“Am I too white to be your pastor?”
That’s the question posed in a recent promotional campaign for River Pointe Church in suburban Houston. The church published full-page color ads featuring a picture of their pastor, Patrick Kelley, holding a sign bearing the borderline-bombastic message in the Houston Chronicle, encouraging people to attend their special Sunday worship service marking Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend.
It was, of course, King who delivered the damning verdict that “Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America.” The apparent persistence of the racial segregation of American church services has been a source of great shame for many evangelicals.
River Pointe Church seems to be changing that narrative. Its congregation is roughly one-third minority and offers a great deal of multicultural programming. In fact, its MLK weekend celebration featured a 70-voice gospel choir. River Pointe is located in Fort Bend County, which has been ranked the most diverse county in America. In 2010, the county’s residents were 19 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black and 36 percent white. Numbers like this are how Houston has surpassed New York and Los Angeles as the most diverse metropolitan area in the country.
Before Kelley planted River Pointe in 1996, he had lived only in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. Fort Bend County’s diversity surprised him. “My kids were bringing home friends from school who weren’t white,” Kelley confessed, “It made me recognize that I had a problem in my own life.”
So Kelley started meeting with retired NBA player, Reggie Slater, to try to figure out how his church could better reflect the diversity of its location. During those conversations Kelley first asked the question, “Am I too white to be your pastor?” Slater responded, “I don’t know man, you’re pretty white.”
Slater wasn’t just joking at Kelley’s expense. Kelley understands that in order for Slater or other minorities to worship at River Point, they have to surrender cultural comfort and familiarity. Slater admitted he had to give up something but acknowledged that church wasn’t supposed to be about the individual.
River Pointe’s makeup is part of a larger trend. Sociologist Mark Chaves has measured a dramatic increase in the proportion of megachurches that are racially and ethnically diverse. In 1998, Chaves’ National Congregation Study reported that just 6 percent of large evangelical churches had a minority population greater than 20 percent of their members. Less than a decade later, the same metric found that 25 percent of such congregations were diverse.
Suburban megachurches and the Evangelical subculture have worked for racial reconciliation for decades. The parachurch ministry Promise Keepers that boomed in the 1990s placed a great emphasis on this issue, while Contemporary Christian Music artist dcTalk harmonized about the church’s multi-ethnicity, “We are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace.”
But River Pointe doesn’t spend a lot of time of reconciliation. “Promise Keepers and that era of reconciliation built the platform of safety that we’re now operating within, but that’s not the conversation we’re having anymore,” Kelly said. Instead, the constant drumbeat at River Pointe is finding a way to learn from our differences. “If everyone in your small group is just like you, you aren’t going to grow very much in Christ.”
With that attitude, maybe it is time for some of the old stereotypes to be retired. Today’s suburbs are more and more diverse and the suburban megachurches are making King’s old charge less and less accurate.