(Photo: Hope Connexion Orlando via The Christian Post)
The church is coming, says Bishop Harry Jackson, leader of a new community of faith being developed in Central Florida that will launch next year. The plant, Hope Connexion Orlando, will serve as a clarion call for the Christian Church to confront its prejudices and take on its prophetic role of speaking truth to power in its own communities and abroad. Or at least, that's the vision.
Despite the growing presence of diverse congregations across the U.S. that mirror the biblical image of Jesus Christ's followers being of every nation, tribe and language, there are still cases in which some churches and Christians seem to stumble over the explicit command for diversity Christ makes in the Great Commission and that the first century church modeled.
Last year, a Mississippi Baptist church made headlines because its predominantly white congregation denied a black couple's wish to be married at the church by their pastor allegedly due to their race. The year before, a Kentucky pastor reversed his congregation's vote to bar interracial couples from becoming members. There have also been questions about white churches having black leaders, predominantly black churches embracing white leaders and the apparent oddity of a Korean-American pastor leading a "predominantly African-American" congregation."
"We've made some progress, but still there are a lot of places where you don't see multiracial churches with black leaders, so we feel that we want to create a church environment that can help bridge the racial divide in the nation and can be an incubator for us really presenting both sides of the Gospel," Jackson told The Christian Post.
Jackson is senior pastor of the culturally diverse 3,000-member Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., which holds Bible study meetings at the Family Research Council. He is a staunch advocate of conservative values and has been featured prominently in the media for his activism against redefining marriage in Washington, D.C. Jackson is also founder and president of the 30,000-member High Impact Leadership Coalition (HILC) and the year-old International Communion of Evangelical Churches (ICEC) that includes 12-15,000 member churches and of which he is the presiding bishop. The ICEC's goal is to destroy stereotypes, unite black and white churches and equip congregations and ministries to engage the culture and respond to their communities' needs. The stated vision of HILC, whose core values "focus on families, wealth creation, education, and healthcare," is to "provide practical strategies for every person to affect change in their families, communities, states, and ultimately across America."
As Jackson has observed, based on one's ethnicity, evangelical Christians have a tendency to gravitate toward either righteousness or justice issues – that is, speaking out on marriage and life issues or advocating for the poor, imprisoned and other marginalized members of society.
"So blacks often look at their engagement in culture through the lens of justice and they want to see biblical justice in the world," said Jackson.
"Many times, on the other side though, white evangelicalism predominantly see these matters of righteousness…but they often minimize and don't engage as much around the justice issues. So there's always this tension of one group saying of the other, 'Well if you were really, really, really sincere in your faith, then you would see how important dealing with immigration reform is."
Reconciliation on these two tenets of the Gospel is possible, according to Jackson, when Christians of all stripes worship together, develop relationships together, walk together and live out the fellowship they may enjoy inside churches "more dynamically in the marketplace, and engage in the culture."
The Pentecostal bishop and his partners say a new church plant in the Orlando, Fla.-area, scheduled to make its official debut in January 2014, embodies that vision and will hopefully serve as a catalyst for driving the Christian Church toward a new type of engagement and activism. Jackson and his team anticipate that those more inclined to issues of righteousness will be the first ones to walk through the doors of Hope Connexion Orlando, while they believe minority members will eventually follow suit.
"We believe [that] in this area…because of the area we're moving in, it's predominantly a Caucasian community although it is interracial, yes. We believe white Americans would be attracted to the church and probably come in the door first, but please know that our vision is to reach all types of people and to have a multiracial church," clarified De Powell when asked about intentionally targeting white residents. Powell, an HILC representative and also a member of Jackson's Hope Christian Church, relocated from D.C. to Florida to work with ministry strategist Doug Murren in getting Hope Connexion Orlando off the ground.
Although the church plant in Orlando is new and its focus on growing a multiracial congregation uniquely intentional, Bishop Jackson believes his previous experience can help fulfill the current model he's pursuing.
Jackson and his wife founded a congregation over 30 years ago in upstate New York that broke ground due to the fact that he was a black man leading a congregation that was 95 percent white, with a "handful of African-Americans." That reality was so jarring to some in the Corning, N.Y., community that Christian Hope Center, as it is still called and now under white leadership, endured being labeled a "cult" at its start and dismissed by some as "that black church."
"Some people even got written out of the wills of their families and were ostracized – again you're talking 1981," said Jackson. "But the church took hold and did very well. The converts stayed true, stayed strong."
Such a congregation "was definitely considered radical in those days because in 1981, black people and white people just didn't go to church together," he added, noting cultural differences, worship styles and segregation laws as some of the factors in why he believes the black Church was "orphaned by the white-led church in America."
Growing Church Diversity Trend
According to a June 2009 report from the National Congregations Study, predominantly white congregations have become slightly more diverse, although much of the diversity is attributed to changes in Catholic parishes and growing Hispanic and immigrant populations. If a congregation is comprised of more than 80 percent of a single racial group, then it is lacking diversity, according to the NCS. The percent of congregations with more than 80 percent white participation, the organization reports, dropped from 72 percent to 63 percent between the period of 1998 and 2006-2007. The trend is reflected in congregations that show an increase in some Hispanic, immigrant, Asian and African-American participation.
