“It must be odd to walk into a service full of men,” Bishop Tyrone Sellers jokes when Journey reporters come into his morning service at Harvest Revival Christian Church. It is men’s Sunday and Sellers laughs, “I guess the women thought they could take the day off!”
Many Sunday mornings Journey reporters walk into a sanctuary pew-full of women with a male pastor teaching on the role of the man as head of the household. A 2007 Pew study found that male attendance hovers around 40% of total church attendance in America. In urban areas that number can drop drastically. Working class men have stopped attending church in droves.
Across the nation, many African American men are detached from social institutions and the resources that they provide. Too many are socially isolated, distrustful of others, and have lost hope. As President Barack Obama observed in 2014, “By almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the Twenty-First Century in this country are boys and young men of color.”
African American churches in the city also face adverse demographic trends like premature deaths of males, and the younger generation of African Americans is moving faster from the city than any other group.
But the church on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn is going against the trend. It has a devoted core of male members who make up half of its small congregation.
There’s no trick to it, Sellers shrugs. “A ministry is a reflection of its leadership,” he explains. “The ministry we have is because the men express the transparency that I have.” He forthrightly shares about the ways that he persevered through challenges. His example helps men who don’t have the practice in verbally sharing about their fears and hopes. The pastor also makes a point of teaching the men how to communicate better with others, particularly family members.
Seller’s own spirit is family-orientated. “Ministries have their pastor’s spirit and passion,” he believes, “so it begins with the pastor.”
He believes that a man must live by the motto of first “take care of yourself to prosper yourself.”
Sellers says. “I preach what’s worked for me,” he said, and the men he attracts are likewise aspiration-minded. Men gravitate to that spirit because they think, “If I can get connected, I can have that.”
That does not mean selfish living. The goal is to invest in self-betterment, including discipline, articulation, and education. Men also need accountability, which is missing in bigger churches.
A former military man, Sellers teaches that to be a man takes discipline and what he calls “sweat equity,” the product of a man’s hard labor.
Sellers saw the result of the undisciplined life on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn where he grew up. In the 1960s, the neighborhood had one of the city’s highest crime rates. Too many of the teenagers were going straight to jail or the graveyard. Even then, the young man wanted to help his neighbors out, but he had few tools to offer.
If he was ever going to develop his neighborhood, the young Sellers thought, he would have to first develop himself. So, he focused on school.
At the age of 21 he got his associates degree in accounting and began working on Wall Street. Four years later, he received his Bachelor’s degree from the New York Institute of Technology.
To supplement his academic and financial aspirations Sellers also enlisted in the Air Force Reserve. At first, he admits that the disciplinarian training turned him off. “When someone gets in your face and yells at you the first thing in the morning, makes you run, do laps, and do push ups, you want to turn away,” Sellers tells his male congregants this morning. But he soon appreciated that “being under authority brings discipline, and when you are disciplined, you become a man.”
Sellers also kept an eye out for social opportunities. One month, the reserves made a weekend tour through the New Jersey Non-Commissioned Officers’ club. Sellers was instantly attracted to the young Monetah Thruman. “Most women ask to be taken to a movie or out to dinner,” Sellers smiled as he recalled Monetah’s response when he asked her out. “She said, ‘Take me to church. That will be the date.’” Intrigued by the unusual answer, Sellers went with her to the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights. Sellers’s charisma may attract many men to church, but a woman still is the most convincing invitation.
At the First Baptist Church, Sellers was impressed by the Reverend Clarence Norman, Sr. (1951-2015), a man with a sonorous voice and a legendary record for political activism. When he and Monetah got married in 1987, they continued to attend sporadically, about two Sundays a month. Sellers recalls that the preaching was good, but in the 1,600 member congregation, it was hard to get to know the pastor personally. No one noticed if they missed a week. At the time, the church had about 800 people attending on Sunday mornings.
Founded in March 1953 as the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, the church grew and moved around, changing its name each time to reflect its new location. In the 1970s Norman felt ready to launch an activist phase centered around race relations, housing, and juvenile delinquency. So, the personal side of church life may have suffered in those times. Norman himself admitted that his church’s efforts to connect to young people faltered.
In the meantime, Sellers had to do his Air Force Reserve duties during Desert Storm and was focused upon beginning his career and family. Later, he would also reflect on the problems of a large church and its inability to reach and retain young men.
In 1989 with the money he had been paid for his service in Desert Storm (“this was when the country was more patriotic,” Sellers drolly comments), Sellers began his own accounting practice doing tax work. The couple accumulated enough money to buy a house in Laurelton, Queens and began to attend St. Luke Baptist Church.
A much smaller church, St. Luke allowed Sellers to become personally close to the pastor Roy L Gilmore (1928-2007), whom he took on as a mentor. The older pastor was a well-respected mentor. When megachurch pastor Floyd Flake of Jamaica, Queens needed help in turning his brother’s life around, he turned to Gilmore. Flake’s brother started to work in one of Gilmore’s enterprises, but he was a handful. Gilmore had to fire him six times. Flake recalled, “I kept saying, ‘You don’t have to keep him.’ But he always hired him back.”
