Belfast Telegraph

Tears from the pulpit and in pews as preacher's cheating ways finally revealed

Thriving Life Church members Harry Hamilton (left) and John McDonald
Thriving Life Church members Harry Hamilton (left) and John McDonald

By Claire O'Boyle

It was an extraordinary Sunday service for the congregation of the Thriving Life Church.

Hundreds of believers packed into their large, grey building in a small, grey corner of Newtownards, a place they visit every week, for the first Sunday service of 2020.

There was thunderous music and blinding, coloured lights. There was dry ice, arms in the air and verses of scripture to make them think.

But making yesterday different, there was an announcement too.

An announcement that would leave many members stunned - and others, in their own words, broken-hearted.

It was news about the man who founded their church - their "family" as a number of members claimed it was.

Gareth Mills, they were told from the stage, the church's lead pastor until just a few days ago, had been conducting an affair with a married member of the congregation. And for now, they heard, he was "showing no signs of repentance".

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The new stand-in, the now acting senior pastor of the church Philip Allen, broke the news and his voice cracked as he talked of how revelations about the infidelity had left him "broken-hearted".

He told how his predecessor had been removed from leadership of the church with "immediate effect", and said the establishment's top team had been "shaken to our core".

He said he hoped trust in the leadership could be rebuilt in time.

As a huge screen on the wall projected words of hymns and swirling pictures of starscapes and constellations, there were tears on the stage.

There were tears among the many worshippers in the blacked-out auditorium too as the eight-strong band, complete with drummer, three guitarists, three singers and a keyboard player, belted out their songs of worship, singing All Hail King Jesus and Heaven Comes To Fight For Me.

As the emotionally-charged service came to an end after an hour or so, with much of the congregation on its feet, the emotion spilled outside too.

Many members were tearful. Some wept and told how the "family" would carry on.

With tears in his eyes, David, a member for 13 years who did not wish to give his surname, said: "If the church isn't bigger than any one of us, if the church isn't bigger than your lead pastor then it isn't a church, because church is about God and bringing people to faith. That is what we're here for."

John McDonald (64) has been a church member for six years.

"It's been a shock," said the retired taxi driver from Millisle. "This is a man who's been bringing God's word to us. I feel very upset by what's happened.

"The church has done so much fantastic work over Christmas, delivering food and support to people in the area, and this is what we're faced with at the end of all that. It's a lot to take in."

Harry Hamilton, from Comber, agreed.

"I've been coming here for three years with my family," said the 56-year-old farmer. "I just feel very sad about it. The guy has fallen and that's unfortunate. There's a lot of emotion over this."

Christine Crawford, from Newtownards, said the church would get through this difficult period. "There are a lot of hurt people as a result of this, and it feels very emotionally charged today," said the retired classroom assistant. "But there is a sense of hope, too, that we'll get through it. The church is very much a family, not an organisation, and families go through difficult times. It's early days and things will get better."

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