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Pastor Under House Arrest

In early March 2020, Life Tabernacle was a mid-sized little-known Pentecostal church in a small city in Louisiana. Who could have guessed that two months later, it would be virtually the only church in America holding worship services in its sanctuary or that it would be one of the best known churches in America? On Easter Sunday, Life Tabernacle’s worship services broadcast by the Central City News reached 540,000 people across the United States and around the world!

Although Rev. Tony Spell never wanted to have an Internet ministry, the church was being viewed online by more people than any other church in the United States.

Life Tabernacle Church was founded on Plank Road across from the Baton Rouge Airport in 1959 by Rev. Bervick Spell, a businessman who was called to preach.

Rev. Spell applied his entrepreneurial skills to the ministry, and the church grew steadily.  Not only that but Rev. Spell enjoyed planting new churches, and before he retired in 2009, he founded more than 200 new churches across the country and around the world.

Life Tabernacle was not part of a denomination but fellowshipped with other churches who shared their Apostolic Pentecostal beliefs, which include the gifts of the spirit, such as phophesy, speaking in tongues, interpreting the languages spoken, and healings.

Rev. Bervick Spell moved the church to Central in 2005. It now includes 32 acres and five buildings with more than 80,000 square feet under roof.

When Rev. Bervick Spell retired in 2009, he was succeeded by his grandson, Rev. Tony Spell, a gifted singer, talented preacher, and Bible scholar who was only 30 at the time.

Rev. Tony Spell didn’t waste any time before he “kicked over an ant bed” and created controversy!

Legal segregation ended in the 1950’s and 1960’s but Sunday morning remained the most segregated time in America. Rev. Tony Spell was determined to break up the remaining foothole of segregation in the church.

When he baptized the congregation’s first black member in 2009, he sent Life Tabernacle into a tailspin.  Ultimately, the pastor’s unwillingness to turn away black worshipers led to a schism in the church, and it lost half its congregation.

At about the same time, Rev. Spell launched a bus ministry to reach out to the poorest of Baton Rouge, especially 70805, or the North Baton Rouge or Istrouma area.

Rev. Spell and members of his congregation go out every Saturday and knock on 500 to 1,000 doors in poor areas. The volunteers invite residents to come to church on Sunday morning. If they don’t have transportation, they are offered a ride to and from church and breakfast at the church.

Pastor Spell himself knocks on 100 doors every Saturday. What he finds is sometimes deeply disturbing, he said.  Some of the conditions are appalling.  Often parents are not interested in coming to church but allow their children to go. The church now runs 28 buses every Sunday morning.  Sunday attendance is 1,500 to 1,800 during normal times, including about 600 children. The main sanctuary can hold over 1,200 but the attendees are spread over seven sanctuaries on the 32 acre campus. Young people are divided by age and sex with adults in the main sanctuary, 10-12 year old boys over here, 10-12 year old girls over there, and so on.

The bus ministry has greatly changed the composition of the congregation.  It is now roughly equally divided between black and white with a heavy group of Asians. One recent service had attendees from 22 countries around the world.

The diversity of the congregation makes it almost unique not only in Baton Rouge but in the country. It is one of the few churches which is truly color blind.

With online viewership of the services exploding into the hundreds of thousands each week, Life Tabernacle now has a national following that enjoys its exciting Pentecostal style of worship. The church baptized 67 in the past eight weeks.

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