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Service & Impact
November 1, 2023

The Transformation Of Charles Jenkins

Written by: BY VALERIE LOWE

The gospel giant talks about reinventing yourself and overcoming fear

BY VALERIE LOWE

There probably aren’t many people who will lead a megachurch at age 24; release three Billboard No. 1 albums (including two hit singles); get invited to the White House multiple times at the behest of the president; or help broker a deal with Walmart so that thousands of their city’s residents would have a place to shop. That Charles Jenkins has done so is a testament to his music, leadership and entrepreneurial spirit.

Jenkins burst onto the scene when he was named successor to the pastor of the historic Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church (FMBC) in Chicago. His appointment was considered a really big deal because of the shoes he was filling, those of gospel music legend the Rev. Clay Evans.

The longtime, iconic leader of FMBC, Evans would have the church rocking on Sunday mornings with his fiery brand of singing and preaching. So, it was a seamless transition when Jenkins, who would pastor FMBC for nearly 20 years, began preaching and later started releasing music.

In 2012, Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago became the talk of the gospel music industry with the release of the highly acclaimed single “Awesome,” from the award-winning album The Best of Both Worlds.

The cut was more than a pretty song; it circled the world as an international anthem with lyrics that testify to God’s unfailing love: “My God is awesome / He can move mountains / Keep me in the valley/ Hide me from the rain.” Years later, the song still captivates listeners in churches across the United States and abroad in countries such as England, where it was once voted London’s favorite song.

Soon after “Awesome” came another hit, “War,” from the 2015 album Any Given Sunday. The joyful, foot-stomping song zoomed to the top of the charts with lyrics sung by both young and old: “I got joy in my soul / God is in control / I got Satan on my trail / But I’m singing all is well.”

But popularity isn’t the only reason Jenkins is where he is today in his career. The 45-year-old is a hard worker and unquestionably creative, with the business savvy of a successful CEO. In addition to continuing to make his own music, he is the chief operating officer and founder of record company Inspired People Music, has a fashion line and is involved in filmmaking projects as an executive producer with NBW Films and Universal Pictures. He is also an author, capturing some of the lessons he has learned in his new book, Seasons: How to Grow and Succeed During Times of Transition (Baxter Press).

THE RIGHT ANSWERS DON’T ALWAYS COME QUICKLY. SOMETIMES, THEY ONLY COME WITH TIME AND EXPERIENCE

Equipped to Serve Others

Charles Jenkins II grew up a church boy in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he attended a local Church of God congregation. It’s no surprise that he would pursue music, since singing is in his blood: his grandmother and aunt played piano for various churches in the area, and an uncle was a member of the famed ‘70s band Earth, Wind & Fire.

Jenkins eventually moved to Chicago where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Christian Education from Moody Bible Institute (and later a master’s in religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). Working with Evans helped equip him to impact people’s lives for the good.

Evans was indeed a towering figure; he was personal friends with Martin Luther King Jr., and the Rev. Jesse Jackson was a member of the church. Evans led FMBC for more than half a century, including some of the most tumultuous times of the civil rights movement. Mahalia Jackson sang there regularly on Sunday nights. Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin and her father, C.L. Franklin, were among the attendees. Churchgoers would file into the building by the droves in search of solace for their soul, and in search of something else—strength to continue in the battle for racial equality.

“He was iconic,” says Jenkins of the late Evans, who chose Jenkins to take the reins when he retired, and later passed away in 2019 at age 94. “Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church was Grand Central Station,” Jenkins adds. “It was Grand Central Station for serving the community, whether it was championing policies and opportunities” or advocating for better education.

As the church grew under Jenkins’ leadership, so did his influence. He began serving on various boards, including City Colleges of Chicago, Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition, and on the advisory board for former attorney general of Illinois Lisa Madigan. The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission tapped him to be a commissioner because of his advocacy work in the city. FMBC’s community development corporation became a go-to organization, providing educational resources and food for hungry families.

Jenkins was a core member of the team that brought Walmart to Chicago in 2006. He was also instrumental in the effort to get the big-box ordinance passed, which required retail giants such as Walmart to pay employees higher-than-normal wages.

Numerous nonprofit organizations, corporations, and people in high office started to see Jenkins as a leader, someone who would instinctively advocate for people to help them improve their quality of life. His efforts caught the attention of the White House, which led to Jenkins being invited to speak there multiple times when President Barack Obama was in office. When the president was elected for a second term, he picked Jenkins to pray at one of the inaugural events.

After leading FMBC for 19 years, Jenkins resigned from the pastorate in 2019. He writes of the kind of bold thinking that led to his decision in Seasons:

My career change wasn’t prompted by a big green light. It all began in 2016 with a yellow light . . . a combination of “slow down to think about some things” and “forge ahead because change is on the horizon.” That yellow light season lasted for almost two years. It was a time of internal questions, reevaluation, scrutiny, surveying, and confusion, all while managing everyday life. Confusion sounds bad, but it’s not always negative. One of the healthiest things you can do is get into a fight with yourself—a lively mental exchange to make sure you’re on target. Arriving at the right answers requires asking the right questions. But truthfully, the right answers don’t always come quickly. Sometimes, they only come with time and experience. It’s not always an easy cognitive exercise.

Today Jenkins has numerous projects ready to be launched, new ideas waiting to be birthed, and a God-given mandate to leave his mark on the world. He knows where he is headed because he knows his purpose.

LIVE A STUDIOUS LIFE, ONE THAT NEVER STOPS LEARNING. PEOPLE WHO STOP LEARNING STOP LIVING.

Don’t Let Fear Stop You

To watch Jenkins perform on stage or listen to him speak to an audience, you might think he has no fear. Not so fast. The Stellar Award-winning artist knows what if feels like to look fear square in the eye while doing what he’s been called to do.

