"The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning."
Sixty years later, that statement by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is still true for many churches. But Bryan Loritts, lead pastor at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Silicon Valley, California, is part of a growing movement to guide American churches through the process of becoming multiethnic communities, and he’s hopeful about the progress he’s seen.
Loritts pastored a successful multiethnic church plant, Fellowship Memphis Church in Tennessee, for 12 years before taking his current position at Trinity Grace in 2015. He is also the president for KAINOS Movement, a nonprofit organization that helps multiethnic churches become the new normal.
The 80/20 Rule
For Loritts and others working to increase diversity within their churches, the goal is to reflect the demographic makeup of their cities. The term “multiethnic” refers specifically to church communities that meet what sociologists call “the 80/20 rule.”
“To be considered multiethnic, there can’t be one ethnicity that makes up more than 80 percent of your congregation. So if you have 100 people and 79 of them are white and 21 are other, you’re multiethnic. If 81 are Hispanic and 19 are other, you’re not. Using that benchmark, only about 2.5 percent of all churches were multiethnic five years ago.”
Today, that number is somewhere between 8 and 14 percent—an encouraging shift that Loritts attributes to two factors: “Globalization, or what some have called the flattening of the world, has created an expressed desire for more multiethnic churches. Communities and schools are becoming more diverse. The average neighborhood is 10 times more diverse than its churches, and schools are on average 20 times more diverse than churches in the same community. Urbanization is another factor. People are moving back into cities, which has contributed not only to more diversity, but also the need for churches to meet the growing trend of urbanization. Church planters in cities have seen this need from day one.”
When Loritts and his team were looking to plant a church in 2003, they chose the city of Memphis specifically because of its diverse makeup and its history. “Memphis is a city steeped in racism. Dr. King was assassinated here. There’s a statue in one of Memphis’ parks dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK. Tim Keller says, when you walk into any given city, you have to address its idols. The concept of Fellowship Memphis directly pushes back against the racism built into the city to say, ‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’ ”
“There’s a power in visibly having a body of believers with faces of different ethnicities, worshiping Jesus Christ together and loving each other. The church started with 26 people, and I was the only piece of chocolate in the room. As of today, the church has 2,000 regular attendees across three locations—about 65 percent white and 35 percent black.”
The Necessity of Multiethnicity
Loritts’ experience with Fellowship Memphis shows a black and white dichotomy that reflects the city’s demographics, but diversity looks different in each community. He sees multiethnic churches as a necessity. “Our neighborhoods and cities are already trending toward diversity, and I think we should be doing everything we can in our churches to mirror and reflect the faces in our communities. Even if your community is predominantly one ethnicity, it’s important to question the history and trends of your area to see how your community has grown and changed. Those answers will help you decide who you should be reaching out to in your community.”
Loritts finds a biblical mandate for multiethnic churches in Paul’s words to the Ephesian church in Ephesians 2:11–22. “We often hear pastors preach on the first half of Ephesians 2, which deals with our vertical reconciliation to God. Many churches act as if Ephesians 2 ends with verse 10: ‘For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works.’ Reconciliation to God is of first importance, but right on the heels of that Paul talks about horizontal reconciliation. Gentiles, once strangers and aliens, have been brought near by the blood of Jesus, ‘and the dividing wall of hostility has been demolished.’ That’s huge.”
“Another influential passage is Revelation 5:9–10. John says he looked up in the heavens and saw people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Even the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12 reflects God’s future plans for reconciliation. When he says, ‘I’m going to bless you, Abraham,’ he’s talking about blessing Abraham’s descendants, and then blessing all the nations through his descendants. Even there we see God’s heart for all nations. When I was beginning to feel called to multiethnic ministry, those were some of the seminal passages for me.”
The Gift of Scripture
Loritts’ familiarity with Scripture stems from his upbringing. “Both of my parents modeled for me what it means to follow Christ. In elementary school, my dad and I had a standing weekly appointment at the local McDonald’s, and he’d write on napkins, teaching me about the Spirit-filled life and how to share my faith.”
“I grew up in a traditional black church that sincerely honored the text. My pastor was profoundly biblical in his preaching, and so if you didn’t bring your Bible to church, you were lost. I was kind of getting calibrated toward the whole notion of there’s no such thing as being serious about Christ without your Bible.”
