GREENSBORO — He had said months earlier that he would preach with the same passion to a flock of five as he would to 50. Would this be it?
Marcus Johnson had run 30-second radio spots about the newly opening Hungry Church in the repurposed Canterbury School gymnasium and mailed postcards to a certain demographic.
He wouldn't be competing with any other area church for people to fill the seats. He was looking for people who had never been to church or walked away from organized religion years ago. He had been working to create a church he hoped would lead people to Jesus — and lead those people to disciple others.
Calling the church "Hungry" was head-scratching to some people.
And with 15 minutes to go that first Sunday in 2007, and few seats occupied, having rented so many chairs seemed like a waste of money for a new ministry on a shoestring budget.
Maybe to others, but not to Johnson, who at 29 had begun the ministry with no formal backing of an organization.
The smattering of people among the nearly 300 empty seats on that first Sunday morning in January included the preacher’s parents and carloads of his family from the eastern part of the state.
By 10:30 a.m., the scheduled start of service, Johnson had been ready to celebrate with whoever came. The number of churchgoers crept past 100 with a gaggle of UNCG students who heard other students making plans to come and decided to join them.
By 10:45, another of the elders had rushed into the gymnasium, looking for help from a small group of volunteers doubling as ushers and greeters.
He was having to park people down the street.
Only Johnson didn't know it because he was in the sanctuary leading an everyday game of "Simon Says."
By 11 a.m., the crowd had swelled to more than 300 — larger than the membership at most established churches.
Today, Hungry Church still draws crowds. But a new pastor is at the pulpit.
Last month, after 14 years as pastor, Johnson turned over the leadership of the congregation to 35-year-old Harold G. Burnett, who began preaching at the age of 16 and is the author of “5 Senses of Leadership,” a workbook designed to empower aspiring leaders.
"He's the visionary for this next chapter," Johnson said of Burnett.
Johnson said God has given him another platform.
"I'm taking myself out of the church," Johnson said of pastoring, "and taking Jesus on the road."
"Pastor Marcus," a UNCG graduate who had previously been on staff at Mount Zion Baptist Church with a salary and insurance, started the Hungry congregation with three people.
Back then his office was a table at Panera Bread, where the wireless internet is free and the apple turnovers addictive. That's where the meticulous Johnson could be found scoping out church furniture online or comparison shopping for Communion wafers.
Even before it became popular with the leadership in church pulpits, Johnson had been as comfortable in a suit as a velvet cranberry blazer, white button-down shirt and blue jeans.
That he would call the church "Hungry" said as much about Johnson's passion as it did how he wants people to relate to God.
"That's different — but you're different," a woman had told Johnson, who was ordained as a sophomore at UNCG, when he was just 19.
The pursuit of Hungry would be a journey similar to those undertaken each year by untold numbers of new pastors following their own callings into ministry.
Those ministries take root in living rooms, storefront buildings and leased churches outgrown by other congregations. Some will quietly disappear; others will thrive.
"As I said back then, I'm not competing with other churches," Johnson said. "I'm competing with every other place people could be."
At that time, Johnson hoped to tap into the so-called "buster" generation, the 26-to-45 age group that came after the boomers. More skeptical of religion and easily bored, they made up a good share of the millions of people in this country who do not attend church, according to the Barna Group, a polling organization that studies church trends. He knew there were people hungry for more out of life.
Johnson wanted Hungry to be engaging and approachable, like the time he used the popular 1970s sitcom "Good Times" as the basis for a month-long Bible study.
He had initially planned to show Christian DVDs on projection screens for music that first Sunday. But just before receiving an email from a friend who happened to be a singer and planned to attend, he had pulled out the phone number of a UNCG student who performed in a jazz band. Before Johnson knew it, he had a praise and worship band of six.
Some of those who showed up remembered him from his previous church, where he led Bible study and honed a reputation for being able to capture the imagination with his words.
“Trust me, there’s a point to what we’re doing,” Johnson told them after asking the audience to stand for Simon Says.
He drew laughter while eventually catching people off guard with his commands.
"We don’t want to be entertaining, but we want to be engaging," he told them. Then, tongue in cheek, he added, "God forbid if you ever come to church and laugh."
The exercise gave Johnson a chance to make a point about listening to God. Hungry, he told them, is more than a church; it’s a lifestyle — from strengthening families to growing Godly young people. As for singles, Johnson said, "It doesn’t make you less spiritual because you want somebody” in your life.
The congregation draws a large number of college students who are there four years and then gone with graduation, and an eclectic mix of young families, older couples and single adults. The church is content and information driven, with as much or more online traffic than Sunday service.
"I was never building my legacy," Johnson said of Hungry Church. "I did what I was supposed to do. I set out to reach a group of people who weren't being reached. I gave them a foundation."
Johnson, who never took a salary from the church, had also quietly built one of the largest Black-owned automotive groups in the country with dealerships ranging from Ford to Nissan. He had grown up around his father's dealership back home.
Nothing was wrong, he would tell the congregation about his retirement, but his calling was sending him in a different direction, as it had when he started Hungry.
"There's something next for me," Johnson said.
Johnson had grown up in an era where the founding pastor of a church might remain the pastor at that church until his death. Johnson, after 14 years, wants to be a "marketplace pastor."
Another of those "before its time" approaches for him.
"I'm preaching but I'm not opening the Bible," Johnson said. "I'm saying the same things I do at Hungry Church."
That's also getting past people who automatically put their guards up about religious types or wouldn't step in a church.
"They see me as Marcus, having wisdom," Johnson said of his goal. "My platform has changed but my purpose has not. "
Passing over the pulpit
The congregation had moved from the gymnasium to 801 Post St., near N.C. A&T by August 2019, when Burnett and his wife, who had just moved to Greensboro, saw a Hungry billboard as they were driving on U.S. 29.
They decided to go the next Sunday.
"It was transforming," he said of the service. "In one Sunday my wife and I said the same thing — We don’t need to visit another church."
Johnson, at that time, was considering his move from the pulpit of the church.
Burnett had previously been the pastor of a "church plant" in another state, where the pastor is assigned a new church by a denomination to spread the gospel. When he got to Hungry, he just wanted to sit in the pews.
"I just wanted to sit in the back and listen," Burnett said. "We didn’t know what God was doing, but it became clearer to us."
Burnett began serving on the leadership team and teaching classes on relationships and bringing others to Christ. When Johnson informally asked if he would be interested, Burnett told him he wasn't.
"He respected that decision," Burnett said.
But Burnett and his wife continued to talk about it.
"I said, 'Man, if there’s ever a church I would want to pastor, it would be a church like Hungry,'" Burnett said.
Burnett then went back to Johnson with a "Yes."
Johnson will remain in the pews and is on the church's leadership board but defers to Burnett as the pastor. He has been given the designation "overseer," as he will provide support and counsel for Burnett.
"Pastor Marcus was saying, 'Hey man, I’m not going to leave you high and dry. I’m going to support you.' "
Hungry has always been a church that has involved members in every aspect of the ministry, including leading Sunday morning service.
Johnson poured his energy into enabling church members to do the work of Christian ministry themselves.
"It's never been about him, it's always been about Jesus," Burnett said. "When a church is not led by personality, the transition becomes easier because Christ was always the leader."
Burnett says God is leading him in this new role.
"I may not do things exactly the way Pastor Marcus has," Burnett said. "But I'm committed to being the best version of me that God has called me to be. But that's only a part of it. What I think makes the church great is that we embrace people's diversity. We allow people to be great."
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.