(By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, The Gospel Coalition). Craig Strickland planted Hope Church [EPC]—the largest white Presbyterian congregation in America with about 6,600 weekly attendees—back before church planting was cool.
He had been working at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, watching “people from the Baptist church leaving to join the Presbyterian church, where people were leaving to join the Methodist church. We weren’t putting any new fish in the bowl.”
Strickland wanted to make changes, but as the executive pastor, he wasn’t exactly the guy in charge. And “to be fair, I wasn’t getting any job offers from other churches looking for a senior pastor,” he said.
So he decided to start his own. It was 1988, the era of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church, when the formula for church planting was clear:
- Find an area growing economically.
- Make 30,000 phone calls asking people who don’t have a church home if they’d mind receiving some mail from you.
- Send them five pieces of mail telling them about your new church.
If you do that, experts said, around 300 will come the first day, settling down into an average of 120 a week later.
That was exactly what happened. “I’m telling you, it was spooky—it was down to the exact number,” said Eli Morris, who soon jumped on as Strickland’s associate pastor.
The racial makeup was just as predictable. The geographical areas growing economically in the 1980s were white-flight suburbs kept homogeneous by real estate redlining. The Unchurched Harry and Mary that seeker-sensitive churches were looking for were friends and family of those already attending.
The principles were solid: Churches should reflect their neighborhoods, and relationships are a good way to show God’s love to the unchurched. But the results were decidedly monoethnic congregations.
Within 20 years, Hope was the largest church in Memphis, regularly drawing 7,000 worshipers each weekend. But in a city that was nearly 60 percent black, less than 1 percent of them were African American.
At first, Hope reflected its neighborhood. The city to Hope’s south—Germantown—was 93 percent white in 2000, and 90 percent white in 2010. But its county—Shelby—fell from 47 percent white in 2000 to 41 percent white in 2010. And Cordova, the small suburb where Hope sits, dropped from nearly all white in 1988 to 68 percent white in 2010.
So Strickland and Morris set out to do what had never successfully been done before—to convert a white megachurch into a multiracial congregation.
They’re doing it.