Even so, Loritts says it took the sudden death of a 17-year-old friend to turn his full attention to the Lord. “When you’re 17, all of your questions are yet future. You tend to take tomorrow for granted. And so, sitting at his funeral, I knew I wanted to get serious about my walk with the Lord. I immediately started leading Bible studies, started preaching, and then went to Bible college.”
As for his Bible study, Loritts, like his father, gets his three sons involved. “I’m up early, and I’ll wake my 14-year-old, and we’ll do a Bible study together. And for the next three years, I’m giving each of them my personal study Bible. I buy a wide-margin Bible, and I’ll spend a year in it, reading about nine chapters a day. That will get me through it a little more than two times. And I write notes in the margin, addressed to the son I’ll give it to.”
Loritts reads Scripture in two very different ways. In his own study, he says, “I’m trying to look at the Scriptures from a 35,000-foot perspective. I fly at a high altitude and go really wide. That is separate from my sermon preparation, which tends to be razor focused on a specific passage, drilling really deep. I find the combination to be incredibly redemptive and sanctifying in my own faith walk with Jesus.”
Bible Study Revolution
Loritts believes that biblical literacy is diminishing in Western culture for several reasons. “I think the failure to disciple at home has a huge impact on biblical literacy. Also, our churches need to be focused on the Word. I can’t just look at the people in the pew and castigate them for not being as biblically literate as I’d like. I have to say we clergy have been an accomplice to the crime in placating a consumeristic culture that pretty much says, ‘Speak to my felt needs and do it in a timely fashion’—that equals ‘not being as biblically literate as you should be.’ I grew up in a church that had Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night Bible studies. I’m not necessarily advocating that, but if you’re doing that over a prolonged period, you’re going to know your Bible.”
Loritts believes that pastors should be on the forefront of both teaching Scripture and training congregants to respond to cultural issues. “There are a lot of cultural forces that provide wonderful opportunities to disciple our people, but I fear that our silence on issues is rendering them illiterate and ill-equipped to respond. For example, I don’t know of too many churches that are really going deep into the Scriptures and discipling people on how to relate to our friends in the gay community. So because of that silence we’re left to be discipled by the media. Some of us actually think there’s a verse that says, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’ And we’ve got to have something more to say. It’s we pastors who have got to be at the forefront of handing our people a biblical roadmap.”
Pain Leads to Passion
Loritts’ excitement for preaching goes back to watching his father preach in his childhood years. “My mom likes to tell how, at age 3, I asked for a microphone for Christmas so I could preach. She watched my first sermon, where I propped my Dr. Seuss book up on an antique milk can that was the right height for a podium, grabbed my microphone, and mimicked my dad.”
However, Loritts’ passion for multiethnic ministry has painful origins. “I’m a big believer that, many times, your greatest passions are birthed from your greatest pain. My own pathway into multiethnic ministry began the day in Bible school when one of my white classmates called me ‘n—.’ I was wounded by that, and I wish I could say I responded in a Christ-like way, but I didn’t. And I harbored unforgiveness for years. When I graduated seminary, I made a conscious decision not to work with white people.”
After finishing Bible school at Philadelphia Biblical University (now Cairn University), Loritts moved to southern California to attend Talbot School of Theology and thrived in a pastoral position at Faithful Central Bible Church, a predominantly African-American church in Inglewood, CA. But in the spring of 1998, as he was graduating with his master’s degree in theology, Loritts faced a turning point. “Two things happened that shook up my world. The first was meeting my future wife—Korie is half Mexican and half Irish, and I did not see that scenario coming. I always assumed I would marry an African American girl. Then Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena called, and God made it clear that I was to spend the next stage of my ministry there. I was to be the first African-American pastor in the church’s 105-year history.”
But God’s calling and a prestigious position didn’t mean Loritts was happy. “I walked into that church like Jonah walked into Nineveh. I was angry. One Sunday, a group of friends came to hear me preach, and afterward they said, ‘We listened for 45 minutes as you beat up your congregation with your sermon.’ In that moment I was confronted with my lack of forgiveness. I had allowed that one person and his ignorant words to have a hold over me. That moment of choosing to forgive, and the dear people of Lake Avenue Church loving me unconditionally, set me on a path of healing.”
