By Sarah Jakes Roberts
My parents started a ministry over 35 years ago that has catapulted our lives onto a platform none of us could have been prepared for. In 2001, Time Magazine named my father “The Next Billy Graham.” For years our church has been one of the fastest growing churches in the nation. With over 35,000 members and four locations, the church has grown from 50 families to tens of thousands in 16 years.
I spent the first eight years of my life in Charleston, West Virginia. It’s certainly not New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Dallas, but it was the only version of the “city” I knew. Driving a few minutes in any direction of West Virginia will certainly land you into neighborhoods where people would greet you like family or offer to assist you with directions.
We hardy ever went anywhere in our town where my parents didn’t see someone they knew “way back when.” There are very few strangers in West Virginia. To this day, if my father or mother hears that someone is from West Virginia they begin to ask questions about who they’re related to. Whether we are in a restaurant or having a business meeting, they will begin to find the two or three degrees of separation that exist between them and their fellow West Virginian.
Everyone in school knew who we were. Our classmates never had too many extensive questions about who our family was or the work they did. Our parents probably knew each other or they knew someone who knew us.
All that changed when I turned eight years old. Our parents sat us down and told us that we would be moving to Dallas, TX. I probably couldn’t even point out Dallas on a map, but we were excited!
After spending a few days getting settled and adjusting to a Texas summer, our first Sunday rolled around. Even as a child I could sense that this moment would be important. It would be our first time introducing new members to our per-existing church family. One of our first times attending children’s service we were swarmed by anxious children wanting to meet us, their new church family. Our move would be an adventure; just not one my young mind could fully comprehend.
My parents have been in ministry longer than I have been alive. I’ve never known anything other than spending our weekday evenings at church after going to school. Sure, you are able to help reach a lot of people, but ultimately it’s really not the kind of job that your classmates are enthusiastic about.
Their parents were doctors, firemen, lawyers, policemen, corporate executives, flight attendants, and restaurant owners. My parents are in ministry. This was long before T. D. Jakes was T. D. Jakes or Joel Osteen was Joel Osteen. There was no clear frame of reference to explain what full-time ministry consisted of. In time I found a way to offer a brief explanation of our work, then change the subject to our favorite television show. Basically we are local missionaries. We spend our days figuring out ways we can serve the members of our church and community.
It was the best I could come up with. You see, when we were in school the Internet wasn’t a huge phenomenon. You couldn’t just Google my father’s name and learn the full scope of our ministry. So in school, we were just Cora and Sarah. Some of the parents and adults knew, of course, but hardly any of the children knew or cared. For the most part, they didn’t attend our church, nor did they spend their time watching television broadcasts that showed more church. There was no way they could know or understand that people would stop us on Sundays to tell us our dad said something that saved their lives.
I’m not sure I fully understood or appreciated the work we did. I just knew that I often got tired of going to the church again to do the same thing over and over. Sure it was nice spending time with our friends and making jokes throughout service, but the heart of our mission was often lost. I just felt like we went to church for a living.
I wouldn’t learn until much later that spending so much time in church as a child would remind me where to go when I was in trouble as an adult.
Like most children, at that age we understood the basic fundamentals of our faith and God, but the necessity isn’t always apparent. Our relationship with Christ is fortified through life’s trials.
But when you are young and go to church more days in a week than you attend school, church becomes a competition. Who dressed the best? Who could shout the hardest? Who could sing the best? Who was the best at imitating this elder or that deacon? These were the games that we played all service long. Occasionally we would have services where the Spirit affected even us, and those were the moments in which seeds were planted inside of us.
One of my first true encounters with God came on a Sunday evening service when we hosted a guest pastor. Toward the end of the message the congregation was visibly moved. After engaging in intense worship, the visiting pastor looked at one of our family friends and spoke directly to a situation in her life. There was no way he could have known those things, as their paths had never crossed. The moment he pointed his hand toward her everyone around us stretched out their arms to her, signifying corporate prayer. Something about that moment made me stretch out my small hands too. I wasn’t sure exactly what the sermon text had been or even the title of the sermon. I did understand, however, that the atmosphere had completely shifted.
It was as if, for the first time, I understood what it was like to be connected to someone greater than myself. I felt the presence of God, before I knew it was Him. Of course, we would laugh and maybe joke about it later, but I knew what I felt was real. I just didn’t know the day would come when it wouldn’t as easy to find Him in my life.
Those were the times when, although we didn’t understand our parents’ praise, we could feel their worship. Those were the moments when the soil of our souls was tilled and God honored the prayers of our parents by placing a seed inside of us. It would be many years and many battles before any of us would see whether our giggles had turned into silence, silence into whispers, and whispers into prayers.
Sarah Jakes Roberts is a take-charge business-woman, writer and media personality who expertly balances career, ministry and family. An astute business woman, she has been integral in the success of many major initiatives at TDJ Enterprises. She currently serves as the senior editor of eMotions, an online inspirational magazine designed to embrace, educate and empower women. She is also the project manager for the Rx Connection Card, and she was responsible for grassroots marketing efforts for the feature film, “Not Easily Broken.” Sarah has received many honors, including recently being celebrated as a National Overcomer by Pat and Emmitt Smith Charities in partnership with Good Morning, America co-host, Robin Roberts. Sarah has also been featured in numerous media outlets including The Today Show, Dr. Phil, Essence, The Associated Press, and The 700 Club. She is the daughter of megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes and Mrs. Serita Jakes. Alongside her husband, Touré Roberts, Sarah pastors a dynamic community of artists and professionals in Hollywood, CA. Together they have five beautiful children and reside in Los Angeles, CA.