I’m Pastor Marron Thomas of Innovation Church in Memphis, and I’ll be guest preaching at CSPC Sunday. This is how I’ve been living deeply.
I was in college and instead of working a job, I started selling drugs. I came to Memphis to set up a drug deal. Not knowing the guy I was setting the deal up with was working for the feds, I went along with the plans to make a drug transaction at a location in the Frayser community. I was caught with a lot of marijuana & money, and hauled off to jail in Memphis. The timing couldn’t have been worse- in only five days, I was supposed to graduate from Lane College. Now I was locked up and probably facing federal charges, which meant I would be behind bars for a long time. I began to pray, ‘God, if you let me go from this place, I’ll stop selling drugs.’ God had already been dealing with me for a year leading up to this- I was reading His Word, but I wasn’t living for Him. I knew God was tugging at me, but I didn’t want to surrender my life. In these low, desperate moments, however, He changed my heart. God was calling me to salvation, and I surrendered my life right there while I was praying in the jail cell!! And that wasn’t my only change in direction during those days. My arrest happened on Tuesday, and on Friday the bailiff surprised me: ‘You have a visit.’ The visitor was the bail bondsman, who told me the feds had dropped the charge. What a relief! It didn’t mean I was completely exonerated- but my charge was dropped from a federal charge to a felony. So my bond was paid and I was released in time to graduate from college after all. I had no idea where God wanted me to go next. I played football in college, and my goal had been to coach football & teach. But with two felonies on my record (the other was from another drug arrest a year earlier), that wasn’t likely. I began to fast & pray. Through a series of connections, the founder of the Leadership Empowerment Center (LEC), a nonprofit in Frayser, hired me to do ministry in the same community where I’d been incarcerated! That was over 25 years ago. I was LEC’s first employee outside of the founder, and I became the Executive Director several years later.
Frayser is a really tough area- a lot of gang activity and a lot of crime. If it was its own city, it would probably be one of the five largest in the state. Through LEC, we’ve invested to really help change lives here and deal with some of the tough issues plaguing our community. At first we focused on investing in gang leaders –hoping to see them change- but the return on that investment wasn’t great. Some of these kids were so deeply involved in gangs, they really didn’t want to change. So we asked, ‘What if we invested in kids who are faithful, available, and teachable?’ We were thinking of the kids who are valedictorians and salutatorians in this community. A lot of these kids are not able to compete (in terms of learning & life skills) with other kids from Memphis’s suburban or private schools. They still struggle, even though they’re at the top of their classes. We said, ‘Let’s invest in faithful, available, and teachable kids- students who, if they had a mentor and the right resources, would really go the extra mile.’ And we began to do that. We called it the Jesus Model because that’s what Jesus did. He poured His life into 12 people, and the ripple effects from that investment were obviously like nothing anyone had ever seen. So we invested in kids who really wanted it- showed them life outside of Frayser. Among other things, we took them on mission trips to Mexico, Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans. These kids actually did ministry with other kids through our partner congregation, Second Presbyterian Church. They were finally able to see life outside of what they were used to – we exposed them to a lot of new and different settings, expanded their worlds. They began to realize that if they SEE it, they can BE it! We went into the schools, built relationships with them, and earned the right to be heard.
