PORT ST. LUCIE — Tucked away near a residential area in Port St. Lucie, cars fill a parking lot on any given Wednesday or Sunday evening. They are parked along the grass, near the side of the road. A nearby sign reads "FaithWorld."
The name and swarms of people might make the spot seem like a religious amusement park, but FaithWorld is a satellite church of the 6,000-member FaithWorld in Orlando, one of Florida's largest churches, according to a database of megachurches by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
While many long-standing churches on the Treasure Coast have roughly 700 members, the local FaithWorld has, in a year, attracted nearly 1,000 churchgoers who come from all over the three-county area and as far as Orlando. They come to watch the twice-a-week sermons from Pastor Clint Brown, a nationally-known gospel recording artist recognized for more than just his musical and pastoral roles.
Records from Brown's 2005 divorce, which Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers obtained from the Seminole County Courthouse, revealed Brown's lavish lifestyle — cars, houses and shopping sprees — had been paid for in part with the Orlando church's money.
The church had been making payments to Brown's $1.4 million mortgage. Records show he still lives in the same gated, Central Florida community.
FaithWorld was paying for two of Brown's Mercedes-Benz cars, as well. Brown had five other vehicles, including two Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a Porsche. Reports also showed thousands of church dollars were used to pay for monthly clothes shopping sprees. Credit card statements show Brown and his then-wife often shopped at stores such as Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's and Louis Vuitton.
Also in 2005, Brown was the target of a lawsuit in which a widowed church member from Orlando said the pastor failed to repay a $200,000 loan she made to the church. A similar lawsuit came months later, when a Denver church claimed Brown borrowed $100,000 from its congregation and never repaid the money. Both cases were amicably resolved later that year.
Despite his past, Brown is the reason Port St. Lucie's FaithWorld is growing, say church members.
Through a church representative, Brown declined an interview with Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, but in September brought up the issue during a sermon at the Port St. Lucie church in which he knew a Scripps reporter was in attendance.
"Ain't nobody perfect to your left. Ain't nobody perfect to your right. Ain't nobody perfect in front of you," Brown said, regarding the past media reports about his finances. "If you're going to publish the evil, take the time to publish the good."
His listeners agreed.
"No one is perfect. As a pastor, he has a private life. Just because our pastor has a relationship with Jesus, that doesn't make him perfect. What matters is how his message connects us to God," said Jenny Posadas, a teacher at Treasure Coast High School who volunteers at the Port St. Lucie church as an usher.
Posadas trusts her tithing money is going to a good cause, although she isn't sure what that might be.
"My responsibility as a Christian is to tithe," she said. "If (Brown) spends my money for himself, that's out of my hands. That's between him and God."
Megachurch in the making
FaithWorld officials had been looking to expand its ministry in 2010 when it learned about a vacant spot in Port St. Lucie. Brown had visited the former New Life Christian Centre in the past.
In 2007, New Life came to the public's attention when its pastor, the Rev. Ronald McCaskill, was arrested in West Palm Beach for prostitution solicitation. The misdemeanor charge was dropped, and McCaskill continued leading the church until FaithWorld took over in 2010. New Life still owns the property, which the St. Lucie County Property Appraiser office has valued at $3.5 million.
"A lot of the people at New Life knew of Pastor Clint because he had visited us and done a fundraiser for our pastor," said church member Brenda Sposato, who works at Vero Beach's The Source. Sposato attended New Life and, after hearing Brown speak, started visiting the Orlando church.
"For a man to travel this far for a church, we knew he was amazing," she added. "And when some of us heard he was coming to Port St. Lucie, it was over. We couldn't wait."
There were about 20 people in attendance the first Sunday FaithWorld's doors opened in Port St. Lucie, church members said.
"It was a leap of faith, that Sunday," said Anthony Spell, the church's campus pastor who oversees the Port St. Lucie church while Brown is in Orlando.
Within a year, additional rows of seats were added to the back of the church to accommodate its nearly 1,000 visitors. FaithWorld staff declined to answer how much money was spent
on church renovations and purchases.
The church's leaders have a short-term goal to make it one of the area's only megachurches — meaning it would have more than 2,000 weekly attendees. Nearby, Westside Baptist Church in Fort Pierce already has reached about 2,000 attendees since its start in 1946. Also, a church-in-the-making in Stuart will be a satellite location of megachurch Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach, which has about 9,000 members and is one of the fastest-growing churches in the state.
"We're going to hit 3,000 very soon. I believe it," Spell said of FaithWorld. "This church is just getting started."
Megachurches are common among members of the evangelical Christian faith. The bigger megachurches often have nationally known leaders such as Joel Osteen, of Houston's Lakewood Church, or Benny Hinn, who once was the pastor of the World Outreach Center where FaithWorld now is located.