“I think sometimes as leaders there are extremes,” he says. “At one extreme, I had no fear. I was fearless. … There’s this fearless, tenacious, almost animalistic, full-speed-ahead kind of determination and motivation, an intense focus to get to a certain destination. I had a whole lot of that, especially being so young. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t fit. I didn’t know what the golden calves were. There were no ‘Do not touch’ signs, [nothing to say] ‘don’t make that move.’ I had what I thought was innovation, creativity, aggression, and a passionate, enthusiastic, vigorous desire to get good things done. I didn’t hear naysayers. I couldn’t see haters. I saw my goal, my aim. It could be me against everybody.

“The other extreme is there were moments, substantial moments, when I felt the weight of the opportunity,” he says. “I felt the grip of the responsibility. I felt the pressure of the position and the expectations that came with that. Fear touches people in many different ways, whether it creates anxiety that can really nullify or paralyze your ability to deliver your work. It can freeze a person’s personality and keep them from experiencing the magic of who they really are.”

There were moments in the singer’s career when he was “scared to death,” but he learned to do it afraid. “I can give you a whole list of moments of being on a stage for a television network knowing that if you miss a beat or a step, you could be trending social media, being dragged through the mud. … You can become a meme in a minute. Focusing on the work intently or the people you’re trying to accomplish it for … has been my saving grace and solace, coupled with a desire to welcome God into the process to enable me not to fall on my face, but to rise.”

What advice would he give to the person working a 9-5 job and too afraid to pursue a different profession or the woman on the verge of cracking the glass ceiling at work, yet feeling incompetent? “First of all, a person should be confident in what’s inside of them,” he says. “They should realize that what they possess inside of them has value. They have confidence not arrogance, willfully sharing their value.

“Second, those in your inner circle should be people who feed, fuel and lead you. Your circle should not be those who profess their love for you, but they don’t provide you with the fuel you need to succeed. They should not be people who lack the capacity to give you life.”

Jenkins believes that people don’t only need an inner circle, they also need others who will call them out. Not in a negative sense, but in a way that motivates them to move forward. Confident, successful people surround themselves with people who inspire and empower them at their current level in life, helping them reach their full potential as they continue to grow. Some of Jenkins’ greatest mentors, he notes, are also some of his greatest friends, who are willing to call him out.

His third point: “Live a studious life, one that never stops learning. People who stop learning stop living. Whether you are sitting at a restaurant studying how things flow and work, having coffee with a friend or watching television, you should use every opportunity afforded to you to learn.”

As someone whose journey has been filled with moments of fear and moments of fearlessness, Jenkins has a word of caution for people sitting on the sidelines of life: “You don’t want to look back over your life just to see a blank space.”

Live like a Transformer

At the heart of any musician is a desire to make good music that appeals to listeners. Life is no different for Jenkins in this new season. His mission is to make music that churches can sing on Sunday mornings, music for people who don’t go to church but feel they can connect to the music, which hopefully may lead them to a place of relationship.

His other goal is to make “simple, singable, relatable music” that leads people to sing and celebrate while also being encouraged. His fourth album, Praise Party Volume 1, which dropped in January, “is exactly that,” he says. You can hear the enthusiasm in his voice when speaking about his expectations for his latest release: “The purpose of the album is to lead people to a place of jubilation, hope and encouragement. Those are big words.”

In addition to a new album, Jenkins says he’s fortunate to be making commercial music for TV shows. Yes, he is a gospel artist, but as an innovative thinker, he leverages his music outside the four walls of the church for maximum impact. Some of the most recognized names in media pay for the use of his work, including the History Channel, CNN, TV One, NBC and BET.

Still, he has more in mind because of his out-of-the-box thinking.

Not only does Jenkins make music for secular use, he has also been involved in filmmaking for years; millions of viewers saw him when he was a musical guest on the set of the popular TV miniseries A.D. The Bible Continues, produced by actress Roma Downey and her husband, reality TV executive Mark Burnett. After hosting movie screenings at the church when he was pastoring, he felt there was a gap in the industry for family-friendly content. To get involved in the process, he started asking various filmmakers about what it took to create more entertaining, inspirational content that entire families could enjoy together. Today he’s involved with fundraising, reviewing scripts, talent sourcing and more.

THERE ARE MOMENTS WHEN A CALLING LEADS US TO A PLACE AND THERE ARE MOMENTS WHEN A PLACE LEADS US TO A CALLING

“I think we must be like those action figures,” says the former pastor. “Like those action figures, we’ve always got to remain open to turning into something else. There are different moments in time or seasons of life that mandate us to turn into something else. There are moments when a calling leads us to a place and there are moments when a place leads us to a calling.”

Jenkins has spent years developing the calling that propels him every day to leave his mark on the world. He says that to be successful in life you have to know your God-given purpose and be intentional about fulfilling it. It is this approach to life that has led to many of his opportunities, many of which came about because he was willing to expand his reach in the world by being innovative.

“Nobody understands your purpose more than the One who created you with a purpose in mind,” Jenkins explains. “The person who makes the fort knows why they made the fort, what reason they made the fort, the intended result of the fort. The person who made the car understands everything they put in it and around it, the purpose for it. They made the car with the intent to accomplish a certain result, unlike other manufacturers.

“I think a strong vertical relationship speaks to a relationship with God, and a strong horizontal (one) speaks to a relationship with people who can provide wise counsel and serve as resources to help empower your life.”

Valerie Lowe is a multimedia journalist and an on-air host, whose work can be seen and heard on multiple platforms. She has expanded her career to include acting, appearing in the Vietnam War film Summer of ‘67, and on TV One’s Fatal Attraction and On the Case with Paula Zahn.