With such an inspiring leader, Sellers became more regular in his attendance at church from 1991 to 1996. There, he learned the ropes of church leadership by serving as a deacon and youth director. Gilmore was also a notable serial entrepreneur who founded churches, civic organizations, and businesses. For himself and his young charges, Sellers recognized that a steady male leader was a crucial influence. He saw that the right type of ministry could really change things in the African American community.
To get more hands-on experience in ministry, Sellers began attending Merrick Park Baptist Church in Jamaica, Queens. There he encountered a “Bapticostal” flavor of church. Merrick Park’s teaching was Baptist (“you know the only difference is their opinion on baptism, right?” he commented), but the worship style was much more focused on the Holy Spirit. Worship was an intense personal experience, which fulfilled an emotional hunger for the disciplined, goal-driven Sellers. He started to tap into his emotional reservoir and found his voice for teaching.
He joined the Full Baptist Church Fellowship in 1996 for its network of pastors.
By 1997 Sellers’ financial situation was much improved. He now had his own CPA practice, which supported his wife and two daughters and was paying off their mortgage. He also discovered that his auditing was becoming a ministry as well. Many of his clients were in affordable housing, and he made sure their finances were right. It was God’s work, alright, he said. “I grew up in affordable housing so I know what it’s like to have housing your parents can afford,” he says. He noticed a dramatic rise in dignity among his clients who owned homes. Sellers foresaw that he could put his financial and pastoral counseling skills to good effect.
With financial security assured, Sellers put extra time into developing his pastoral skills. He attended the New Brunswick Theological Seminary where he learned about other types of ministry from pastors of larger churches.
However, the boasting of some of his fellow students about their MEGA-churches grated on him. They regaled fellow classmates with their numbers. On a Sunday, they claimed that their churches would have a 100 converting at the altar and 75 new members joining. Impressed, Sellers did some quick calculations in his head. Over 52 weeks, that’s almost 4,000 new members every year! That sounded incredibly good!
When he asked his classmates about how many new members stuck with the church, they became bashful. “We don’t count the people who don’t come back,” they admitted. Sellers realized that larger churches can lose track of many of their newcomers and end up as just a revolving door. He recollected his own past experiences at such churches.
“People convert out of emotion, or someone urged them, or they think it’s the right thing to do,” Sellers observes. That may be a good first step. “But they wake up the next day, and they’re still their same selves.” Too many new believers don’t know how to mature. During these conversations, Sellers became convinced that a better way would be a church in which the leaders and members would recognize the face of each person who walked through its doors. He decided to test his idea.
In 2000, he launched a Full Gospel Baptist Church in Cambria Heights, Queens (renamed Harvest Revival Christian Church). Though a smaller congregation of 75 members, the church avoids the stigma attached to the term “storefront,” which connotes financial instability and a dwindling flock. Harvest is financially stable. The congregation is comprised of young families, and the ministry focuses on youth with afterschool programs. The older generation is tucked in as honored members of the family. The white collar neighborhood embraced the church. However, Sellers was chagrined that the church couldn’t fully practice a generous spirit for the less fortunate.
One time, they hosted a clothing drive for the neighborhood which attracted only members of the church! Cambria Heights didn’t need material charity. So, Sellers prayed for a location in a needier neighborhood, maybe more akin to his old home of Brownsville.
In 2010 a woman he had worked with as a CPA agent years earlier approached him for some pastoral advice. She was developing a section of low income housing in Bushwick. In one of the buildings was a church that had been there for 30 years. The 76-year-old pastor was looking to retire, didn’t care about the property, and had stopped paying rent. The two members, women also in their twilight years, weren’t picking up the slack.
Would God be angry with me for evicting a church?, the lady asked. Sellers reassured her that God also respected business needs as a matter of stewardship. The lady then told Sellers that she still wanted a church to be in the area. Sellers was the only clergy she knew. Would he take over the space?
Sellers reasoned that a Bushwick location would be an outreach center for his church, so he accepted her offer. He launched his second location that year.
In 2012 he changed the name of his churches to Harvest Revival to give them an open, nondenominational feel. Sellers figures that if he can get men into church and maturity in their faith, then he can affect whole neighborhoods. His ambition is to spread this idea of a men in church program.
There is some social science evidence that this could happen. In their new book Soul Mates: religion, sex, love, and marriage among African Americans and Latinos, sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger say that faith gives extra help to African Americans. They note that young African American men who regularly attend church were less likely to be unemployed and not attending college between 2008 and 2014.
They wrote in Atlantic Monthly, “Our research has led us to conclude that they men who are most active in their churches are the most likely to be employed, married, and out of jail…In turn, churches that pay attention to men’s employment—either through formal jobs ministries or informal efforts to connect members to existing work opportunities within their communities—seem to have the strongest communities of committed men.” The researchers found similar beneficial affects of church-going among Hispanic men.
Sellers has also opened the Bushwick building to a Hispanic church. “Two different coaches. This way, the neighborhood knows that this building is for all people,” the pastor says.
In 2015 when we first talked with Sellers, he was investigating founding another church in Soundview, Bronx. However, he updates that someone else got the space.
For now, he oversees all the work personally. “I’m 57,” Sellers cites as a driving factor. “I want immediate results. I want to be active now.”
As he gets older, he hopes to set up young men, who have gone through his hand-to-hand, face-to-face mentoring, to take over each location. “You can find a person, but finding the right person is something different.”