Fellowship Memphis FELLOWSHIPMEMPHIS.ORG
Memphis Church Aims to Raise the 'Racial IQ' of Its Community
Dr. John Bryson had a dream to see more racial equality in the body of Christ. So he and about 30 family members and friends moved from Texas and other parts of the country to Memphis, Tennessee, to plant a church that would "raise the racial IQ" of its congregation and community.
Fellowship Memphis opened its doors in 2003 and now draws about 1,700 to its weekly services in downtown, East Memphis and Germantown. Bryson and about 60 percent of his congregation are white, 30-35 percent are African-American, and 5-10 percent are Asian and other ethnicities.
"We wanted to see the church make great strides—intergenerational, socio-economic, and with racial and cultural diversity," Bryson says. "We felt like if God can do that here in Memphis, a few miles from where Dr. King was assassinated, if we can rally around the gospel and be part of a movement to rechurch the South, then we can ultimately help press this issue into the whole country."
Fellowship Memphis makes race a focal point of its mission, reading books together on race and holding workshops, conferences and small group conversations around black-white issues, and ensuring its staff and elders represent the diversity in Memphis.
"It's a factor in every decision we make," Bryson says. "We believe everything changes when you are talking in proximity and in relationship. We recently had about 250 members, half Caucasian and half African-American, sit down for a discussion. I had an African-American mom share about raising African-American boys and how she has to teach them how to deal with the police. When that mom is part of your family, part of your church, someone you have relationship with, that changes things."
Bryson says Fellowship Memphis encourages members to become a part of each other's daily lives.
"Slowly, there has been some incredible progress," he says.
Since the church is known for being on the "offensive" on racial issues, Bryson said it has been able to hold forums on issues such as the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases. He says even with racial flare-ups around the country, his church has been able to continue the conversation about race in a way that is growing relationships.
"The frustration, at times, is when people hold onto their race and culture tighter than the body of Christ," Bryson says. "Dr. King said 60 years ago that 11:00 on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. We thought we could help change that. God created every combination of people, so I like to say if people don't like a diverse church, they're gonna hate heaven." —Natalie Gillespie
First Baptist, Orlando FIRSTORLANDO.COM
Saying Yes to 'a Church for Everybody'
First Baptist Church of Orlando never set out to be a culturally diverse church, though roughly 45 percent of attendees at the 19,000-member church is part of an ethnic minority group.
"The mission was not to integrate," says Senior Pastor David Uth. "The mission was not to create a diverse church. The mission was to reach this city. It just happens that [the] city was diverse."
Indeed, in the last 15 years, the Central Florida city has seen a growing number of residents from Haiti, Brazil and Puerto Rico. As a result, First Baptist now translates its English services into Spanish and Portuguese, has small groups for specific languages, including Russian and Mandarin, and hosts worship services in Creole and Portuguese, with tentative plans for Spanish and Arabic services.
But church leaders say they didn't necessarily pursue those ministry opportunities. In some cases, an individual offered to translate worship services into a particular language. In other cases, members asked for a language-specific small group. In every case, the church had a ready response.
"Our answer to everything is yes," says Danny de Armas, senior associate pastor. "We didn't create a model that says everything has to fit this way as much as we created a climate that says we want this to be a church for everybody."
De Armas, who is of Cuban descent, notes that sometimes hearing the gospel in one's "heart language" can make the message clearer. But church leaders are eager to build unity in the midst of their diversity, which is why language-specific events are never held at the same time as the church's main worship services.
"We want to connect with [people] in [their] heart language, but we don't want to segregate," de Armas says.
For First Baptist, building unity amid diversity also means being intentional about including the language ministries in every part of the church. The language ministry staff is part of the larger church staff, and they manage budgets, just like the church's other ministries do. Members of the language ministries serve as deacons and leaders in the church.
In the English worship services, choruses are sometimes sung in Spanish or Portuguese. Uth believes there is a beauty in seeing people from diverse cultures come together in worship because the church begins to look more like heaven. But he doesn't chide churches that are not densely diverse. Not every church exists in a community with as much diversity as Orlando, but he believes every church should reflect its community.
