Pastor Michael Todd leads one of the fastest-growing churches in the country, but the vast majority of his audience isn't coming to the church building. Todd, the 33-year old Pentecostal lead pastor of Transformation Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says in any given week, his church gets roughly 5,000 people in the building—and more than 35,000 online. When fewer than 1 in 8 of your churchgoers actually go to your church, what does that mean for pastors? Long before coronavirus ever forced churches to shift services online, Todd believes the digital age changed what it means to be a pastor.
"The first thing you have to know is the internet has changed everything," Todd says. "And [in some ways], the last thing it has touched is the church—because we want to keep our traditions. I really do believe the Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples, but I don't think we could have done that in health until now, with the internet. There's no way I could be a good father and a good husband and all this other stuff, and now also go into the world and make disciples. Even if you're [focusing] only on your house and your neighborhood, that's still a huge undertaking. But I believe God's given us the internet ... for great good."
But Todd says he has no illusions that his church's success can be attributed to savvy marketing, great technological design or his own inspired preaching. In fact, he says his entire testimony served as a test of obedience: Was he willing to obey God even when it didn't make sense or match his own life plans?
Todd chose to obey—and God blessed his ministry beyond his wildest expectations. He spoke to Charisma about his testimony, why the next generation has latched onto his approach to preaching the gospel and how pastoral responsibilities are shifting in the internet age.
Promotion and Favor
Todd never wanted to be a pastor. In fact, as a teenager, he wasn't even sure he wanted to be a Christian. Though he grew up in a Christian home, he says he never had an authentic relationship with God until his late teenage years. Before then, he says he was primarily raised and discipled by BET and MTV. The church didn't have answers for the problems he and his peers were going through.
"I messed up so much because I didn't have an example," Todd says. "The only rule we were given was, 'Don't have sex before you get married.' Well, what happens when you've done that? What happens when the locker room introduced you to pornography? ... The church has been so silent about that. In recent years, they've started talking about it, but even then, the church is so PG when our middle school locker rooms are R-rated and X-rated. ... So what ends up happening is we're trying to spend the rest of our lives undoing what was presented first."
That feeling of being failed by the church as a teenager is part of why Todd says he's so passionate about helping teenagers and young adults today. He says he wishes he'd had a relatable, young mentor like himself when he was struggling with his faith.
Instead, Todd says what drew him back into relationship with the Lord was his love of music. He had played drums since childhood, and the church worship team became his primary musical outlet. During high school, he began pursuing music full time and, after graduating, started his own production company and became a music producer. During that season, he flew around the country to events and studios to produce music for clients.
One of those gigs took him to Greenwood Christian Center (GCC) in his hometown of Tulsa in 2008. He knew the pastor there, who asked him to run sound for a conference. After he did a good job, the pastor asked him to keep running sound at the church. Later, the pastor noticed his musical talent and transitioned him to becoming the worship leader.
At this time, Todd was splitting his time between GCC and serving at his parents' small church plant in the same city, called Spirit and Truth Praise and Worship Center. His involvement at his parents' church began after his mother called him on the phone and informed him, "God told me you're supposed to do something with the youth of this church." Todd tried to politely refuse—even suggesting that maybe she had misheard God, who meant to use one of her other sons. After all, Todd had never preached or taught from the Bible. But his mom would not be swayed. The next week, Todd became the youth pastor of his parents' church. There were only seven youth present: three of his brothers, three godbrothers and godsisters, and one other person. (The church itself had only 15 members.) Todd called the ministry "SO FLY," an acronym for "Sold Out Free Life Youth."
"I had never prepared a message or done anything like that," Todd says. "But God told me four things before I walked in there. He said, 'Be real. Tell on yourself. Don't judge them. And love them first.' And that was my instructional guide into ministry."
Six months later, Todd says SO FLY had 150 young adults attending weekly. SO FLY had no flashy sound system or game systems. The youth group was 150 young people "literally in a room in a circle," Todd says.
Today, he recognizes it was a spiritual phenomenon, but at the time, he says he didn't take it that seriously. He didn't even study or prepare message notes; he just showed up every week planning to share what was going on in his life, talk about the Bible and try to relate to the kids. He says he focused on the four tenets God taught him before his first night of SO FLY. That meant confessing his own sins to the group at times—including pornography addiction and emotional manipulation—and sharing how Jesus personally transformed him every day. He believes that raw, uncomfortable honesty is the real reason young people responded to him.
