Real Life Church, Sacramento ENJOYREALLIFE.COM
Leading a Church That 'Looks Like Heaven'
Real Life Church marks its ninth anniversary this year, but for Lead Pastor Scott Hagan, the multicultural, multisite church is the continuation of a story that stretches back to 1990. That's when Hagan planted a different church just south of Sacramento, California. Located in an area once noted for Ku Klux Klan activity, Harvest Church today has a congregation of 2,000-plus and is 70 percent African-American.
"That's where the term 'The church that looks like heaven' began," says Hagan, who recently attended Harvest's 25th-anniversary service. "I travel all over the nation, and you'd be hard-pressed to find something as supernatural as what's happened at Harvest Church and Real Church."
The Assembly of God church planter led Harvest for 11 years before relocating across the country to serve an already-established church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There he transformed a largely white megachurch into a multiethnic congregation.
However, after five years the desire to plant a church led him to return to California. Along with his wife, Karen, and a core group of families, Hagan launched a new church plant in January 2006 at a Sacramento elementary school.
Today Real Life has grown to six sites, most in California but with the newest opening in March just north of Columbus, Ohio. Five of the sites are within 100 miles of the church's main campus in the northwest area of Sacramento.
About three-fourths of Real Life's total of 2,000 members attend its main Arena campus. Of all members, 40 percent come from non-Anglo backgrounds—primarily African-American, Hispanic or Filipino.
Half of Real Life's 20 full- and part-time staff members at its main campus are non-white, a blend reflected on its other campuses as well. Most are located in economically distressed areas, which Hagan attributes to following Psalm 68:6, which talks about God setting the solitary in families.
Like the Good Samaritan, he says churches need to be located where society's most abandoned souls live.
"We have located in tougher neighborhoods, not gated communities with high-earning incomes," Hagan says. "Our Artisan campus (about 6 miles south of Arena) is in 'the hood.' "
While some multisite churches use a closed-circuit hookup to broadcast the same Sunday message, Real Life is more of a network. Hagan covers a weekly theme and direction with his staff, but campus pastors preach their own sermons.
In addition to a weekly Skype conference, the lead pastor visits each site throughout the year for teaching and training. The churches also have six network-wide meetings or conferences annually.
Hagan says drawing and teaching a multicultural congregation starts with love, since people can easily detect it when their presence is tolerated rather than celebrated.
"Jesus loved without suspicion," Hagan says. "People can feel when you're hesitant toward them. I put it this way—it's about removing the distractions from the relationship."
Real Life teaches that legalism and racism are the two Goliaths that war against God's kingdom. In almost every story of restoration in the Bible, one or both of those elements caused the damage, he says.
Though Hagan has a sermon series called "The Cross of Many Colors" that he delivers periodically, he may go for several years without mentioning race from the pulpit.
"I preach a strong biblical theology of unity," Hagan says. "I try to guide people, not control them. But beyond the fundamentals, there is a genuine love for people where we're all learning and are appreciative of one another."
Real Life's diverse makeup can be seen the moment someone walks in the front door, but it extends beyond the worship platform. The week riots erupted last summer in racially divided Ferguson, Missouri, the church held a baptismal party by the Sacramento River that became a practical demonstration of diversity.
Since Hagan helps lead a city-wide worship experience the weekend of Martin Luther King's birthday, Real Life holds its annual "Night to Unite" the last weekend of January.
In addition to these elements, Hagan is optimistic about what he sees as an "exponential" growth in the numbers of Christians drawn to the message of diversity.
"There's such a hunger to understand the principles it's built on," the pastor says. "There's a tremendous receptivity in young leaders' hearts. I'm so energized. This can be the church's finest hour at demonstrating what politics cannot." —Ken Walker
Trinity Church, Miami TRINITYCHURCH.TV
From Marginalized to Recognized
When Pastors Rich and Robyn Wilkerson arrived at Trinity Church in Miami, Florida, with their four boys, they experienced culture shock. Moving from Tacoma, Washington, to serve a primarily black church membership of 500 who daily battled poverty, the Wilkersons quickly went through their savings.
"My mindset and mission was to this group," says Senior Pastor Rich Wilkerson. "They were my purpose, but it was down and dirty initially."
"My wife saw a proposal to bid for day-camp government contracts in the newspaper," Wilkerson says.
She landed the $175,000 contract. This enabled their first summer day camp that served 500 kids.
"That was 15 years ago," Wilkerson says. "We've received $27 million in government funding since then. We do food distribution and parent training."
In 2006, the church started helping children visit their incarcerated parents, which is now funded by the state.
Because of this kind of community outreach, Peacemakers Family Center (part of Trinity Church) was recognized in December 2014 by Florida Governor Rick Scott with the Champion of Service Award.
Currently 10,000-12,000 call Trinity Church their home. The congregation is composed of 80 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic and "5 percent anything else," Wilkerson says.
The congregation reaches young adults, too, at its Tuesday Night Rendezvous attended by 1,200. Wilkerson's son Rich Jr. serves as pastor of that group.
"These are all young professionals, studying to be doctors and lawyers. Eighty-five to 90 percent were raised in poverty, but now have stepped out of it. Nearly two-thirds of these young adults once attended our day camps. They turned into brilliant young adults [and] are now rocking their world," the pastor says.
Wilkerson calls Pastor Tommy Barnett his "big brother in the Lord," citing two key things Barnett said.
The first bit of advice Barnett offered was if you'll take the people that nobody wants, God will give the people that everybody wants. Trinity Church ministered to the marginalized, but ended up connecting with high-profile people too.
Wilkerson offers this example: "My son married Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Most Christians reviled that, but we're after lost people."
Barnett's second word was if you work the disenfranchised with all your heart, your kids will not be lost to the devil or the world.
"The kids cannot deny their parents' faith because they see you down in the mud and the blood," Wilkerson says. "There's no money there. All there is is love." —Mary DeMuth
U-City Family Church, St. Louis UCITYFAMILYCHURCH.COM
Church Practices Listening in Racially Charged St. Louis
Six miles from the epicenter of America's racial tension (Ferguson, Missouri), U-City Family Church quietly and purposefully loves its community.
The church holds services in the historic Tivoli Theatre on Delmar Boulevard in University City in downtown St. Louis. The street represents the "Delmar Divide" that forms a stiff boundary between the white population to the south and predominantly black community to the north.
But U-City beautifully represents its demographic, 48 percent black, 48 percent white and 4 percent other. Pastor Brent Roam describes his approach: "We don't have any particular program or curriculum that discusses diversity (though it regularly comes up in sermons). Diversity is simply one of our core values."
In Ferguson's aftermath, Roam felt the weight of his pastoral responsibility.
"In a multiracial church like ours, it was a challenge to address those events," he says.
So he had purposeful conversations in small groups, seeking to understand people's perspectives.
"It's our duty to seek to understand the other person," Roam says. "If we don't agree, at least we can respect and honor the view of others."
With such a diverse congregation, he shifted them back to identity.
"Their primary identity has to be in Christ," he says.
A U-City member had an idea post-Ferguson. Since the school children had been out of school two weeks, why not welcome them when they went back to school? So 25-30 church volunteers went to every school bus stop on the first day back to classes, handing out muffins and juice boxes. —Mary DeMuth
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