The Church Pastoring & Leadership

When the spit hits the fan: Mike Todd and the trap of gospel gimmicks

Jemar Tisby

Editor’s Note: This article contains a full and graphic description of the indecent at hand. Reader discretion is advised.

A spitty situation

As much as some churchgoers may like to attend a congregation with a well-known preacher, they probably don’t want him to end up in a story on TMZ. For members of Transformation Church in Tulsa, OK, this is no longer a hypothetical situation. It’s what happened to their pastor, Mike Todd. 

On Sunday, January 16–the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day–a clip of Todd went viral for the worst reasons. 

The clip shows Todd standing beside his younger brother on the platform of his church, indicating that he is about to enter into a sermon illustration. Pastor Todd then audibly summons as much saliva as he could muster, spits into his cupped hand, and then proceeds to rub the saliva into his brother’s face. 

Just before Todd rubbed his hand–in which he’d been cupping his spit for nearly a minute–on the man’s face, he asked his congregation and the viewers tuning in via live stream, “Can you physically, spiritually, and emotionally be able to stand when getting [God’s] vision or receiving it might get nasty?” Then Todd took both hands and smeared his saliva onto his brother’s eyes and face. 

In the video, the crowd off-camera could be heard audibly groaning in disgust. 

Viral for the wrong reasons

The clip was shared on social media and “Mike Todd” became a trending topic on Twitter. That’s when the celebrity gossip site, TMZ,  picked up the story. 

Even though he was well-known in some circles before, many more people now know the name of Mike Todd, not because of the message he preached but because of the show he put on. While viewers were understandably grossed out by this shocking display, it also reveals the risks and temptations many pastors face.

In an effort to make their points clear and memorable, every preacher strives to draw in the congregation. But one must walk wisely in communicating the good news. There is a difference between being engaging and being an entertainer. There is a line between illustration and titillation. There is distance between what is spiritual and what is spectacle. 

A person called to preach has a message, and that message should always point to the Messiah. The message should make Jesus famous, not the preacher. Todd overstepped that line to the detriment of his congregation. 

A day after the video, he made a public statement acknowledging when “the spit hit the fan.”

“I watched it back and I was disgusted,” Todd explained in a video taken on his cell phone. “I was really trying to make the word come alive and for people to see the story, but it got too live.”  

Yes. He took his example way too far. The problem is deeper than a single video clip or a single moment in a sermon, though. The issue is how pastors, especially those with large public platforms, conduct themselves as ministers of God’s word. 

The sacred work of caring for souls

The care of souls is sacred work. Every time one presumes to declare God’s ways to God’s people they must do so with a sober sense of the responsibility they undertake. 

James 3:1 reminds Christians of the heavy burden that preachers bear as they teach God’s word. 

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Studying the Bible for the purpose of equipping the saints should give everyone engaged in such work pause. They are about to stand in front of God’s church, for whom Christ died, and proclaim words of eternal significance. 

Souls hang in the balance every time the preacher takes the pulpit. If one’s primary concern is putting on a show rather than displaying Christ, then it is time to take a seat. 

The pulpit isn’t for everyone

As one pastor wrote on Twitter, “The church is for everyone. The pulpit is not.”

The church must realize that every gifted communicator who loves Jesus doesn’t need to become a preacher. 

If someone is interested in entertaining people, then they should be an entertainer. If they wish to motivate people, perhaps they should become motivational speaker. If they wish to use their gifts of storytelling or performance, then perhaps the theatre or films is where they belong. The pulpit isn’t the only place where one’s gifts can be used to honor God. 

I am not suggesting that Mike Todd isn’t called to preach, that is something for him and his church to discern. 

And churches should accept responsibility for who they authorize to preach as much as preachers should accept accountability for the words they preach. Church members and leaders must be actively involved in ensuring the qualifications and ongoing health of the people behind the pulpit. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, especially in contexts where parishioners are expected to bend to the preacher’s preferences and whims.

The best way to ensure that a preacher can endure the temptations of being memorable over being faithful is an engaged group of elders (also called bishops, overseers, or deacons depending on the tradition) who can give oversight and direction to the main teachers in the church. 

In the aftermath of this incident, the elders at Transformation Church would serve both their members and their pastor by conducting a revaluation of Todd’s preparation for and methods of teaching as well as determining as best they can his spiritual health under the pressures of the pulpit. 

Serving as a pastor is hard in any case, and it is much harder in a pandemic, tenuous political times, and with racism running amok in church and society. It is understandable that a minister may need some additional assistance or a break from their duties. 

We live in a society where a single movie that costs millions of dollars to create can make billions of dollars at the box office from moviegoers who are hungry for entertainment. It is easy for preachers to think that the church must compete with the box office and that their sermons should rival the best of our society’s entertainment culture. That isn’t true. Part of preaching God’s word is trusting God’s word to do its work. 

Preachers don’t need pulpit pageantry or gospel gimmicks to proclaim God’s word. All that is needed is faith in the power of God’s word to be “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” Mike Todd and the spitting spectacle is a reminder that both preachers and church members have a responsibility to ensure that Christ is proclaimed much more than an audience is entertained. 

Dear Readers: Don’t miss Witness BCC Vice President Ally Henny’s article “Taking Spit: When spiritual abuse masquerades as anointing,” which picks up where Jemar’s article leaves off.