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The Family Life Center lies on the edge of Baton Rouge just down the road from the newly opened Mall of Louisiana. The parking lot for the shopping mall is burgeoning on a Sunday, while the acres of parking for the Family Life Center are nearly vacant. Such a contrast might occasion yet another commentary on spiritual apathy, misplaced priorities, and the false gods of consumerism, until one remembers that the preacher behind the pulpit at the Family Life Center on this Sunday—as well as most Sundays—is a man named Jimmy Swaggart.

To suggest that Swaggart is behind the pulpit, however, is somewhat misleading; he has never submitted easily to the constraints of pulpits—or, for that matter, to any other conventional boundaries. Instead, he bobs and weaves and shouts and cries and spins his own magic. "Preaching is like an orchestra," Swaggart told me. "You have to be loud one moment and quiet the next. You've got to keep the people's attention. You've got to keep the people's attention." Throughout a raucous and controversial career now in its fourth decade, Jimmy Swaggart has rarely had trouble keeping people's attention.

NOT WELCOME HERE Despite the dearth of congregants, my presence at Family Life Center was not entirely welcome. I had made the mistake of chatting with the women at the welcome booth and, in the process, disclosed na•vely that I was in town to write an article about Jimmy Swaggart Ministries ten years after his celebrated—and very public—downfall. I had just settled into my seat in the sanctuary, already awash in klieg lights, when one of the ushers, dressed in a burgundy sport coat, sat down beside me. "I understand you're a reporter," he said. I allowed that he was close enough. ...

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In the Magazine

March 2, 1998

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