The average salary for a lead pastor in a megachurch is about $147,000, according to a 2010 Large Church Salary Report by Leadership Network. In 2002, Brown's income topped $520,000, according to the reported divorce filings. More than half of that salary came from music sales and performances, while about $150,000 came from FaithWorld.
Florida, along with California, Texas and Georgia, have the highest concentrations of megachurches, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The institute's database shows there are 120 Florida megachurches.
A popular megachurch growth method is opening different campuses, like Port St. Lucie's FaithWorld, in a sort of franchise-style way. The satellite campuses usually have a campus pastor, but the lead pastor is the same in all locations. When he's at one church, the pastor is live-streamed to the other campuses, where churchgoers watch him on a projector screen.
"These pastors have a vision for the cities they bring their church to — they're trying to reach the under-churched, and they also bring business," said John Vaughan, a megachurch expert who researches church growth. "(Brown) didn't just pick (Port St. Lucie). He knew not only that the land was available, but that he had already had faithful members in this area. He knew."
Colorful spotlights illuminate the packed, 1,000-seat FaithWorld church auditorium every week. From a platform at the back of the church, a cameraman records the kneeling worshippers who sing along with the band and 50-member choir that leads the first 20 minutes of services at Port St. Lucie's FaithWorld. Then, comes Brown.
"How many tithers do we have in the house tonight? Raise your hands!" Brown yells into the microphone on his headset. The crowd claps and hollers right back before passing the tithing buckets. The buckets will be passed around again at the end of the service for anyone who wants to give an additional offering.
The animated preacher goes on to urge attendees of the predominantly black and Hispanic congregation to give financially, saying "God will take care of the rest." The more you give, he says, the more blessings you will receive.
He quotes, and occasionally sings, worship messages and Bible verses. For those who don't have the book handy, the verses are shown on the three large white projector screens that have unfurled from the church's ceiling, in front of the stage.
Meanwhile, the camera is trained on Brown. The sermon is being streamed on the Internet, at www.clintbrown.tv , as well as at the Orlando location. The recording might then be sold as a DVD for $10 at Brown's online store, www.judahbookstore.com . Also for sale at the site, as well as in the church's lobby, are Brown's CDs, books and apparel, which Brown encourages churchgoers to wear each week. Most of them do.
"I'm a single mom. I have three kids. I struggle to make ends meet. But when I go to this church, I get motivated to keep going," said Sposato. "The pastor has this transformational message that comes across from the pulpit and hits you. It makes you feel cared for and loved."
Brown's preaching and worship style is known as prosperity gospel, which is a strain of Pentecostalism that came about after the World War II economic boom, according to Kate Bowler, an assistant professor of Christian history in the U.S. at Duke Divinity School.
"Postwar, preachers started to expand the list of things to ask from God. They started to focus on the wallet," Bowler said. "And they did this by saying, 'Give something to Christ, and he will give more back to you.' There's a huge spiritual influence on tithing."
Bowler spent more than eight years reading sermons from the '50s and visiting more than 50 megachurches to listen to modern-day sermons, noting the evolving language and preaching styles for her book, "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel."
One of the churches she visited during her research was Orlando's FaithWorld. What Bowler remembers from her time at the church is the see-through buckets, marked with the word
"Release," being passed around at the beginning and end of service.
"When that bucket comes out, that's the emotional peak of the service. That's the moment when people can have something in their hands and release it in faith," Bowler said. "It's a tactile moment. And the buckets are see-through, so there's kind of this visual emphasis on it — old-school guilt-tripping. The pastor might say something like, 'Turn to your neighbor and say they better be tithing.'"
Bowler also sees why Brown draws a large audience.
"He has this wonderful old-school gospel feel in a modern way," she said. "Brown is speaking the people's language. And the people are looking for a place where they can let go of the stress, their sense of desperation, and find answers — mostly financially."
PASTOR CLINT BROWN
Born: 1963, Iota, La.
Career and personal life: Brown got started in music by playing the trumpet and becoming drum major in his high school band. After graduation, he worked for a short time as a natural gas pipeline mechanic before going to play Christian music at several small rural Louisiana churches. Brown married Angela Doggett in 1984, with whom he had two children and then divorced in 2005.
In the late 1980s, televangelist and prosperity gospel preacher Rod Parsley asked Brown to become the music minister at his Ohio megachurch, World Harvest Church. It was during his five years there that Brown thrived as a musician and gained a desire to preach, Brown told the Orlando Sentinel in a 1999 interview. Brown in 1993 moved to Florida to start his pastoral and music career on his own.
After moving from location to location and slowly gaining a following in Central Florida, Brown in 1999 merged his congregation with the former World Outreach Center in Orlando, where televangelist Benny Hinn preached. FaithWorld bought the center and nearby residential properties for about $9 million, according to records from the Orange County Property Appraiser. FaithWorld expanded its ministry in 2010 to Port St. Lucie, its first satellite location.