and remember everything he said," Smith said. "He is a dynamic teacher. You just can't describe him."

Lockett will make you laugh one moment, then tug at your heart strings the next, she said.

"When the Lord calls you, he doesn't take away your person- ality," Lockett said. "He challenges your personality and your character in a way to use it more effectively."

He does not use the Bible to "beat people in the head," he said.

"I use it to stabilize an uneven table," he said. "Some people just need the Bible to bring some level to their lives."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

AT A GLANCE

A growing church

Bethany Christian Discipleship Church meets at 9:45 a.m. Sundays at the Muvico Starlite 20, 18002 Highwoods Preserve.

Pastor brings cinematic style to Bethany Christian Discipleship Church 03/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2009 4:30am]

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