The story of how the largest white Presbyterian church in America took steps to become multiethnic.
The prevailing wisdom is simple: If you want to grow a church, your watchword is “same.”
Choose a demographic. Age, skin color, wealth, recreational interest, education or preferred coffee brewing method—like cleaves to like. In the last part of the 20th century, this observation was given a seminary-worthy name (“the homogenous unit principle”) and taught nearly as gospel in pastoral classes. It’s hard to think of any concept (besides the parking lot) that did more for church growth between the 1980s and now.
By many metrics, this sameness is understandable. It is pragmatic, efficient, predictable and, in many ways, sustainable. But how are we to understand church models of homogeneity in light of the still-haunting lament of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America? Put more directly, what does one do if one believes the gospel of reconciliation runs counter to “same”?
Memphis, Tennessee, is no stranger to racial tensions. The very city, remember, is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Memphis is still fraught with divisions. They may rarely boil over. But they simmer.
So consider this: The largest white Presbyterian church in the country, Hope Church, has transitioned over the past eight years from an overwhelmingly white congregation to one that is thoroughly multiethnic—and continuing to diversify in genuine, long-term and heartfelt ways. The catalyst in this change? A remarkable succession from founding pastor Craig Strickland, who is white, to Rufus Smith, an African-American, brought on as senior pastor in 2010. While the years since Smith’s hiring haven’t necessarily been easy, Hope’s transition has been one of remarkable beauty and success, into a multiethnic congregation that Hope calls a “mosaic,” reminiscent of art made from many small and colorful individual pieces.
Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor spoke with three of Hope’s key staff for this unique story: Smith, senior pastor; Strickland, founding pastor; and Eli Morris, senior associate pastor. Believing that their only hope to live the gospel in a changing neighborhood was to change with it, Hope’s story is one of honesty, collaboration, patience and vision.
Craig, let’s start with you. Tell us the story of Hope’s founding and early years.
Craig: I had been on staff at another church here in Memphis for about 10 years, and began to feel the call of God to start a new church specifically for the unchurched. Here in the South, I’d noticed a trend: Christians bounced between churches frequently, but it seemed the unchurched simply weren’t being reached. Few new fish were being added to the bowl. Our best efforts of outreach weren’t working. So with my home church’s financial and spiritual support, my wife and I struck out to plant a new church along with two other couples.
That was in 1988. Back then, the hot new thing was to use a telemarketing campaign and mass mailings to get the word out about a church plant. So we did it, sending thousands of pieces of mail, ending in an invite to our launch. We targeted only those responders who weren’t already members of a local church.
All that to say we started Hope distinctly for people who had given up on church, but not on God, and that’s helpful to remember as we begin the story.
The plant was successful, and grew. I was friends with Eli, who was working on the urban staff of Young Life at the time, and he soon joined our staff, bringing his skill and passion for urban ministry to our suburban context. As the years began to pass, we went through most of the markers of a thriving young church: outgrowing our rented spaces, eventually finding our own building, which allowed for a whole new season of growth.
Eli, what about Hope’s early vision caught your eye?
Eli: Well, my passion for urban ministry and Young Life meant I was already passionate about many kids who were holding the faith at arm’s length—young people who didn’t know about or think much of church.
I’d grown up in pretty conservative Bible church circles, and had never really seen a church that reached out to unchurched people. But at Hope, I saw much of what I was doing in a secular context of a high school with Young Life playing out in a local church.
From the beginning, it was clear that we needed to connect Hope with the city, though. And one of the reasons that we’ve been successful with this move to mosaic multiethnic ministry is that our church DNA was bigger than the confines of just “our neighborhood” or “our church.” For all our limitations in terms of demographics in those early days, there was a connection to something bigger. If you have those values from the beginning, you’ll have a much easier transition. That doesn’t mean that you’re stuck if you don’t—but that openness helped our process to multiethnic ministry.
Pastor Rufus, where were you in 1988 as Hope was being founded?
Rufus: Houston, Texas. I was in the last couple years of working in the business world, and beginning to move toward full time pastoral ministry. I took my first senior pastor role in 1990. It ended in disaster a year and a half later—I think from my youthful arrogance. I left pastoral ministry after that to return to business.
But every step along the way would prove to be important in my ministry. In 1996, I got into nonprofit sector ministry, then in 1998 took a church in Houston called City of Refuge. It was an Evangelical Presbyterian church that wanted to look like their neighborhood, a group of people who had originally formed out of a rather conservative congregation, with an eye to be a church that reached people on the margins. They also wanted to become multiethnic but didn’t know how to do that.
