Bringing It Home: The Role of Diversity in the Local Church
A popular speaker on the Biola campus as well as across the country, Bryan Loritts continues to challenge people of all walks of life to passionate Christianity. Bryan earned his Bachelors of Science in Bible and Pastoral Studies at Philadelphia Biblical University and his Masters in Theology at Talbot School of Theology. His ministry experience includes serving at churches such as Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, California, Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, California, and Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bryan is currently the Lead Pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Memphis, Tennessee which is a multicultural church targeted towards ministering to the evolving community of urban Memphis. In this interview, Bryan shares his heart for building a diverse congregation and for Christians to embrace the ministry of reconciliation.
Can you give a glimpse into your journey that led you to pastor an ethnically diverse congregation?
I grew up moving in and out of different cultures as a result of the schools I attended and the ministry my parents were involved in. Multi-ethnicity has been something I have been familiar with from a young age. Unfortunately, due to some racism I experienced while in Bible College I found myself very jaded in my early twenties, especially towards conservative white evangelicals. As my preaching ministry began to grow I noticed I was preaching primarily to homogenous groups, either an all African American audience or an all white audience. When I was about 26 years old I began to question why aren’t we coming together. It was at this time in my life that I began this journey of questioning and exploring how can we come together as well as exploring introspectively what can I do to be a part of the solution. That is how I came to be a part of a congregation that is multi-ethnic and committed to racial reconciliation.
Was it your intention from the start to be a multi-ethnic church and what steps did you take to implement this?
For the church I am currently the lead pastor at, in Memphis, Tennessee, it was indeed the intent and dream to be multi-ethnic from day one. It is our intention to be an instrument of racial reconciliation in a city that has historically and currently had division along racial lines. As far as specific steps we purposed that our leadership team from the highest levels had to be diverse. Those who had the power to make decisions in our church had to be from different cultures to bring different perspectives. Myself being the lead pastor also was intentional because we wanted to make a statement to the city that white people need to submit to African American leadership.
Can you briefly describe the demographics of your church and city?
As far as the demographics of our church, we currently have 400 members. About 70% are white and 30% are African American. However, the demographics of our city are the reverse. Memphis is a city that is about 62% African American. Where I have a concern regarding Memphis is while it is predominately an African American city in terms of its population, it is run by a white power structure. The major power base, which is economic, is white. This issue has been a tension in our city.
What is your church background and did you specifically go to Memphis to plant this church?
My church background has been diverse in several ways. Socio-economically I worked in churches that were in high socio-economic brackets as well as middle to lower middle class. Theologically I have worked in charismatic churches as well as conservative churches. The denominations range from Congregational to Presbyterian to Baptist to Bapticostal. My background has been all over the map, which has helped me to wrestle with what are the essentials and what is not as to what I believe. Much of these churches were homogenous, either all white or all black. All of these experiences have helped further cement my passion to pastor a multi-ethnic congregation.
Fellowship Memphis is a church plant. The reason why we went to Memphis to plant this church is because of the historical racial divide. Memphis is the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and there are still wounds that exist over that. Around the corner from where I live there is a church that began in the early 70s when they split from another church that decided to allow African Americans to join them and they wanted to create a safe haven for whites only. There are private Christian schools that were started when integration was being implemented in the early 70s because conservative white Christians did not want their kids going to school with African Americans. The racial divide runs deep there. We want to address this and bring some healing.
Different cultures and ethnic groups have different styles of music and preaching, what are you facing as you do ministry in a multi-ethnic context?
One of the nice things about planting a church is that you don’t have to fight sacred cows. We searched long and hard to find a worship leader that could implement music that would minister to white and African American members. We found a worship leader that has a style that has a jazz feel and this has gone over well in a city that has a historically jazz and blues culture. In my preaching style I try to find a balance that gives a strong exegetical emphasis mixed with a strong sense of passion. I do try to strike a balance in my preaching that has broad appeal. Overall I have found that when you preach the word the Lord gives His blessing regardless of your blunders and mistakes.
