Hope Church: From Toleration to Celebration—Part 2

Don’t miss part one of our interview detailing why and how Hope Church, formerly the largest white Presbyterian church in America, took steps to become a truly multiethnic church.

Fast-forward to now—give us a snapshot of where Hope is today.

Rufus: We’re a congregation that is about 70 percent Caucasian and about 26 percent African-American, and about 4 percent other. We are a church that has started to move from acculturation to assimilation. We use the 20 percent model that sociologists point to as a tipping point for a group: Get past 20 percent and you won’t just have African-Americans coming to Hope and acculturating to the existing culture, but you have real assimilation, which is much more reciprocal. They aren’t just adapting to the culture—they are changing it.

You’ll feel that during the musical worship—sometimes you will even feel tension in the room as we sing, because there is nearly always someone in the room who is encountering something culturally unfamiliar in a given song. If you visit, you’ll feel that we’re a congregation finding a third way. We’re struggling to be a third way—not white, not black, but something bigger than both. That’s a tension. It’s also a joy.

We think of this as a three-step process. Congregations moving toward integration go through three stages: toleration → appreciation → celebration.

We are at the stage of genuine appreciation. But we’re not at that third one of celebration yet. It takes time. But we have definitely moved from toleration to appreciation in our church.

Eli: Rufus is right in saying that about 26 percent of our worship gathering is African-American. But if you go to our new members classes to see what our future is going to look like, they are at least 50 percent African-American. The numbers are moving more rapidly than I ever thought they would.

And that is a remarkable victory. This transition, in terms of the work and care involved, is about as difficult as church planting—more so, in some ways. It is one complicated thing. You need more than token faces on stage. You need leaders at every level of the staff and team.

It requires so much awareness and intentionality. You must be open-minded. You must set aside a lot of preferences that you didn’t know you had.

That difficulty undoubtedly holds many congregations back. Craig, what did it take behind the scenes to ensure that Rufus would be welcomed?

Craig: In my experience, the single biggest factor that indicates any succession is the outgoing pastor’s ability to set their ego aside. We made this transition slowly—it took over two-and-a-half years. Our goal was to eventually have shifted every single thing to Rufus so that when we finally made the announcement that I was stepping back and he was stepping in, we could enthusiastically reply “Nothing!” when people asked. “What’s going to change?” The change, in terms of leadership, had been incremental and was essentially completed by the time awareness about it was really surfacing.

So we phased everything to Rufus—slowly. Meetings held in my office gradually shifted to his. One by one, I quietly stepped down from leading various committees and he stepped up.

One moment that stands out as a tipping point was when we were trying to figure out the logistics of our office, having brought on a new staff member, and the layout just wasn’t working. A group of us spent about three hours brainstorming, until it finally dawned on me. “I need to move out of my office and give it to Rufus,” I said. We all knew that we weren’t just talking about a building at that point. Rufus looked at me, and said, “Craig, do you think that you can make that move OK?” “I think I can,” I replied. “But we’ll just have to see.” So we found a great little space for me, and I moved out. That symbolized to all the staff that I wasn’t in charge anymore.

That thought—I think I can do this, but we’ll have to see—came to me probably 20 times throughout the transition. I think I can preach less. I think I can go to fewer key meetings. I think I can yield to Rufus’ authority when we have a disagreement.

For senior pastors, that will always be the most important factor for success or failure in a succession. It took incredible trust on Rufus’ part, and it took incredible trust on my part. We only have had a few times where we seriously disagreed on an important issue. Most of those times, I swallowed hard, and said—“OK. This is your decision. I’ll live with it. I won’t be a baby about it. I’ll accept it like any staff member should.” There was only one exception to that, one hill that I was not willing to let go. In that case, Rufus let it go, proving that this was a two-way street.

That mutual humility and care has been what has allowed this to get a strong start. The spirit of compromise is essential for this to ever work. I continue to preach a couple times at year, at Rufus’ request. I’m still available should he need me. But we have entered a new season.

Rufus, anything to add to that?

Rufus: It helped that we knew each other and had very frank conversations before I got here. It also helped to get a range of perspectives. We did study, talked to people who went through similar transitions, and paid special attention to dissect models that had failed to not repeat the mistakes of others.

