When Bishop Gilbert Patterson began his sermon at the Temple of Deliverance church in Memphis one recent Sunday, his voice started off soft and velvety. He compared the struggles of Israel's King David to the trials of today's youth who are besieged by drugs and violence. "You are engaged in spiritual warfare," he told them, his voice now rising and his finger jabbing toward heaven. "But the same God that delivered you yesterday... is going to stand up for you and deliver you from all the plots that Satan will put in front of you." By the end, Patterson was stomping, clutching the air, roaring verses as a keyboardist accompanied him. Calls of "Hallelujah!" and "Come on, Bishop!" erupted from the thousands of ecstatic souls quivering in the sanctuary. "If [God] has anointed you," Patterson belted out in near song, "you've got to walk in that anointing until you finally get to your purpose!"

Patterson, 65, has certainly found his purpose. Starting with 436 people in a cramped old Baptist church 30 years ago, he has built Temple of Deliverance into a nearly 17,000-member congregation--one of the fastest-growing in the country. Last year, he was re-elected as presiding bishop of the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ (COGIC, of which Temple of Deliverance is a part), the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States and a growing international force, with churches in 54 countries, from Jamaica to Japan. Patterson "is probably the most important voice of black Pentecostalism in the world," says Vinson Synan, dean of the school of divinity at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

Part of Patterson's appeal: his moral rigor. As he sees it, signs of social depravity abound, from gangs to gay marriage (though he sides with President George W. Bush on moral issues, he's a vehement opponent of the Iraq war and a staunch supporter of programs like affirmative action). "People are totally confused," Patterson says, "and they keep looking for something that they can believe is real and something that will keep them grounded." That "something" is Scripture, whose teachings Patterson has emphasized more than past presiding bishops. He "has restored a level of spirituality and Biblical focus that the denomination had somewhat lost over the last several decades," says Bishop Charles Blake, head of a large COGIC congregation in Los Angeles that includes celebrities like Denzel Washington. That's a welcome change for church member Dolores Allen, 53. "I love his preaching and teaching," she says. "It strengthens me to be rooted in the word of God."

Another of the church's draws: the exuberant Pentecostal worship style. Congregants speak in tongues--unintelligible bursts of Spirit-filled babble--cry out for miracles and dance in the aisles as a 21-piece orchestra and 100- member choir swell the Memphis temple with soul-stirring song.

Patterson is as gifted a businessman as he is a preacher. Back when he founded Temple of Deliverance in 1975--after having broken from COGIC over a family rift--he wooed congregants with a mailing list and a radio audience he had amassed over the years. Early on, he recognized the power of TV, marketing videotapes of his sermons when the local stations wouldn't sell air time to a black church. Since reconciling with COGIC and rejoining in 1988, he has disseminated the denomination's message through a TV ministry that now airs on Black Entertainment Television and Trinity Broadcasting Network. He also bought a Memphis radio station and started a record label that has produced a Grammy-nominated album. With money raised from tithes--the church's primary source of income--Patterson built Temple of Deliverance's 5, 000-seat sanctuary and has been buying land downtown for COGIC. "He has brought an air of efficiency and organization and administration to the life of the denomination," says Bishop Blake. Ask Patterson what's next and he replies, with a laugh, "My mind now is more focused on trying to retire"--if the church lets him, that is.