Opening the Church Doors

Excerpted From ‘Gospelbound’ (Multnomah)

Excerpted From
Gospelbound
By Collin Hansen & Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

It started off small, so small you’d never guess what was coming.

Two pastors in Iowa—Rod Dooley of the predominantly African American Oakhill Jackson Community Church and Daniel Winn of the predominantly white Cedar Rapids Family Church—met to pray together. Then they did it again. And again, until they were praying together every week.

The next step was also small—and completely normal. Every once in a while, they’d switch pulpits. Eventually they decided to do an Easter service together. Both churches were healthy and growing, and at the joint choir rehearsal the Thursday before Easter 2017, Dooley told Winn about his search for a bigger building.

“Everything we’re looking at is either too small or too big,” Dooley explained.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Winn shot back, “You know, it wouldn’t be too large if we merged our churches together.”

It wasn’t an impulsive suggestion. “I had been thinking for a long time about merging our churches,” Winn said. “But I knew that was a crazy thing.” Daniel, you’re out of your mind, he told himself. He’s not going to go for that. And for a beat, there was dead silence.

“Are you serious?” Dooley asked.

“One hundred percent,” Winn answered.

“I’ve actually been thinking that myself,” Dooley said. “But I wasn’t going to bring it up to you.”

That’s because healthy churches don’t merge. Especially not if they’re both growing. Especially not if one is white and one is Black. Especially not if both senior pastors are planning to stay. When I (Collin) heard this story after speaking in Cedar Rapids, I had to ask a couple of times for clarifying details. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen. Or at least I didn’t think it did.

The setting is also unexpected: With a population of 133,000, Cedar Rapids is the second-biggest city in Iowa (after Des Moines). Settled primarily by white Europeans who built farms instead of cities, Iowa wasn’t a viable option for most African Americans migrating north during the twentieth century. At the time of the 2010 census, Cedar Rapids was 85% white. So it’s not surprising that the same year—when Cedar Rapids had 88 evangelical, 75 mainline, and 18 Catholic churches—it had just two Black Protestant congregations.

One of them was Dooley’s church. Dooley is a bi-vocational pas¬tor. In the early 2000s, he was combining youth pastoring with his full-time job in human resources at Rockwell Collins. That meant he saw the needs of a wide swath of Rockwell’s 8,000-plus employees.

“He had a grander vision—of black, white, Indian, Chinese together,” said LaShunda McFarland, who joined the church when she was in high school. “That is something God put on his heart.”

When he moved from youth pastor to lead pastor, Dooley started talking about reaching out to the whole town.

“We live in a predominately white city,” Dooley said of his desire to show hospitality to his whole city. “If we were going to grow, we had to reach [the white] community as well. That was always on our heart.”

His congregation was game—most of them worked in predominantly white companies or went to predominantly white schools or lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, so it didn’t seem too hard to add some diversity to their worship. But white Cedar Rapidians weren’t walking in the door.

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“I’d never bring my family to your church,” one white Rockwell colleague told Dooley honestly. “It’s all African American.”

“We became frustrated,” Dooley said. “I felt like, ‘God, I know you’re calling us to do this, but it’s just not happening.’”

About five miles away, Winn was feeling the same thing at the predominantly white Cedar Rapids Family Church. “My vision was to create a diverse church in Cedar Rapids,” said Winn, who had begun his ministry at a racially diverse church in Des Moines. “We had become somewhat diverse but probably weren’t even 5% African American. I wanted to see more progress.”

It felt like God was asking for something that neither church could deliver. And the city would keep seeing churches divided along the same lines as every other social group in town.

At the time, Oakhill Jackson was outgrowing its space. The congregation was pushing 125 and running more and more programs. “We also had multiple levels in an old building but no elevator,” Dooley said. “We knew if we were going to continue to grow, we needed to do something different.”

One location looked promising, but it fell through. Others were too big or too small or didn’t work for the church’s needs. “God brought a bit of frustration to the process,” Dooley said.

