Craig Strickland planted Hope Church—the largest white Presbyterian congregation in America with about 6,600 weekly attendees—back before church planting was cool.
He had been working at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, watching “people from the Baptist church leaving to join the Presbyterian church, where people were leaving to join the Methodist church. We weren’t putting any new fish in the bowl.”
Strickland wanted to make changes, but as the executive pastor, he wasn’t exactly the guy in charge. And “to be fair, I wasn’t getting any job offers from other churches looking for a senior pastor,” he said.
So he decided to start his own. It was 1988, the era of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church, when the formula for church planting was clear:
- Find an area growing economically.
- Make 30,000 phone calls asking people who don’t have a church home if they’d mind receiving some mail from you.
- Send them five pieces of mail telling them about your new church.
If you do that, experts said, around 300 will come the first day, settling down into an average of 120 a week later.
That was exactly what happened. “I’m telling you, it was spooky—it was down to the exact number,” said Eli Morris, who soon jumped on as Strickland’s associate pastor.
The racial makeup was just as predictable. The geographical areas growing economically in the 1980s were white-flight suburbs kept homogeneous by real estate redlining. The Unchurched Harry and Mary whom seeker-sensitive churches were looking for were friends and family of those already attending.
The principles were solid: Churches should reflect their neighborhoods, and relationships are a good way to show God’s love to the unchurched. But the results were decidedly monoethnic congregations.
Within 20 years, Hope was the largest church in Memphis, regularly drawing 7,000 worshipers each weekend. But in a city that was nearly 60 percent black, less than 1 percent of them were African American.
At first, Hope reflected its neighborhood. The city to Hope’s south—Germantown—was 93 percent white in 2000, and 90 percent white in 2010. But its county—Shelby—fell from 47 percent white in 2000 to 41 percent white in 2010. And Cordova, the small suburb where Hope sits, dropped from nearly all white in 1988 to 68 percent white in 2010.
So Strickland and Morris set out to do what had never successfully been done before—to convert a white megachurch into a multiracial congregation.
They’re doing it.
Today, one out of five people who attends Hope is black. Of the 106 staff, 18 are nonwhite—including the senior pastor. The congregation sings hymns, contemporary Christian, and black gospel. Members work in predominantly black, underresourced neighborhoods in north Memphis together through Hope’s community development corporation. They attend biannual three-day urban plunges and regularly spend eight weeks eating dinner with someone of another ethnicity.
“This is about the only church I know that has successfully gone from largely monoethnic to multiethnic,” said Sandy Willson, who watched it happen from the pulpit of Second Presbyterian Church, nine miles down the road. “It is an unusual story, and it does need to be told because those of us who pastor traditional churches have to figure out how this can be done.”
At the same time Strickland and Morris were thinking about breaking the racial barrier, they were also thinking about Strickland’s succession plan.
“If you look at just about any large megachurch, if they have made the transition at all yet, the church has fallen off the cliff in attendance after the old guy dies or leaves or retires,” Strickland said. Hope’s leadership “recognized that Hope was in a vulnerable position if something were to happen to me.”
Strickland was agreeable. “I’ve seen some pastors who were asked to leave because they were no longer effective, and I vowed I’d never let that happen to me.”
He told Hope’s leadership the best plan was probably to hire his successor several years before he retired, so Strickland could both train him and have his back during the transition.
“They all nodded their heads wisely,” Strickland said. Then he tossed them a twist. “I think he needs to be African American.”
There was “a palpable silence,” he said. “They needed some time to get their brains around it.”
Then they asked why he thought an all-white church would need a black pastor.
“Racism in Memphis hasn’t gone away,” he told them. “We call on law enforcement and government and business to fix it, but racial reconciliation is the role of the local church. And we need to not just talk about it but to lead like it.”
Installing an African American as senior pastor of the city’s largest church “would tell the city we mean business.”
Strickland let his leadership mull it over. It was a good move; they came back and told him he was right.