It took eight years of trying (and often failing) to reach gang members for us to get to this point where we changed our approach. We realized we didn’t just want to REACH kids, we wanted to IMPACT them. In doing so, we scaled back our ‘reach’ and invested in this core group of about 22 kids a year. We still had our ‘Sermon on the Mount’ opportunities where we spoke to hundreds of kids at once. We still ‘adopted’ schools, helped empower teachers & principals, and had volunteers coaching football (including me- I did get to live my dream!). But the targeted emphasis was on impacting those leaders: taking them on college tours, getting mentors for them, and exposing them to life outside Frayser. And God’s brought the impact we hoped for, sometimes in surprising ways. Some of the gang members now are seeing all this and asking, ‘What can I do to become a part of this internship program? What can I do to go on college tours? What can I do to go on these mission trips?’ So it’s positive peer pressure. I think the lesson, for the Church in general to have an impact, is to really find those faithful, available, and teachable people & invest in them. When we started the leadership program in the schools, God blessed it. When we were a part of the football team, it led to a different culture. When we empowered the students or the teachers or the principals, there was a difference. But I also felt like maybe there was more for us to do to change lives in Frayser. During a sabbatical, I felt God asking me: ‘What if you started a church?’ It was instantly something that excited We could not only impact kids, but we could impact their parents, their principals, their teachers, an entire community. And that’s how Innovation Church was born. Our congregation just celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. We didn’t even need to find or build a building- we simply hold services at LEC, which has ample space. God’s grown our congregation to about 500.
So now, with Innovation Church, we’re asking: How can we impact the people who are impacting our kids? Our kids would get saved, but they would go back home to a drunk dad or a mom on drugs. And a lot of them are in situations like mine- I grew up in a single parent household, raised by my mom. Oftentimes Black men are asked to play a role for which we had no script, because we didn’t see dads in our homes. So we’re taking steps to challenge these brothers to be something that they’ve never seen. It’s the same approach that we took with the kids at LEC. We don’t sugarcoat anything- we challenge them and talk about the expectations that God has for them. And, as with the students impacted by LEC, we’re seeing God bear fruit. These brothers are truly being saved. Many who were once sleeping around are now getting married & really have traditional families. They’re not only having kids- they’re RAISING their kids. The last couple years, we’ve had a father- son campout. I’ve never been on a campout with my father, but these brothers are now taking their sons camping. Recently we also had a daddy-daughter date night, too. It’s all about showing them something they’ve never seen, giving them something that they’ve never been a part of. And these brothers are stepping up to the plate. We have a strong focus on men because of what the numbers show happens if a man is saved. There are statistics that say that if a child receives Christ, that’s a 3% chance that the rest of his or her family will come to church. If a woman comes to Christ, there’s a 17% chance that the rest of the family comes to church. If a man gets saved and he attends, there’s a 93% chance that the rest of the family will go to church. So we’re investing in our men.
Throughout my ministry journey, God has really driven home to me the importance of having a TEAM of leaders doing the work. One leader won’t be good at everything, and can’t do it all anyway. I do a good job of casting a vision, inspiring, motivating, saying ‘let’s get it done,’ and celebrating when we do. But working out the small details and planning? Oh my goodness, I’m weak at that. My wife is often like, ‘Get out of the room and let us plan! We can’t get anything done with you in the room.’ Then they’ll bring me back in once things are planned out. At that point I try to sharpen the plan and say, ‘Maybe we can do this better. What about that? Have we thought about this?’ But God has shown me what a necessary gift it is to have a team. Nothing significant happens without teamwork. By way of example, I’ll tell you about one more ministry of Innovation Church- what we call ‘Go Days.’ Jesus said, ‘Go into all the earth, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.’ So we implemented four ‘Go Days’ where members of our church go to the north, south, east, and west parts of Memphis to share Christ. We did that a couple of months prior to our 10-year anniversary this year, and God blessed it. Our team was bold. People got saved. People who didn’t accept Christ really respected the fact that we were out there doing it -it wasn’t Jehovah’s Witnesses or some other group. It was the body of Christ going out to do it. I’m really pumped about mobilizing disciples to get out and do what God has called us to do: be disciples, not just in the church, but go and evangelize our community. For me and so many in our church, this year has been a time of experiencing deeper fellowship with Him by celebrating His greatness and how awesome He’s been. Over the past decade for our church, and the past two and a half decades for our partner ministry LEC, we’ve seen what happens when brothers and sisters put away their fears and embrace His call to be salt & light. We’re basking in what God has been doing.