The Tab is currently one of the oldest, largest and most influential Black Pentecostal churches in the London Borough of Lewisham. Founded in 1958 by pioneering Black church leader, the late Bishop Leon White, The Tab provided a spiritual home to West Indians, who migrated to the UK during the 1950s and ’60s. Now led by Bishop White’s youngest son, Pastor Michael White, The Tab is meeting the spiritual and social needs of a new generation, whilst still preaching the timeless truths of the Gospel. Pastor Michael White spoke to Keep The Faith about his spiritual and cultural heritage, church transformation and plans for the future.
KEEP THE FAITH (KTF): The Tab is one of the Black community’s historic churches. When you took over the church in 2001, what were your feelings on leading a church with such a great spiritual and cultural heritage?
PASTOR MICHAEL WHITE (PMW): The leadership transitioned to my responsibility around 12 years ago. At the time, I was full of energy, and actually quite excited to take on the challenge.
KTF: What were some of the key challenges you faced upon taking up the leadership role of The Tab, and how did you overcome them?
PMW: Just before taking over, the church had gone through a stormy season, resulting in it experiencing a significant decline in membership and momentum; together with that, we as a family watched as my father’s health was deteriorating. Along with serious prayer, the first few years were spent focusing on restructuring, building teams for the growth, and for the community impact I believed God would introduce us to.
KTF: As the son of a pioneering Black church leader, what lessons did your father, Bishop Leon White, teach you about leadership whilst growing up?
PMW: I primarily remember learning from his example in the home, exemplifying strong, yet touchable leadership over us as his family, and intentionally ensuring that at home we as a family were in an atmosphere of unity. Although there are core similarities in church leadership today, I believe the leadership style he exemplified in his generation to be contextually fitting to that generation. Today, there are actually a lot of things that I do differently because of the generation of church I am serving in, much of which I am currently writing about.
KTF: In your view, how should your father be regarded in the annals of British Black Church history?
PMW: Dad was ahead of his time, a premier pioneer church leader from the Windrush Generation and, at the apex of his ministry, he led one of London’s largest Black majority congregations which, under his leadership, planted and helped launch more than 40 churches around the UK and many more in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.
KTF: The Tab is currently one of the largest and most influential churches in the Lewisham area. What strategies have you implemented to facilitate growth?
PMW: There are too many things to mention here, but I can say that in our journey, by learning from others, we decided to grow big people – not a big church – as the former will result in the latter. We also came to understand that, although our church might not be perfect (no church is!), there are things that we, as leaders with our teams, can do to ensure the church is healthy, and anything that’s healthy will grow: ensure that the teaching and preaching are relative, before what you are presenting can be considered relevant. In my journey leading The Tab church, I have also found that it is important to adopt the principle of Matthew 13:52, which is that you cannot throw away everything that’s old and adopt everything that’s new, in terms of church growth strategies and ways of doing church. Leaders must know how to discern how much of the old things to keep, and how much of the new things to adopt in teaching and advancing God’s Kingdom. You’ve got to know how to do the new, like communicate on Facebook, without removing the old, like seeking God face down.
KTF: Your church has a reputation for running a number of community initiatives. Can you tell me a bit about them, and how they are affecting lives?
PMW: Our church is heavily focused on using our size and influence to positively and practically impact our community. We currently run central Lewisham’s first and only food bank; we also have our community action team called Reach, who focus on supporting senior citizens and vulnerable women and children, especially those escaping domestic violence. We also run a prison ministry called ‘Beyond Walls’, supporting and mentoring offenders with an aim at recidivism reduction. We have an amazing church, with teams of people filled with passion and driven by purpose, without which none of the work our church is engaged with could be accomplished.
KTF: I understand the church is getting ready to move into an even larger building. Can you tell me a bit about that?
PMW: Our membership growth and the community initiatives we offer have both outgrown our current church building. We have therefore purchased another larger building right in the centre of Lewisham, and will soon begin renovation work. Once it is completed, we aim to move our main church services to that location, along with other aspects of our operations. We see it as another stage in our journey, and the building as simply a tool through which we can better bless and help people. We are just humbled at what God is doing in and through our church.
KTF: You are the youngest of six children. Can you give us some insight into your childhood, and the role of faith in your upbringing?
PMW: Short answer, I think growing up as a PK (pastor’s kid) was a lot of hell, especially as a teenager (confession is good for the soul!). I could join the ranks of other PKs, blaming my behaviour on the negatives and pressures of being the Bishop’s son. However, as I reflect, I actually think I had amazing parents, who ensured that as a family we had a generally fun atmosphere at home, where we would eat together and laugh a lot, so I can’t blame them or my PK position for my behaviour; I was just rebellious and running from the call. I am the baby boy, and all my other siblings – bar one – were virtually adults when I was born. I therefore grew up in a home filled with mature thinking, conversation and behaviour that has meant, at heart, I’m an old soul with a general preference for older music and books, etc.
KTF: When did you get the call into the ministry, and how did you prepare yourself for the role?
PMW: I’ve known from around the age of 13 that there was a strong call on my life, although I did not clearly understand it, or know how to articulate that the way I can today. For as long as I can remember, growing up in school or with friends outside of school, I have always had some kind of leadership or leading influence in the group. My passion for the Bible has been with me for as long as I can remember. This led me to study Modern Hebrew at age 17, and to pursue diplomas and degrees in theological education from age 19. I was officially ordained at the age of 22, and began pastoring at 24.
KTF: What do you enjoy most about being a pastor and preacher?
PMW: Watching God take people on their journey into becoming people who look more and more like disciples. What I love most about preaching is seeing people ‘get it’, as you endeavour to explain spiritual truths that help enhance their lives.
KTF: When not preaching, what do you do to chill out and relax?
PMW: I love going to watch movies with my wife and daughter, and laughing until it hurts and, when by myself, I love spending hours simply reading a variety of books.
KTF: What should we expect from Pastor Michael White and The Tab in the forthcoming months?
PMW: I hope to be releasing a book soon, with lessons I have learned on my journey in 21st century transitional leadership, and we as a church look forward to seeing the bigger things God will do through us, as part of our move to the central location in Lewisham.
KTF: And lastly, what message would you like to leave with the Keep The Faith readers?
PMW: When I first began pastoring, many qualified people told me I was too young; had too many big ideas, and that the mentality of the small group left in the church was too old to capture the vision God had given me. If I had listened to those ‘experts’, we would not have seen the affluence and influence we see today. So remember, experts built the Titanic and it sank; amateurs built the Ark and it floated. Don’t let the ‘experts’ talk out of your heart what God has put into it!