HOW GRACE, AUTHENTICITY BUILT 

LOVE & FAITH INTO A MEGACHURCH

By Richard L. Williams

 

The Rev. Michael Thomas says he knew as a young boy that, in all likelihood, he would one day become a preacher. There were numerous preachers in his family in the Montgomery County town of Mt. Gilead and he just assumed that he would be one, too.

“I’ve known ever since I was a little boy that was my calling,” he says. “I acknowledged it and I accepted it.”

Thomas says he accepted Christ into his life in 1974 at a small church in San Antonio, Tex., while stationed at Randolph Air Force Base. In 1981, he says the Holy Spirit told him he could no longer put off his “calling.” When God later revealed to him that he would lead a church in North Carolina, Thomas left a growing church in San Antonio where he served as assistant pastor and moved to Greensboro in 1987.

In January 1991, he established Love and Faith Christian Fellowship Church inside his Greensboro home. Three people attended his initial worship service; among those were him and his wife. A few weeks later after outgrowing the living room-turned-sanctuary, Love and Faith moved its services to a local hotel where it remained for several months until relocating to a building on Rehobeth Church Road later that year.

 

ONE CHURCH, TWO LOCATIONS

 

Over the years, Love and Faith has been blessed to continue flourishing under Thomas’ leadership. While still at its Rehobeth Church Road location, the church was blessed to purchase 21 acres of land on Blackberry Road in East Greensboro. While awaiting construction of the new sanctuary, the congregation held worship services from November 1999 through April 2000 at Carolina Theatre in downtown Greensboro.

The first service at the new Blackberry Road sanctuary was held on April 9, 2000, and the church currently has a membership of more than 3,400. Thomas says Love and Faith continues to grow because he ensures that “Christ is the center” of all church services and activities.

In 2006 Love and Faith opened a second location in Kernersville, becoming one church in two locations. Renovations were completed this year at the Kernersville location, a converted bowling alley on Cinema Drive.

Thomas says that on any given Sunday the pews of Love and Faith are filled with parishioners from as far away as Charlotte and Danville, Va. His weekly teachings are sprinkled with humor and a down-to-earth simplicity that enables him to connect with his parishioners. He also encourages all new members to join one of the church’s more than 80 ministries.

“The reason we have six families that regularly commute from Charlotte and people coming from Danville and other areas is we try to make sure that me as senior pastor is not what’s promoted,” he says. “We make sure that our members experience not me or the choir, but that lives are being changed.”

Thomas says he recognizes that his faith and his teaching do not stop at the U.S. borders. He serves as the chief executive pastor of Good Shepherds Fellowship International, a non-denominational fellowship of pastors that help each become better preachers. Each year he goes on mission trips to Malaysia, Dubai, Singapore and India, where he is part of a delegation that has built a church. Thomas also regular visits Liberia, Tanzania, South Africa and Ghana.

“God has blessed our church,” he says. “God has blessed us to be a blessing.”

 

POLITICS, PROSPERITY THEOLOGY

 

Thomas says one of the reasons Love and Faith has been blessed is that he allows all 3,400-plus members an opportunity to review the church’s financial status every February during a “State of the Church” meeting when financial statements, produced by an independent accountant, are made available.  He says he does this for the benefit of full disclosure of church finances, but also to make members aware that they should be financially literate.

“I believe if a church is to be successful, it has to be spiritually, financially and administratively strong,” he says. “The church has a responsibility to teach people how to handle money and teach people how to budget.”

Thomas says that while God wants “us to have a good journey,” there are some church leaders that take advantage of their position when it comes to church money. He shares the story of a preacher acquaintance whose church has fewer than 50 members but the church purchased him an automobile.

“Many of the pastors coming up are very good, but one of the problems with a lot of pastors is they’re greedy,” he says. “The church has never bought me a car or gave me a down payment on the house. It took me 30 years to buy a Mercedes. The church did not give me one penny; even if they wanted to, I wouldn’t allow them to.”

He also says he does not allow the church to stray into local, national or world politics; that he is not an admirer of prosperity theology; and that pretentious, highfalutin titles aren’t a requirement for doing God’s work.

On politics in the pulpit: “I do not get involved in politics. My job as a pastor is spiritual oversight. I don’t tell people my political persuasion. I encourage them to vote, but not for a particular person. I applaud those pastors who are able to be political astute, but I do not allow candidates to come in and talk during worship services.”

On evangelicals: “God is allowing us to see what’s in the heart of evangelicals … to support someone who separates children from their mothers. They try to cover it up with religiosity.”

On prosperity theology: “I believe prosperity ministry has been a detriment to the church.”

On pastors using a variety of ecumenical titles: “I don’t need a title to do what I do – what I need is grace. There are people that think a title allows them to do what they do.”

 

RELEVANCE TO MILLENNIALS

 

Love and Faith’s membership growth crosses many demographic ranges including millennials – young adults born between 1981 and 1996 and who represent the largest demographic group not attending church regularly. Nationwide, millennials are leaving church at record numbers and they are described as America’s least religious generation. But while they may be highly skeptical of religion, studies suggest millennials are still thirsty to find meaning in life. The three things that matter most to millennials, studies confirm, are content, authenticity and quality; many churches mistakenly think millennials want flashing lights and worship concerts in order to stay engaged.

Some of the disengagement may come from a sense of frustration that traditional black churches are not sufficiently addressing justice issues that are a priority for many young adults, including LGBTQ rights, violence in urban communities and inclusion of women’s ordination and leadership. Studies show it isn’t Jesus millennials are rejecting, but churches that aren’t making themselves relevant to their culture. Millennials also have more secular and spiritual options and often no longer keep weekend worship services as standing appointments on their calendars.

Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, said African American young adults stand out from others in their age group as well as their racial group.

“Black millennials are sort of at the intersection of two broad patterns of American religiosity,” he says. “Black millennials on average are more religious and also more spiritual than other millennials and less religious and less spiritual than other blacks.”

Studies cite three factors including the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons millennials check out of church altogether. Other issues millennials have with churches are the misallocation of resources and too many church leaders spending time talking about the mission statement rather than putting it into action.

Thomas agrees.

“Young people want to see and experience something that’s genuine,” he says. “If churches would get back to the grassroots of why they are there in the first place, more young people would be attending.”

He also says the entertainment aspect of many worship services today is directly related to a decline in church attendance among millennials.

“Churches have become a source of entertainment instead of a source of changing lives,” Thomas adds. “Entertaining is something totally different than the word of God. I believe the world is better at entertaining than we are. A lot of our young people are looking at that and saying ‘I can get that in the world’ and they’re drifting away from the church.”

 

‘SOME ROUGH TIMES’

 

Thomas, one of nine children, has been married to the former Michelle Dennis for the past 43 years. She works at the church as the business administrator. They have one daughter, Melody, a son-in-law, and a grandson, Rashan.

He reflects fondly on growing up in Mt. Gilead and says he does not get back home as often since his parents and many of his close relatives have died. He also remembers the racism that was rampant in Mt. Gilead and the rest of the South during the era of Jim Crow, including when the gas station belonging to the father of civil rights attorney Julius Chambers was fire-bombed in his hometown.

“We survived during some rough times,” he says. “It was a different time, and in a lot of ways it a good time. I remember it took a community to survive.

“There is a part of our generation today that just doesn’t understand the struggle,” Thomas says. “And when you don’t understand something it’s hard for you to move forward in a positive way. And when you forget, you open yourself up to repeat it.”