During his time at Lake Avenue, Loritts’ itinerant preaching ministry began to grow, and he found himself speaking at many different venues. “I noticed that the crowds were either all black or all white. I began asking myself why that might be and praying that God might use me to be part of the solution in which people of different ethnicities came together.” A few years later, Loritts and his family moved to Tennessee and started Fellowship Memphis.
Many of the lessons from Loritts’ years of ministry are summed up in his 2014 leadership book, Right Color, Wrong Culture. He encourages churches trying to reach a specific ethnic group in their community to hire a staff member or pastor who represents that culture.
Loritts makes a careful distinction between race and culture. “In Acts 6 there’s a dispute between the Hellenistic Jews—those who assimilated into Greek culture—and the Hebraic Jews. Hellenists are what sociologists would call C1s—people of one ethnicity who have assimilated into another culture. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the C3s—the culturally inflexible. These are the Hebraic Jews. Between these two groups, and what a church looking to diversify should seek, is someone who is a C2—a person who is culturally adaptable and able to mediate between groups”—like the Apostle Paul.
“Paul describes himself before he met Christ as ‘of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.’ But in 1 Corinthians 9:20, he says, ‘To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.’ ”
“If you study Paul in the book of Acts, he walks into a city and asks where the synagogue is. He goes there, preaches the word, people get saved, and then he asks, ‘Where do the Gentiles hang out?’ He’s able to float in and out of different cultural contexts yet still be who he is. The most encouraging thing about that transformation is the implication that a C2 person is not born, but made. You become C2 by immersing yourself in the lives and narratives of others who don’t look like you. Minorities have a leg up on our white brothers and sisters in this area, because we have had to learn to relate to white people to be successful. Our white brothers and sisters can go through life and be successful without having to relate to minorities.”
Pastors of multiethnic churches must find a delicate balance when it comes to speaking the cultural language of their congregants. “To speak broadly, conservative white evangelicals have a reputation for valuing the cognitive and speaking to the intellect. Dr. Robert Smith Jr., in his book Doctrine That Dances talks about preaching that is both ‘cognitive and cardiological’—preaching that appeals to both the head and the heart. I believe there’s room to marry the two, but it has stretched me incredibly as a preacher.”
Beyond Step One
While hiring a multiethnic staff to attract a more diverse congregation is a significant move, Loritts points out that many people who attend multiethnic churches don’t actually have multiethnic personal relationships. In that sense, people feel like they are contributing to diversity without actually having to change their interactions.
“The picture that comes to mind is the Pro Bowl—the NFL All-Star game. Players come from their different teams, play in the event, and then go back to their separate teams. For a lot of people in multiethnic churches, Sunday morning is like that. It’s a big event, but then Monday through Saturday, they’re back in their own separate groups. Something in you has to be discontent with just a multiethnic sanctuary—you’ve got to want a multiethnic dinner table.”
Encouraging multiethnic relationships requires slowing down, establishing equity, and building relationships. But the payoff for laying that groundwork is enormous, and seeing lives transformed by genuine interactions with others is why Loritts continues his endeavors. “I love seeing a man like Kevin, who grew up in Memphis. He had never eaten dinner at a white person’s house until he was 43 years old and a part of our church. Joy is seeing him in his small group, laughing, and doing life with people who don’t think like him, look like him, or vote like him. That is incredible joy.”
He emphasizes that issues of diversity should be seen in the right context. “One of the things I would caution against is the temptation to be louder about the issues of diversity than the gospel. Look back to Ephesians 2. There’s no doubt in my mind that God has Ephesians 2 ordered the way it is. It begins with our vertical relationship with him because that is of first importance. Then the chapter ends with our horizontal relationship with each other. Both are important, but horizontal reconciliation cannot genuinely happen without vertical reconciliation to God first. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that the gospel is of first importance. Churches need to be gospel-centered, disciple-making, and multiethnic.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Lorritts’ transition from Trinity Grace Church in New York to Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, Calif. (announced after the March/April issue of Bible Study Magazine was printed).