Rufus ‘Jackie Robinson’ Smith
The first name to pop into Strickland’s head was Rufus Smith. The two had met when Smith was ordained in 1988 as the first African-American pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Strickland had done some consulting for Smith’s Houston church.
“Rufus Smith needs to be the guy,” Strickland told Morris.
“He won’t take it,” Morris fired back. “He’s too good at what he does in Houston, and it’s his home town. He won’t take it.”
Morris was right—Smith was doing extraordinarily well in Houston. Previously, after a painful split with his first congregation, Smith had left the ministry for five years.
“In that five years, God began to grip my heart about multiethnic ministry,” Smith said. “Had it not been for that incident, I think I would’ve been beholden to a homogeneous congregation, because everything I am is because of the black church.”
The church in Houston was a plant, but not Smith’s. A group of people doing urban ministry together had formed into a church, but their pastor had domestic difficulties, and the whole thing was disintegrating. Smith was their last-ditch effort; they were his second start.
By 2010, City of Refuge Church was thriving and solidly multiethnic—50 percent white, 40 percent African American, 8 percent Asian, and 2 percent Hispanic.
So when Strickland asked Smith if he wanted to drop everything and come to Memphis, his answer was short: “Absolutely not.”
“Things could not be going better,” Smith expanded. “You’re calling at the wrong time.”
But over the course of the next year, Strickland didn’t stop calling. And at the same time, “God just drew me in,” Smith said.
Still, it was a hazardous move, and Smith knew it. He told Strickland, “So, Craig, now you’re the Branch Rickey of megachurches.”
Strickland, who doesn’t follow baseball, had no idea what he was talking about.
But if Smith was feeling a little like Jackie Robinson, Rickey’s hire to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, then taking the position was courageous indeed.
Setting the Stage
Leading Hope into multiculturalism was going to be a lot harder than leading City of Refuge, Smith knew. First, Hope was already well established, so you couldn’t build in multiracial DNA. Second, it was a megachurch, which is a lot less adaptable than a smaller congregation. And third, it was located in Memphis, a city damaged by racial division even before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there in 1968.
But if Hope could become multiracial, then “perhaps it would encourage or embolden other churches to do the same when conditions warranted it,” Smith said.
He also saw Hope had two enormous advantages: leaders with “a holy discontent that the church did not reflect the immediate neighborhood,” and a congregation open to racial integration.
That openness had been built into the DNA, especially by Morris, who spent years pulling the congregation into inner-city ministry. As a result, both the congregation and its leaders had close friendships with African Americans.
Slow and Slower
Turning a 7,000-member white church into a multiracial church with an African-American leader is a slow and delicate process.
Hope was less than 1 percent African American when Smith arrived. It had no minority elders or deacons. The African Americans on staff either worked in facilities or in urban ministries.
Smith started by joining the preaching rotation with Strickland and Morris. He spent his first year sitting down with all African-American, Asian, and Latino attendees and hearing their concerns and challenges. Then he did the same thing with key white leaders.
He followed with an eight-week class called Ethnos, a multiethnic, multigenerational small group that includes dinner with congregants of another ethnicity, conversations in a safe place, and three spiritual adventures together. (Spiritual adventures are exercises like watching a movie about race together and discussing reactions.) In five years, he and a team of co-teachers have taught more than 350 Hope members about issues of similarities and differences at church and in homes.
Hope began putting more African Americans on stage, and Smith hired a new worship director. Daniel Oppenhuizen is a white millennial, but is tasked with using different genres of music—including black gospel—to serve different groups. (“Our joke these days is if you don’t like the song we’re singing right now, be patient and we’ll get to one you like,” Morris said.)
Strickland gradually handed Smith control of the church’s session and committees: First, Smith and Strickland both came to meetings; after a few months, Strickland came less regularly and, when he did, started leaving early. Eventually, he quit showing up at all.
