Can people from different races get along? Can those with different skin colors understand each other? Can individuals from different cultures and backgrounds learn to listen to, accept, and interact with one another? The human heart says, “No!” The gospel gives a resounding “Yes!” This answer is possible through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
The world is desperate for this unity. Our cities need to see a picture of unity and collaboration between ethnic groups. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a grand opportunity to paint this picture and be a conduit that shows the world what love will do.
I would like to share with you the story of Saint Louis.1 I want to take you on a journey of unity and collaboration that has been taking place in the Seventh-day Adventist churches of the Saint Louis metropolitan area. I will also offer some practical ways that churches can begin that journey. My hope is that this story will inspire pastors and churches in other cities to embark on a similar journey.
Saint Louis is a metropolitan city of 2.8 million people in the US state of Missouri. There are 15 Seventh-day Adventist churches scattered throughout the city—all different and unique. Some are predominantly African American. Some are predominantly Caucasian. Some are multicultural. Others are Spanish, Korean, Haitian, and some are other ethnicities. They are filled with people as diverse as the snowflakes that fall from the heavens. Among these 15 churches, there are 11 pastors.
Organizationally, the Saint Louis metropolitan area comprises four conferences: Central States Conference, Iowa-Missouri Conference, Lake Region Conference, and Illinois Conference. Typically, in a large metro area, churches may rarely fellowship together. And if they are from different conferences or cultures, the walls can be even higher in some places. Many times the first step toward unity and collaboration is simply spending time together.
Unity and collaboration: the first steps
The first step for Saint Louis began around 2011. I was working in the Saint Louis metropolitan area and had a Sabbath where I was not scheduled to preach anywhere. So my family and I decided to visit one of our sister churches from the Central States Conference and worship with them. We chose the Berean church. This church was in a different conference from our own. The membership was predominantly African American, ethnically different from our own. The location was a different part of the city from our own. The worship style was different from our own. The songs were not familiar to me, and I did not know anyone there. Located in the same city, this was a peculiar place to me and my family—but we had a wonderful experience. We were warmly greeted and welcomed with open arms. The church did not make us feel different or uncomfortable. I met the pastor, and so began a cross-cultural friendship that continues to this day.
Not long after this experience, the Iowa-Missouri pastors were considering bringing an initiative called Equipping University to the Saint Louis area.2 So it was decided to ask the pastors from the Central States Conference whether they would be interested in partnering to make this a city-wide initiative. They agreed.
So we all started meeting together on a monthly basis to get to know each other and plan for this initiative. The first session of Equipping University was a huge blessing. More than 220 members from ten different churches and four different conferences attended the first weekend. It was extremely moving to see people from different churches, races, and cultures meeting, worshipping, praying, and being trained for outreach together. There were African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, Koreans, Haitians, Caribbeans, and other ethnicities in attendance. The comment we heard over and over again was how much the people enjoyed fellowshipping with those of other churches. It was stressed that we must do this again.
Even when the first module of Equipping University was complete, the pastors decided to keep meeting together monthly. As these city-wide pastors’ meetings progressed, and we continued praying together, a strong bond began to develop between us. Over time, a vision began to form within us—a vision to work together to impact the city for Christ. Yes, each church had its individual mission and territory, but if we were going to make a difference in a large city like Saint Louis, we knew we had to collaborate in city-wide initiatives and ministries. So this vision was twofold: (1) to begin developing unity by creating avenues where these ethnically diverse churches could start
meeting and fellowshipping together regularly, and (2) to start working together in collaborative initiatives to minister to the city of Saint Louis.
Out of this vision grew the following activities:
1. Monthly city-wide pastors’ meetings. The pastors formed a cross-conference, cross-cultural ministerial association called AMPS (Adventist Ministers and Pastors of Saint Louis). They meet on a monthly basis to share, pray, and plan city-wide events and outreach.