I especially appreciated Craig’s humility in giving me key decisions—such as staff hiring—from Day 1, knowing that they would affect me, and for his openness to my leadership style, which was much more collaborative. (As a church planter you need more directive leadership, but my style is very collaborative.)

Let’s talk about the tensions present as a church searches for the “third way” you mentioned earlier. Rufus, what does it demand of a pastor to lead a church toward mosaic ministry?

Rufus: Well, many of the lessons that I learned through previous ministry paid off after coming to Hope. God had been gracious in letting me learn through some mistakes.

What kind of mistakes?

Rufus: The first mistake that I’d made was not having patience with people. The biblical principle of being a mosaic congregation like the first church in antiquity is a gospel imperative. But that doesn’t mean that people will automatically accept it.

In my previous church leadership, I see now that I did not give people time to digest the principles that we needed to live out. You can’t assume that a church, even if they’re open to becoming a mosaic congregation, is going to automatically accept anything. It takes a lot of time and a lot of incremental changes. In Houston, I pushed the envelope too quickly.

I also learned the importance of giving people a voice even if they don’t have ultimate choice. It’s hard to get people to buy into a change if they don’t feel heard. One example of this in Houston had been in our children’s classes. There was a sharp divide between kids with strong biblical knowledge and those without. It just happened that the breakdown there was between more privileged, largely white families (who’d attended church and often private Christian schools) and the newer African-American families who’d begun attending. Understandably, those with more biblical knowledge felt that Sunday school was being “dumbed down,” and there was frustration. I made certain decisions to keep the teaching friendly to those hearing the stories for the first time. What I should have done sooner was simply get everyone in the room and talk about it. Even if we’d ended in the same ultimate strategy, there would have been greater consensus and a sense of unity. That’s just respecting people.

How did you teach to encourage this third way?

Rufus: I learned in Houston to keep the biblical example of Jews and Gentiles foremost in people’s minds. Ethnic divisions in the church are not a new problem. The Holy Spirit has tackled this issue before, right? And he won. Frustration forced me to seek out that biblical blueprint. The Jewish Christians, who were exclusive, “chosen,” arrogant and stuck in their thinking were used to reach out to a Gentile world quite different than they were. How in the world did they make that work?

I decided to teach Scripture on this point, without making any explicit reference to the brown/white racial tensions of our day. I was just teaching on the Jews and Gentiles, right? We saw the spirit of reconciliation at work in them, without ever overtly connecting it to our setting. That gave people the necessary distance to ease into thinking about how they were being exclusive without directly threatening their social context.

I remember going to a large Barna convention in Houston in 1998. At the end, I went up to George Barna with a question. “Dr. Barna,” I said, “I am leading a church that wants to become multiethnic. Can you give me information on models?”

I’ll never forget his reply: “Young man, when you find out what works, you let me know. It’s not even a blip on our radar.” That was just over 20 years ago.

I simply didn’t have a blueprint. I’m sure there was one somewhere, but I didn’t know where to look. Eventually I discovered The Brooklyn Tabernacle and went in 1999 to spend four days with that church behind the scenes. But that was the first model of a church like that that I’d seen in practice, and even then there were many gaps that I had to fill in for our context.

But it’s the biblical example presented carefully that breaks down walls. When people really hear what Paul taught—that there is neither Jew nor Greek (race), bond nor free (class), male or female (gender)—when they really see that and how the Spirit of God led the church in the Bible 2,000 years ago—it’s different than them feeling accused. They begin to see the joy and hope of it.

What other principles about the transition can you share?

Rufus: Well, let me just be totally transparent about everything that feels relevant here.

It took about two-and-a-half years to complete the succession plan, and about six-and-a-half to go from 1 percent African-American to that tipping point of 20 percent. We did suffer a total membership loss of about 700 people, and a financial loss of about a $1 million. We have not made it a habit over the last eight years to discuss race except during one short sermon series per year. We believe that more is caught than taught. It’s also important to state that we do not deify or idolize multiethnicity.

Go deeper here. Talk to us about the reconciliation aspect of this kind of ministry.