After two and a half years, Smith was officially recognized as the church’s senior pastor, but that wasn’t the end of the process. Strickland’s title changed to teaching elder and founding pastor, and he moved his desk away from the primary office area, though he’s “still available,” he said. “I preach a few times a year. I’m back in the wings.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s influence was also growing in Memphis. He privately and publicly championed racial unity as a gospel imperative, convened prayer and table-talk meetings with pastors and law enforcement after the 2016 protests, and has been instrumental in planning TGC’s 2018 conference to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
“He has that MLK spirit,” Willson said. “He can engage well in arguments about race. . . . Rufus realizes he’s got an important role to play, and he’s playing it.”
Hope’s ethnic makeup didn’t change overnight—in fact, Strickland and Morris were “a little surprised there wasn’t a bigger jump [in African-American attendance] right away” after Smith came on board, Strickland said.
But it was happening. Little by little, over the course of six years, the number of African Americans at Hope went from 1 percent to 20 percent (which meets the classic definition of a multiethnic gathering). Six months later, it has edged up to 22 percent.
And the future looks promising: The percent of African Americans in new members’ classes has climbed to 50 percent.
That’s not to say the transition was perfect.
“In the end, we lost about 10 percent of the congregation,” Smith said. Not all of that is race-related; even a white successor would have seen attrition.
When it became clear that Strickland was easing away from the pulpit, “people began to drift away,” Smith said. “We lost about $1 million in revenue as people were leaving. It was a slow leak for about two years before the trajectory started going up. And now we’re back within 5 percent of the post-2010 numbers.”
One of those who nearly left was an elder, who told Morris he was going to need to step down. “I’m a racist,” he confessed. “I’ve always been a racist. I’m embarrassed by it, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Instead of letting him leave, Morris asked if there were any black men he would feel comfortable going to lunch with. The elder could think of one.
“Well, do that and see how it goes,” Morris encouraged.
He did, and the two “became best friends,” Morris said. The elder stayed at Hope, partnered with the man as he planted his own church, and now mentors youth in the inner city.
“This,” Morris said, “is transformation.”
Actually, it’s the fruit of transformation. “A multiethnic church,” Morris said, “is a byproduct of the gospel.”
“Without question, the transition would have been worse if we hadn’t eased in,” Smith said. And even though it took a while, the results have been worth the wait.
“One joy is obedience to a need, and I think there is a need in this world for the church to be seen as unified across racial and gender and age lines,” Smith said. “If you have the conviction that church should not be the most segregated hour in America, then there is a certain joy that comes from striving to obey and make that the case.”
Another joy is the enrichment the congregation receives from relationships and cultural exposure they wouldn’t have otherwise had. And a third is the influence a multiethnic church has on its community.
“A multiethnic church responds differently to social ills,” Smith said. “It’s amazing the influence and power you have when black and white, young and old put their minds together to solve an individual issue within a church.”
It can also be really messy. After a weekend of Black Lives Matter protests shut down one Memphis expressway in 2016, Hope hosted a time of prayer and fasting for more than 300 black and white pastors from every denomination in the city. “I had three friends who were protesters and three who were cops,” Morris said. “That’s the reality of who we are. We have to come to some understanding in this deal.”
Churches that feel called to move from monoethnic to multiethnic must start with “a gospel conviction that what appears in our actual churches today is incongruent with the holistic gospel” that compels Christians to make disciples of every ethnicity, Smith said.
“It’s really sad, in a way, that you have to think so tactically within the body of Christ” to create a welcoming culture for all, he said. “But on the other hand, when you read the New Testament, they did the same thing.”
If the early Christians could address racism and segregation with partnerships and ministry teams to “reach the widest group for the sake of the gospel,” we can too, he said. “We keep that in front of our people all the time, so they can see: Through the Spirit of God and love of God it was overcome before, and it can be overcome again.”
It’s worth trying, he said. “What began as a great experiment is now becoming a grand experience.”