church and ministry
How One Church Survived a Scandal
By J. Lee Grady
Last weekend in Melbourne, Florida, members of at least six congregations in the Brevard County area united for a prayer conference at The Tabernacle, a church that was at one time a flagship of charismatic renewal for the nation.
The crowds weren’t huge—certainly not as big as they were in the mid-1990s when 65,000 people visited during a revival that lasted for nine months. But the fact that a few hundred people attended the Fire of Heaven conference on March 16-18 proved that God can redeem a church that has been dragged through hell.
The Tabernacle, known fondly as “The Tab” to locals, enjoyed a rich legacy and a healthy reputation. Founded by author and Charisma columnist Jamie Buckingham in 1967, the church brought thousands of Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and unchurched people into the charismatic experience throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Attendance swelled to 4,000 before Buckingham died of cancer in 1992.
Before his death, Buckingham had picked his younger protégé Michael Thompson to take the church into its next season. Thompson, a gifted speaker, led the church into a period of national visibility after he began hosting popular revival meetings that drew crowds six nights a week. The meetings were curtailed to once a week in the fall of 1995, but they continued for two more years.
The excitement of those days, however, wilted quickly in 2000 when the church’s elders learned that Thompson (who was married and the father of three children) had been involved in sexual affairs with women in the church. After he was confronted, Thompson admitted that the affairs began when he counseled women alone.
Thompson eventually apologized to Tabernacle leaders, and in July 2000 he released a statement of repentance that was published in Charisma. In it, he admitted “long-term sexual sin due to sexual addiction” as well as “massive deception, manipulation and hiding” for which he was “truly sorry, brokenhearted and deeply repentant.”
Yet in spite of his belated apology, the news of Thompson’s moral failure sent shockwaves through The Tabernacle and the Melbourne community. Some parishioners blamed church elders for not discerning Thompson’s spiritual condition. Then, when the elders disfellowshiped Thompson and destroyed the church’s Plexiglas pulpit, others accused the leaders of being too heavy-handed.
“Lots of people left at that time,” says Roger Wilson, 72, who has been an elder at the church off and on since 1968. “There was a lot of rancor. People were saying, ‘Why didn’t you protect us?’”
The church limped through the next few years, with core members fleeing to other churches and total attendance shrinking to about 100 people. Many expected The Tabernacle’s doors to close. The stigma of sexual sin seemed to loom over the church like a heavy cloud, even though Thompson eventually found healing for his sex addiction and was reunited with his wife and family.
The gloom began to lift in April 2005 when the church hosted a time of public repentance led by retired Florida pastor and author Peter Lord. During that meeting, which Thompson attended, people wrote down their grievances on paper and left them at the foot of a wooden cross. The papers were later burned as a symbol of Christ’s atonement.
This past weekend, when I stood behind the new pulpit at The Tabernacle, I could sense God’s hand bringing more reconciliation and restored purpose to the church. Pastors of several Brevard County congregations including Melbourne’s First Assembly of God, Freedom Christian Center and Celebration Tabernacle emceed the meetings or provided worship teams.
Meanwhile, the church is discovering a new mission.
Wilson says the congregation now allows various community ministries to operate in The Tabernacle’s 2,000-seat facility. Today the building houses a local women’s ministry, a Christian school, a food bank, a training ministry for lay counselors, an outreach to college students and the South Brevard Community Development Corporation—which operates an after-school program in a needy area of the city.
And last year, Nigerian church planter Mosy Madugba opened an office on the church’s second floor for his Global Harvest Missions organization. He sponsored last weekend’s conference as part of his goal to train American Christians in prayer, spiritual warfare and evangelism.
Madugba believes God has a call on the churches of Melbourne to become a missionary force. And nothing—certainly not human failure—will stop God’s plan.
“The Lord has called us to rebuild,” Wilson adds. “He has brought the death of the old so that He can start a new thing.”
J. Lee Grady is the editor of Charisma and an award-winning journalist.
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Reprinted with permission from Charisma Online. Copyright Strang Communications Co., USA. All rights reserved. www.charismamag.com
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