It was that frustration he was sharing with Winn before the Easter service, prompting Winn to toss out the perhaps-unprecedented, clearly impossible idea of combining two healthy, growing churches.

When their wives approved, the two pastors took their crazy idea to their elders.

The two elder boards “went through our bylaws and statements of faith,” Winn said. “And there were a couple of things that came up.” For example, not everyone was on the same page regarding the gifts of the Spirit given through healing or speaking in tongues. Some couldn’t get on board with once-saved-always-saved theology. And not everybody agreed on the chronology of the end times.

“The gospel needs to be held in a closed fist—we cannot let go of some things,” Winn told his elders. “But some other things, like healing, we can hold in an open hand. Not everybody is going to believe the same, but I’m not going to drive ministry based on it.”

And in fact, doctrinal questions weren’t worrying the congregation so much as cultural questions. “We knew early on there was going to be differences there,” Winn said.

“Mostly when you hear two churches have merged, it’s really one acquiring the other,” Dooley said. “That’s not been the case here.”

But it could have been. Because even though Oakhill Jackson had grown to around 125, Cedar Rapids Family was pushing past 250. And instead of the churches finding a new building, Oakhill Jackson moved into the larger space of Cedar Rapids Family. And the culture of the town and the state—like Cedar Rapids Family—is overwhelmingly white. It would have been easy for Oakhill Jackson to be swallowed up—to be acquired.

“In all honesty, it was like, ‘Wow, Rod, you guys are making the greater sacrifice here,’” Winn said. Early in the process, he learned that, in many multiethnic churches, the white culture is still dominant. And Dooley told him Black church culture is so distinct because it was one of the few places African Americans could lead without white interference.

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For Dooley’s congregation, the idea of driving 15 minutes down the road to join with a white church got more approval than you’d expect. “There were definitely some people who were skeptical,” he said. A handful of people didn’t make the transition. “But overall, we had overwhelming support.”

The combined church—named New City Church because both churches wanted to help renew the city—kept all the previous ministries. From the beginning, Dooley and Winn were careful to balance Sunday mornings, each pastor taking the pulpit every other week. (About 18 months later, they planned to each teach a series at a time.) They kept both music leaders. And they included gospel and contemporary Christian songs in each service.

For the original congregations of New City, life is better together—when someone sets another seat for you at the table.

The folks from Oakhill Jackson still tell one another old stories over coffee in the back, and so do folks from Cedar Rapids Family. But they’re also getting to know one another—now they serve in children’s ministry together and gather for small groups together and play softball together. They’re dreaming together about using the old Oakhill Jackson building to set up an outreach center.

And they’re watching God bring them new growth. More than 130 new families have begun attending since New City opened in January 2018. “We’re seeing people’s lives being transformed,” Winn said. In July 2019, they baptized nine teenagers of different ethnicities. When the teens shared their testimonies, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

“People are interacting with people they never would have before,” Dooley said. “In the first few months, it wasn’t uncommon to have grown men from both churches coming up to us after the service with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘This is so great.’”

That’s because the churches were finally walking into the vision they both had of “renewing the city by helping people find authentic relationship in Jesus.”

“We aren’t just doing this for diversity’s sake but for the gospel’s sake and for Christ’s sake,” Winn said. He hopes that the church can be an example to the community—which has noticed what they’re doing—in how Christians behave toward one another. When the world doesn’t see Christians working together regardless of race or politics, we shouldn’t be surprised that they conclude that the power of the gospel can’t solve today’s problems of loneliness and division.

But New City Church and other multiethnic churches around the country are intentionally expanding to reflect the family of God. Sometimes the integration goes well. Sometimes it fails. It’s always messy and never easy. But gospelbound Christians aren’t giving up.

By 2012, a Baylor study found that 12% of Protestant churches were multiethnic. By 2019, other preliminary research showed that the number had grown to 23% among evangelical Protestant churches. It’s small, but it’s a start.

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Excerpted from Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age. Copyright © 2021 by Collin Hansen and Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. Used by permission of Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.