When Two Churches Become One

Across the nation, more churches are leaving tradition behind and embarking on cross-cultural journeys

by Bonnie L. Sanders

Two years ago, when Pastor Andrew Cunningham of the predominantly white 91st Psalm Church in Phoenix asked Pastor Glenn Dennard of the mostly black Family of Faith Church to "come worship with us," he wasn't just talking about a Sunday-night choir exchange.

Today, the sign at the entrance of the Spanish-style stucco church building reads: "91st Psalm/Family of Faith". The two congregations became one worshipping body.

The members of the 91st Psalm/Family of Faith co-op are not alone. Across the nation, more congregations are giving serious thought to partnering with a church of a different race, and in some cases, like the one in Phoenix, they are remaking themselves as a single congregation.

"I always had a desire to see unity in the body of Christ," says Cunningham, "but as far as racism was concerned I was apathetic. My attitude was, "I'll do my thing and let everyone else do theirs." Cunningham says it was California pastor Jack Hayford's words at the 1996 Promise Keepers Clergy Conference in Atlanta that persuaded him to change. "When (Hayford) challenged us to, `Ask God to let you feel what your brother feels', I began to see things differently."

Dennard, who attended the clergy conference with Cunningham, had a similar epiphany. Soon, the two pastors (and their congregations) realized God was calling them together. They now share the same pulpit each week and rotate their times of preaching. Their vibrant worship is led by a mixed choir of black and white members, or as Dennard says, "darker hues and lighter hues."

In suburban Chicago, Destiny Church became another example of a black-white church merger, when in 1996 the predominantly black Destiny joined with the white congregation of First Baptist of Hoffman Estates. Co-pastors Allen Eaton, who is white, and Keith Russell Lee, who is black, say their merger came after months of prayer and honest discussion between the two churches.

These experiments in racial reconciliation are not always successful. Both the Phoenix and Hoffman Estates mergers resulted in the exodus of some disgruntled members. In other instances, congregations of different races may share the same building without actually worshipping together. Such is the case at St. Louis' Kingshighway Baptist Church, which houses a mostly white congregation on Sunday mornings and a Latino assembly in the afternoon. In such arrangements, the two congregations rarely interact.

Usually cultural differences are the biggest obstacles to overcome. But successfully blended churches usually have one thing in common: they are each willing to put tradition on the line for the sake of seeing God's will done on earth as it is above.

"We're empowered by our willingness to be servants," says Dennard of his blended congregation. "My advice for any pastor considering doing what we've done is to be sure you hear from God. Anytime change is involved, there's the chance you might lose people. But if you want to relate cross-culturally, you must be willing to be vulnerable-willing to intentionally do it."

Reprinted by permission, New Man

Editors note: In greater Cleveland there are churches on the east side (predominately black) teaming up with churches on the west side (predominantly white). For example; Bay Presbyterian church in Bay Village is the sister church of the Morning Star Baptist Church located near E 105th and St. Clair. Recently, the Church On The Rise in Westlake and the New Spirit Revival Center from Cleveland Heights had occasion to combine worship services which were very anointed with a sweet spirit of love and unity.