Rufus: Language is important for us here. We think the biblical approach starts with spiritual reconciliation rather than racial reconciliation. The term “racial reconciliation” is great, but it draws our attention to the surface issue of skin whereas the term “spiritual reconciliation” calls us to focus on the deeper issue of sin, which lies at the roots of our racial history and pain. Go to the root—spiritual reconciliation (harmony between God and humankind) must address racial inequity, but racial reconciliation (harmony between human being and human being) does not usually address spiritual reconciliation.

Racial reconciliation is often driven by law and guilt. Spiritual reconciliation, while encompassing all that racial reconciliation does, is motivated by love and sincerity of heart. Racial reconciliation looks to the greater good and what is seen, which is wonderful, but spiritual reconciliation looks to the kingdom and the unseen soul. Racial reconciliation is empowered by the human will, which will weary over time, but spiritual reconciliation is emboldened by the Holy Spirit, whose power never wanes. Racial reconciliation is important, but spiritual reconciliation is indispensable if a divided people want to go beyond mere coexistence to enriched living. Government policies have gone as far as they can go; only when spiritual reconciliation is practiced can we perfect our churches, cities or our country’s union.

Let’s return to your earlier triad: toleration → appreciation → celebration. You say that Hope is at the “appreciation” phase. What did it take to get from toleration to appreciation?

Rufus: Well, besides simple visibility—diverse faces sharing the stage and social media, that kind of thing—there are three principles that we’ve learned that have gotten us to appreciation: conviction, conversation and community.

First, it takes a conviction that mosaic ministry is a gospel imperative. It’s not extra. It’s related to the core of the faith.

The second principle is conversation. Fellowship is how you move forward. You get people together to converse, centered on the word of God.

Finally, community. Get people together. Create spaces for civil, candid, Christ-centered conversations. Make it about the Bible, not just cultural or political views.

We do this through a program called Ethnos, which is our multigenerational, multiethnic small group ministry. We get people together—six people to a table, 24 people in a room. They spend 10 weeks together, eating meals together and studying the Bible. Then the group does three “spiritual adventures” together, which takes them outside. Friendships grow there, and we conclude the time by having people invite people they know to take part in the next cohort. We now have about 400 graduates of this, and the impact has been incredible. Those people have become the grassroots culture of diverse friendships.

What will it take to get to celebration?

Rufus: A growing culture of diverse relationships. We want our congregation to all be able to name at least two real friends who are different from them, generationally or racially. As well, we look forward to the day when our music is a real symbol of who we are—when no one is complaining about their preferences, but our mixed mosaic congregation can worship freely together in all sorts of styles. We’re getting closer and closer to that. But it’s not complete celebration yet.

We’re just now getting to the place where we don’t need quotas any more. In the past, we have had to count key volunteers—“How many elders or deacons are white? How many are brown?” We don’t like that and are glad to be past that stage.

One interesting dynamic is that moving to be more multiethnic has side benefits—for example, we are more multigenerational now. We are addressing that formally in our mission statement to reach our unchurched neighbors of every age or ethnicity. Mosaic encourages the mosaic.

Younger people are the ones who must get this. They are realizing that they are not part of the post-racial society that they thought they were, and they understand that every generation must work hard for unity. But they want to sustain it. All of this plays into the celebration of the differences that God’s made us with.

We learned a long time ago that this is the Lord’s church. He gave us the example of what a worshiping community is supposed to be. We just have to be faithful to that vision and the hard work of preserving it in a culture that works to separate us according to human divisions of age, gender, race and class. The true gospel of Jesus creates a community that’s more like a salad bowl than a melting pot. I use that example all the time. We maintain our distinctions and celebrate them. We don’t leave all our cultural differences behind to become homogenous. Our individual differences and identities contribute beautifully to the larger whole that God is building.

That’s not easy. But it is so worth it.

HOPE CHURCH
Cordova, Tennessee
Senior Pastor: Rufus Smith
Founding Pastor: Craig Strickland
Senior Associate Pastor: Eli Morris
Twitter: @Hope4Memphis
Website: HopePres.com
Founded: 1988
Affiliation: Evangelical Presbyterian
Locations: 1
Attendance: 6,292
Largest: 80