By the time I met them in 1998, the church was on life support—about 40 people, 39 of them white. “We don’t know what we’re doing,” they said, “but we have a heart for more. Before we give up, would you consider being our pastor?”
Now something was going on in me between ’92 and ’98. The painful separation from my first congregation—a middle-class, African-American Baptist church—had been used by the Lord to move my heart toward mosaic ministry and thinking about the beauty and possibilities of church as a multiethnic community. I had been primed to want this, partly through some pain.
Ironically, the church I’d had that painful separation from extended me a call to return as pastor at the same time City of Refuge invited me. But by that point, even though the other church was much larger, I knew that the multiethnic ministry I had begun to feel called to would be better if I started with a smaller group. I also felt that it would be easier for a majority Caucasian church to transition to a mosaic than for a majority African-American church. (Based on my study at the time, I knew that the most difficult churches to integrate were African-American or Korean congregations.) City of Refuge it was.
During that time, what were some of your influences or learning experiences?
Rufus: Well, God had been leading me since I was young toward understanding the dynamics of integrated racial settings. Starting in the fifth grade, I was bussed for three years to a nearly all-white school as a sort of test case for our school district, which was my first exposure to an all-white environment. In sixth grade I was elected as student body president, and the whole experience taught me a lot about white culture and about racial relationships. From eighth grade on, I was back in an all-black school in a poorer district of Houston, so I had both of those experiences to help shape me. I had a new frame of reference.
As I moved into business, many formative experiences there shaped my thinking too. I simply had to become comfortable walking across demographic divides.
In addition, my pastor and mentor would frequently preach cross-culturally. One week he sent me to a preaching opportunity that slowly led to many other invitations to speak in both African-American and Caucasian churches. All these dynamics contributed.
Let’s talk about Memphis. What’s the specific context that Hope was planted in?
Craig: Eli and I both grew up in Memphis and know the city well. Racism in Memphis never went away, it just went underground. Every now and then it pops its ugly head up. Invariably politicians or the sheriff are blamed when it does, or an industry or a similar institution. And all of them have responsibilities of course. But racial reconciliation, I believe, is the responsibility of the local church. I have preached that here for 40 years.
There are great divides in Memphis, and always have been. Some shifts are happening, but in general the city breaks down into neighborhoods based on race and income. The “haves” are stereotypically white and suburban. The “have-nots” are stereotypically African-American and urban. So from the beginning Eli’s work in the city helped connect our white, suburban church to people and needs different than what we encountered on a daily basis out in the community we had planted Hope in.
Eli: Church leaders have a remarkable opportunity to impact culture, don’t they? You can encourage a culture of service, compassion and acceptance, or a culture of rigidity and all sorts of things that are negative. Involving people throughout the city for years helped lay the groundwork for what God had in mind for our church to become.
It sounds like even though Hope was essentially all white at that point, you were cultivating an open church.
Eli: Yes. But the problem was that we were operating under a church-growth model that was a philosophy of being homogeneous. Birds of a feather, right? The strategy was really clear: Find a neighborhood that is booming (which probably means “all white”) and get in there and grow. There was never a serious discussion of being multiracial in that traditional church-growth model.
Craig: Yes, that tug to be diverse complicated things for us. It’s so much easier not to seek community with people who are different than you are. Part of the complication was that we had this incredible urban ministry with hundreds of volunteers. We were known for it in the city. Still are. But that did not translate into any of those people we were serving coming to our church. Largely, that was because of access—they were in other parts of town. If you’re from urban Memphis, getting out of the city center to go to a thriving, white, rich suburb doesn’t feel accessible.
So what changed?
Craig: The neighborhood. [Laughs] Over the years, the demographics around us changed. It had been virtually all-white when we planted Hope. But within 10 years that wasn’t as true anymore, and after 15? We recognized that we no longer were reflecting our physical neighborhood on a Sunday morning.
Eli: Today, our neighborhood is about one-third African-American.
Craig: So Eli and I had to do some real soul-searching. We had said that we were a church for our community. But what were we really doing to accomplish that? MLK’s famous quote still rang true: Our Sunday morning at 11:00 was part of the most segregated hour in America.
We began to slowly make intentional steps toward a more diverse staff and leadership. We brought on a youth pastor, worship staff and eventually deacons and elders who were African-American. We began to find ways to integrate the church to better reflect our neighborhood. For us, those decisions felt very slow to implement but very strategic. We had to remind ourselves that this was not going to be an easy overnight change. It was too important for that.