Faith Communities Today's 2010 national survey suggested that the nation's growing immigrant population is "by and large, creating its own congregations rather than participating in historically white congregations." The multifaith coalition's 2010 FACT report also noted that racial/ethnic minority congregations are: disproportionately Evangelical Protestant or Non-Christian; disproportionately urban and Southern ("if you include the historically black denominations, Western for other racial/ethnic groups"); more contemporary in worship styles; and theologically more moderate to liberal.
While multiethnic congregations are emerging, there simply are just not enough churches in the U.S., and communities are in need of services that the Church is uniquely equipped to provide, according to Jackson and his team.
"Only about 17.7 percent of the United States actually goes to church," said Murren. "All the polls say 45 percent, but the more realistic polls are around 17.7 percent, so there really aren't enough churches."
He added that "church planting is one of the main ways the culture gets evangelized."
Hope Connexion Church as a Future Model
Murren, a former megachurch pastor who has been involved in ministry for about 30 years, is helping to rally support for Hope Connexion in Orlando, of which Jackson serves as lead pastor. Hope Connexion – the "x" will appear as a cross in the church logo – is being developed less than 30 minutes from Orlando in the Lake Nona-area, a community under redevelopment to become a major medical, educational and research hub, according to its property owners. The 7,000-acre "master planned community" is home to about 21,000 residents, most of whom are white, followed by a strong Hispanic population, a smaller black population and an even smaller Asian population. Based on a 2012 U.S. Census estimate, Orange County, to which Lake Nona belongs, included a population of 1.2 million people. In 2011, 70 percent of the population was white, 27.5 percent of Hispanic or Latino origin, 21.7 percent black, and 5.2 percent Asian. According to Murren, Lake Nona reflects the demographics of the general county.
Hope Connexion Orlando is also less than an hour's drive from Sanford, where black teen Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a white, Hispanic neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. The case, like the one that occurred months later involving the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen Jordan Davis by white gun collector Michael David Dunn, led to observers alleging racism as a factor, in addition to decrying Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law.
It is in tense, divisive situations like these where the Christian Church should be most present, said Jackson, who described race as "one of the remaining major frontiers for both the Church and Society." He believes that once the Christian Church fully incarnates the biblical vision of unity in diversity, it can be used by God as an instrument for social reformation, and Murren agrees.
"In the area, we want to develop a church life that is multiethnic and multiracial," explained Murren. "Some parts of the Orlando-area, such as Sanford up north and other areas, there's been a lot of racial tension, a lot of segregation. One of the things we feel that God has brought us here for is to be a healing to that. We also want to be an incubator for developing other ministries into the area, so one of the things we're going to be doing is having a ministry institute here as well that will equip people in answering practical needs in the community."
"One of the things we really believe in is equipping every person in the church to be emissaries of the kingdom of God where they are," he added. "So we see a church that would be involved in practical acts of kindness and developing the ministries that would reach people who are passionately concerned about the customary social issues of evangelical churches which is abortion, we're concerned about that. We're concerned about marriage, life and we're also very concerned about the poor."
Jackson added, "One of our goals would be, as we're known, as we're winning souls, as we're serving people, is that we also would help the residential community and the church community come together."
In anticipation of Hope Connexion Orlando's September pre-event and full January 2014 launch, Jackson, Murren and the High Impact Leadership Coalition's Powell are pulling together a core group of local leaders and community members who share their vision of developing and growing a righteousness-and-justice-minded multiethnic congregation.
Jackson's team has organized preview events and is developing music and child ministry teams in anticipation of the launch. Murren added that there were several churches in the area that have been offering encouragement and praying with them, such as First Baptist Church of Orlando, a 14-000 member congregation.
Murren, noted for founding a church of 10 in his living room that eventually grew to 8,000 members, has lent his services to about 123 church plants and brings 12 years of leadership training and church growth and planting experience to the ICEC project. He also serves as the new plant's campus pastor/ministry director.
Top on Murren's list of requirements for developing a strong church plant are having a "good, clear vision" and a "strong core of people who are committed to the vision." He also emphasized the need for an authentic and open environment that is accepting and forgiving.
While acknowledging the good being accomplished by already established faith communities in the Orlando-area and expressing a desire to join alongside them in their work, Bishop Jackson said he is looking to inspire sociocultural reformation and racial reconciliation that could inspire the nation, much like Martin Luther King Jr. did 60 years ago during the Civil Rights movement that started in Montgomery, Ala., and led several years later to the March on Washington.
King, who managed to bring together Americans of all stripes to fight against social and racial injustices, is often credited with declaring that he found it "appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning."
"Very much the healing of the race problem and any other problem has got to begin with the Church being healed from her own prejudice, the Church learning how to receive each other and work together. As we do that, John 17 says that when we're one, the world will know that the Father sent Jesus. There's a corporate witness that will come to the Orlando-area as the Church, not just the Hope Connexion in Orlando. When the whole church works together there will be a witness to the reality of Christ," said Jackson.
"I really feel as though that's exactly what we need to do," added Powell. "Basically, when we can start worshiping together, no one can bring up that line that Sunday is the most segregated day. When we can stop saying that, then we've accomplished something. Right now that's what we want to do in Orlando, we want to be an example."