(Photo: River Pointe Church)
A full-page advertisement published in the Houston Chronicle on Thursday shows a megachurch pastor leaning on sign that reads, "Am I Too White to Be Your Pastor?"
Patrick Kelley, senior pastor of River Pointe Church in Richmond, Texas, is the man shown in the ad, that promotes the church's upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. King famously said, "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning" – a statement Kelley agrees with.
River Pointe is located in Fort Bend County, which Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg calls the most ethnically diverse county in the nation, according to The New York Times. Kelley told CP his church is probably one of the most diverse churches in America, and he posed such a "shocking" question on such a sensitive topic because many people are uncomfortable with discussing the issue of race and the church.
"I think the best way to do that is in a real, up front way," he said.
The question in the ad is one he also posed to strangers in Sugar Land, Texas, several years ago, as can be seen in a video on the church's YouTube channel.
His straightforward approach is one of the reasons his church has found success as a multiracial congregation, he says, because in addition to his boldness he is also open about his own ignorance of other cultures and is willing to apologize for it.
Michael Emerson, another Rice University sociologist, defines a multiracial congregation as one in which less than 80 percent of the congregation belongs to any single racial group, he wrote in an article published last year. While only a fraction of American congregations are multiracial, he wrote, the percentage such congregations rose significantly from 7.4 percent to 13.7 percent between 1998 and 2010.
River Pointe, which is attended by about 4,200 people each weekend, is about 65 percent white, says Kelley, with the rest of the congregation belonging to a variety of different races. In the next four to five years he expects his church to continue changing until only half of his congregation is white.
When Kelley moved to Fort Bend County 18 years ago to start the church, however, he says his focus was not on making it racially diverse. He wanted to live out the Great Commission, he says, but in order to have an effective ministry in Fort Bend County he had to learn to dialogue with a wide variety of people.
"I don't think it's an admirable goal to be diverse," he said. "I think it's an admirable goal to be effective where God's planted you."
When someone is looking for a place to worship, Kelley says, factors such as a church's transparency, authenticity and effectiveness have become more important than its predominant race or style of worship. The gospel is "trans-cultural," he says, and it is a message of mercy and grace for everyone.
"Now, I think, we're living in this post-segregation age where people aren't just looking for the black church, the white church, the Hispanic church," he said. "I think they're looking for an effective church that's going to speak the truth with love and be authentic in their faith and challenge people to grow in Jesus."
River Pointe's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration will be held this weekend at each of the church's two campuses. The congregation has assembled a 120-voice gospel choir for the event, and Kelley will be teaching a lesson on faith, diversity and God's faithfulness.