In the middle of that, our staff committee came to the realization that our church, like many large churches, was very vulnerable to something happening to me as pastor. If I went down for any reason—health, moral failing or what have you—the church likely would not survive. We realized that we needed to act early to plan for me to retire one day and to build resilience in now for our congregation. They came to me and asked me to put together a succession plan.
After about six months of reading, studying and praying, I had one. My plan was to bring someone on gradually to replace me, allowing me to ease them in, and then for me to remain as a member of the church once they were the senior pastor. I would be out of his hair, with no formal responsibilities, but if there’s a crisis or he needs me, I could help. They thought that this was a brilliant idea. But the clincher was yet to come.
“One other thing,” I said. “He needs to be African-American.”
Now this is Memphis, Tennessee. This is where Dr. King was assassinated. Man, their eyes got big.
“Just pray about it,” I said. And they did.
A couple months later we revisited it, and to the person, they decided it was the right direction for the church. Then we took it to our session, which also unanimously agreed, and so we began to search for the right fit.
Rufus, when the invitation from Hope came, you weren’t eager to leave City of Refuge, were you?
Rufus: Not at all! It was unimaginable. I had been there just shy of 12 years, and the church was doing very well. We were growing, having created a strong culture. We had ups and downs like any congregation, but those 40 people bought into the vision of being a community that looked like our neighborhood in Houston. We were meeting in a homeless shelter, which lent itself to ministry on the margins, and then bought a piece of property in a slightly more affluent neighborhood. Over time, the church grew to about 400, and we were very active in the community, including through a Christian school for low-income kids and a community development center.
So connect the dots between City of Refuge and Hope.
Rufus: Craig, Eli and I had a relationship since 1998, when I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor. About 2003, I asked Craig to come down and visit in a consulting role with our staff and leaders. I considered him to be an excellent exegete of a community. His insights on our building and development plans were important.
But when Craig first called with the invitation, things were going well. I was not interested in leaving. The church was growing in size, diversity and impact. I was just seeing the fruit of hard work—I didn’t want to have to start over again! There was no way I was going to say yes.
… Until you did.
Rufus: [Laughs] Exactly. Craig was persistent. He called back and stayed in touch, at one point asking, “Rufus, why is it that we only consider the call of God when we’re either failing or burnt out? Why can’t we consider the call of God when things are going well?” That convicted me.
I didn’t even tell my wife about the invitation until a few months after Craig’s first call—I wasn’t going anywhere, right? But finally I did, and she reminded me that this was my second invitation to a church in Memphis. I’d completely forgotten, but another church had reached out a few years earlier, also with an invitation that had multiethnic ministry as its heartbeat. “Maybe we ought to pray about it,” she said. And so we did.
I was impressed during conversations with Craig and Eli, with the fact that they stayed in the conversation with me. Since I didn’t plan on seriously considering the opportunity, I asked the hard heart questions with complete freedom—didn’t try to soften or talk around anything. My goal at that point was to try to help them think of everything that could go wrong with that kind of transition in leadership, and of all the possibilities. One of those questions threw the whole conversation into sharp relief.
“Why would you, the largest Presbyterian church in the country, want to take this risk?” I asked. And Eli replied, hardly skipping a beat, “It would be a worse risk if we didn’t do this.”
Making a long story short, the rest was history. By September 2010, I was here in Memphis.
Eli, what specifically was that “worse risk” you referred to?
Eli: Well, besides the gospel heartbeat at the core of mosaic ministry, the truth was that the neighborhood was changing. Our church would survive for a while out of its current health, but it could not survive long-term as the demographics changed in the neighborhood. So anything less than a strategic transition was just stalling an eventual decision to either move or close the church. You can see churches all through the United States destroyed by demographic changes that could be bringing them new life. I’m 63—so I wouldn’t have to live through the church’s demise. But my kids would. My grandkids would. The smart thing, we saw, was to make the transition now. There would never be a better time. We’d be idiots not to do this.
In Part 2 of the interview Smith, Strickland and Morris discuss how they navigated the transition between pastors, and why though it’s difficult at times, mosaic ministry is not just worth it, but essential for a full expression of the gospel.
Senior Pastor: Rufus Smith
Founding Pastor: Craig Strickland
Senior Associate Pastor: Eli Morris
Affiliation: Evangelical Presbyterian