"I think people are drawn to authenticity," Todd says. "We have a saying around here: 'It's not about perfection; it's about progression.' So that gives people license to mess up and be like, 'It's my bad. I messed up, but I'm going to get better.' And I think hearing that from somebody who holds the office of a pastor—when most pastors [project perfection]—is just refreshing to people. ... How many pastors or small group leaders actually confess what they've done—not in an ethereal story or in an 'I know a guy' story? That's how the Bible tells us we overcome. Yes, it's by the blood of the Lamb—that's what God did and what Jesus did on the cross—but then by the words of our testimony. And I think that's what's missing today."
Todd says he continued to lead SO FLY for another year, until about 250 young people were coming every week in 2010. During that time, Todd started to compare the work he was doing at GCC with the work he was doing at his parents' church. He believed Bishop Gary McIntosh, GCC's founding pastor, needed more pastoral help, while he thought his evangelistic, charismatic parents could use some structure—and then he realized the two churches should team up and become one. Though there was initial resistance, over the course of three months, both sides became open to it, and eventually Todd's parents' church merged into GCC. And when it did, SO FLY grew even bigger.
"It got up to about 900 young people in summer 2011," he says. "We still had no real leadership team—it was just me, my new wife [Natalie] and my godsister. Then I preached a message on purity and cut the thing in half, to about 400 or 500 young people. For about three years, that's where I learned. I had no budget. We had to raise a leadership team of 12. We did internships. I had to teach the young people how to give because we had no budget, and the church had just gone through a hard financial season."
Todd served faithfully in the youth ministry, but his fruitfulness did not evade McIntosh's eye. He met with Todd in 2013 and told him he wanted Todd to help him bring the SO FLY culture to the Sunday morning crowd. At 25, Todd was named the executive pastor of the church, and McIntosh mentored Todd in leadership, bringing him to all the board and financial meetings, letting him program services and design sermon series. Then McIntosh had a heart attack that sidelined him completely for eight months—and Todd was the only one at the church who knew how to do McIntosh's job.
"For eight months, I preached four different sermons to different groups of people every week," Todd says. "On Sunday morning, I was preaching to a mostly traditional Pentecostal church. On Sunday night, I was preaching to a bunch of youth who were just trying to explore God and see if they wanted to be saved. On Wednesday night, I was preaching to the people who wanted to go deep in God—so you had to bring some outlandish revelation. And then on Saturday, I was teaching at a leadership internship. I did it for eight months, and it about killed me."
When the pastor returned, he started to take back some of his usual workload, and they split the sermon load 50/50. But soon Todd felt a sense of stagnation. He started to grow concerned that GCC lacked a vision for the future and wondered if God was calling him away from ministry and back into music producing. After all, he'd never intended to be a pastor long term. He went to meet with McIntosh and told him his season had come to an end. McIntosh disagreed.
"I don't have the vision for the next season," McIntosh told him. "I believe you do."
Todd disagreed: "I literally told him verbatim, 'I don't think I could be a pastor to a church. I don't even like people that much.'"
"I've seen you do it," McIntosh said. "I've watched it over the past two years. You raised up a leadership team of 12 people who committed three years of their life to this and never got a dime. You taught the hardest demographic in church—which is young people—to give, and by the end of your time [at SO FLY], the youth were giving $9,000 to $10,000 a month. We were able to hire a youth coordinator off of what they were giving."
As McIntosh chronicled all of Todd's achievements, Todd realized God had been training and equipping him for years to serve as Transformation Church's next pastor. He was still hesitant, but when McIntosh told him it would be a five-year leadership transition, Todd agreed. He thought, That will give me time to go to seminary or college and to learn some more stuff.
Shortly after that, in September 2014, McIntosh announced to the congregation that Todd would assume the lead pastor position in one year. Todd was flabbergasted. But that didn't actually happen. Instead, Todd became the lead pastor on Feb. 1, 2015. It wasn't the transition he'd imagined or planned. But Todd says God was in it.
"All I can tell you is that there was a supernatural grace that came over my life," Todd says. "God put me in rooms and in relationships with the right people who could give me what I needed when I needed it. We've just been faithful in stewarding Transformation Church. When I took over, we started in a converted grocery store with 350 people and a very small budget. Since then, God has expanded our influence to be able to help a lot of people see transformation in Christ. So we're just grateful, and we're super humbled."
For the rest of this story, read the June-July issue of Charisma magazine.
READ MORE: To watch the original sermon that made Todd go viral, visit michaeltodd.charismamag.com.
Taylor Berglund is the associate editor of Charisma magazine and host of several shows on the Charisma Podcast Network.
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