Although First Baptist is large, de Armas says a church's size doesn't have to determine its commitment to diversity. He says he's seen smaller churches that are doing even more to reach their diverse communities and larger churches that are doing very little.
Uth says pastors must first desire to become culturally diverse. Then they must lead by example and teach their way through change, emphasizing what the Bible says about diversity, such as the fact that God doesn't have favorites.
"Change for change is not good," Uth says. "Change because it reflects the Scripture, that's good."
While First Baptist is aggressive in its efforts to meet the needs of its changing community, de Armas says the church still has a lot to learn. He knows there are times when ethnic minorities visit the church and don't have the experience church leadership would like them to have.
"Our desire's there, and our congregation's desire is there to be the church that we feel God's called us to be," de Armas says. "But we still know that we have a lot of room to grow, a lot of ways that we can keep being welcoming to everybody, because all people matter to God, not just English-speaking American Christians." —Adrienne Gaines
Guts Church, Tulsa GUTSCHURCH.COM
Reaching People That No One Else Can
Guts Church started its mission in 1992 outside of the box, and continues to take that same approach to reach all kinds of people for Christ. Pioneered by Bill and Sandy Scheer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, they "believed God for diversity because at that time, the church at large was not diverse."
Guts continues to celebrate diversity today in a number of ways.
"We don't see diversity just as ethnicity, but any way people could be seen as divided: rich or poor, young or old," Bill Scheer says. "Our motto early in the church was to be relatable, authentic and genuine."
"We reach people no one else can," he adds. "That is how we look at it. So we want to be good at reaching the unchurched. We want to affirm the unloved, those who would usually be uncomfortable in church. When the church started, we initially attracted the biker community and those that would be considered 'alternative.' "
Every June, Guts Church hosts a Motorcycle Rally that reaches two communities: the local biker community and a community of orphans on the island of La Gonave, Haiti. The proceeds are used to feed children and drill water wells in Haiti.
Pastor Bill has given his life to the local church, a place that has sometimes been difficult for people.
"People who didn't like the idea of church weren't people who hadn't experienced it, but people who had a bad experience with it."
So he continually encourages his staff to truly understand the congregation.
"We have to find people's pace, tempo and rhythm. I'm constantly preaching to our staff and leaders that we have to be ahead of the game, we need to be out front—with honor, value, dignity."
Those three words inform the way Bill pastors. Honor. Value. Dignity. He takes his message to men, challenging them to display those characteristics, asking them difficult, pointed questions.
These three words also color the way he views racism. Although racial tension does exist, he has made a choice not to feed the issue.
"We make it a non-issue. If we make it an issue, it then becomes an issue," he says. "Within our range of motion, it boils down to the simplicity of honor. If we honor people, they're going to line up to the door to get in."
And as they file in, they'll see a variety of people on the worship team.
"We are intentional in having a diverse worship team. People have to be able to connect with who is on stage."
"I want to offer the solution," he says. "The answer to racism is always Jesus."
But he cautions that Satan often wants to stir up strife and battles.
"The enemy is going to pick a fight with us. The war's already been won. We're not going back to France to fight the Germans because the war is over. That's what a lot of this is. The tension we see today is frustration."
He stressed that a right relationship with God helps people deal with their frustration because He provides the kind of hope that won't disappoint.
Pastor Bill believes great growth comes from helping youth.
"You want to get into the heart of a family you help their kids," he says.
They have developed an unconventional way to reach the kids in their community every October. It's called "Nightmare," and it reaches thousands in their community with message of Jesus. "Nightmare" is a re-enactment of the top killers of teenagers, and it also portrays the price Christ paid on their behalf.
Guts Church also reaches families through a weekly grocery giveaway, a monthly men's lunch and a weekly Hispanic church service.
"I believe that everything should flow from the church—it's covenant," he says. "We communicate that God loves you where you are, but He doesn't want you to stay that way."
With an emphasis on growth (with steady, consistent growth for 23 years), there is also a foundation of grace.
"It is hard for me to look at someone who is in sin and judge them because of what God saved me from," says Scheer. "The grace of God and His mercies have been so powerful in my life."
Guts Church has become a safe place for those who felt marginalized.
"Those that felt they were dirty or an outcast have found a place to connect." —Mary DeMuth
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