How do you feel Christian leadership today hinders or enhances peoples of diverse backgrounds coming together?
The issue of racial reconciliation today is a hot topic and everyone is saying we want to be more diverse. However it is only lip service until you make some hard calls and one of them is that there has to be people of color in the highest level of leadership. This means diversity represented on our Board of Trustees and even including the presidency. Another aspect is what we spend our money on really communicates what our priorities are. I know of organizations that say they want to be diverse but they have only one African American on their Board that consists of twenty-five members. Here is where is the hard calls and sacrifices come in making changes to be authentically more diverse. It has to be from the top down rather than from the bottom up.
Many are aware of the homogenous unit principle, which acknowledges that people do not like to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries to become Christians or join a church. What is your response?
I think that the homogenous principle flourished in a very modern world. I think one of the beauties of post modernity is that it does value diversity. People living in a postmodern world value pluralism on many levels but in particular are people of diverse cultures. I don’t think that the homogenous unit principle fits culturally in a postmodern world. The business world values diversity. The media and movie industry projects diversity. There has been a drastic cultural shift in which the homogenous principle is like a dinosaur now. Theologically I never thought it had leg to stand on. When we look at Acts chapter two we see the early church was formed in the midst of a diverse group of people who came to Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. From day one the early church was diverse. Paul wrote to churches such as the church in Rome, were to diverse congregations comprised of both Jew and Gentile. The homogenous unit principle does not stand for me.
From your perspective, what are some of the necessary components for a culturally diverse congregation/organization to succeed?
As I have previously mentioned, you need to be intentional about having diversity reflected in your leadership from the highest levels. Secondly, you need to be intentional about having diversity reflected in the music in your worship service. I know that some churches have several congregations from different cultures sharing the same building but worship at different times. We are seeking to have diversity in our worship service and push the limits in seeking to make this work.
One of the challenges we are facing as a church is theological diversity. What I mean by this is not having differing views on the essentials of the faith. There are essentials of the faith that you have to agree on in order to join our church such as the atonement and salvation by grace through faith. What I am referring to are the non-essentials such as differing views on the second coming of Christ or the gifts of the Spirit. The African American church members have been coming to us from historically black churches and do bring a different theological perspective that do those in our congregation that come from conservative white congregations which I am also very excited about. At our church there are people who hold to a cessationist view of the sign gifts. The majority of these folks are white. In other words they do not believe that speaking in tongues is for today. There are also a growing number of people in our church who do believe that tongues are for today. The majority of these folks are African American. The question we are constantly coming back to how do we hold to what we believe but not allowing it to divide us as a Body of Christ. We stand firm on the essentials and we give room with the non-essentials. I think the challenge of reconciliation is to acknowledge that we are all different. I am not threatened by this challenge, as we deal with this issue I am excited to see how we deal with this doctrinal difference in our midst.
For those who have never considered the importance of an ethnically and culturally diverse church experience, what would you say to them?
First and foremost, diversity in the church is on God’s heart. You can’t read the scriptures without seeing repeatedly that God loves the world. Even in the covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis chapter twelve, the Lord was clear that He was to bless Abraham and his people in order to bless the world. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ then you must have His passion for the world. That is where it all starts. If I love God, and God loves the world, then I must love the world as a follower of Jesus Christ. On a more interpersonal level, we all bear the burden of reaching out and engaging with people who are different than us. It is a shame that the world is doing this better than we are. I have the personal responsibility to relate to someone who is different than I am. What we are doing at our church is encouraging our members to do simple things on a regular basis. Step out of your comfort zone on a daily basis. Be intentional about interacting and connecting with people who are different than you. Shop in a different part of town than you are accustomed to. We have a responsibility to grow in our appreciation of diversity both on a personal level as well as a church collectively.