2. Quarterly city-wide prayer meetings. Once every quarter, all the Saint Louis area churches come together for a city-wide prayer meeting. This includes singing and worship—but mostly praying: individually, corporately, and in small groups. We know there can be no unity, indeed nothing of significance, without the working of the Holy Spirit. Our first city-wide prayer service was attended by more than 200 people, with diverse churches and ethnicities represented from throughout the city. Seeing people of various ethnicities and cultures praying together has a powerful impact on the human soul. It was a moving experience.
3. Metro camp meetings. Just as every conference has a yearly camp meeting where all the churches in the conference are invited to gather together, the pastors felt it was important for the Saint Louis area churches to come together for a camp meeting as well. So we developed a yearly city-wide camp meeting where all Saint Louis churches are invited to come for a special weekend of worship. They select a theme, invite powerful speakers, and promote it heavily.
4. Saint Louis Lay Mission Committee. We knew that in order for this unity and collaboration to continue on a permanent basis, we had to get lay people involved. The purpose of coming together is not just for the sake of unity by itself. The fruit of unity should be evangelism, working together to fulfill the gospel commission, and not just standing around singing “Kum-ba-yah,” boasting that we are unified. True unity should propel us to work side by side to minister to the city. So we developed a unique lay mission committee made up of church members from all area churches.
The committee’s task is to find and/ or develop within Saint Louis one or two mission projects a year in which members from all area churches can participate. At some point, unity has to leave the walls of the church and be seen on the street. It has to transition from being inward-focused to being outward-focused. Imagine the city of Saint Louis seeing believers of all ethnicities working side by side to minister to others and make the city a better place!
You too can begin the journey
This journey of unity and collaboration continues in Saint Louis today. But perhaps this same journey can happen in other large cities throughout the world. There may be a vision welling up inside your heart to see this journey happen in your city and church. Maybe you are a pastor or a lay leader, and God wants to use you as a catalyst to bring the churches and ethnicities of your city together. Here are some steps you can take to begin the journey.
1. Pray for a vision. Ask God to give you a vision of unity and collaboration between the different churches in your city. Ask Him to place this passion on your heart and to plant this seed in the hearts of other pastors or lay leaders in the city. Working together with other cultures is not an easy task. There will be challenges and obstacles. The devil will try to erect strongholds of obstruction and cause misunderstandings. So you need a passion and determination that is willing to work patiently with people and move beyond the difficulties. However, the blessings of unity and collaboration far outweigh the challenges.
2. Start visiting with other pastors. Make contact with the pastors in other conferences in your city. Connect with the churches of other ethnicities. Visit them one at a time and begin a friendship with the pastors or lay leaders. This could be on a Sabbath or sometime during another event they may be hosting, like concerts and other social events. Invite the pastors to preach at your church. When possible, take a Sabbath off and worship at their church and become acquainted with them. If you cannot break free from your Sabbath responsibilities at your own church, then visit one of their functions during the week, like a prayer meeting. Be willing to meet them on their turf, and watch the walls come down.
3. Begin a city-wide pastors’ meeting. After you have visited with them and shared your vision for unity and collaboration, invite the pastors to form a ministerial group and begin meeting together on a monthly basis. In your meetings, get to know each other. Pray together. Dream together. Vision together on what unity and collaboration would look like in your city. Write out your vision and create a mission statement. Choose a chairperson and vice-chairperson, preferably from two different conferences or ethnic groups. Begin planning city-wide activities and ministries. Organize so that the movement continues long after you are gone.
Do not worry if some pastors do not initially come to the meetings. As the group gains momentum and positive results are seen, they will come. Give them time. Stay in touch and have the other pastors continue to invite them. Give God a chance to move on their hearts.
4. Plan some city-wide events where people from different churches can fellowship and mingle with each other. If the pastors are fellowshipping together in the monthly pastors’ meetings, then members need to have the opportunity to experience the same. Fellowshipping enables them to develop friendships and bonds with members of other churches and ethnicities. If you want the members to adopt the same vision of unity and collaboration, this step is critical. These city-wide activities may include socials, picnics, international food fests, a parade of nations, or any number of creative events. Be focused. Be intentional. Hundreds of possibilities beckon you.
You might want to consider something that they do in Saint Louis—a quarterly, city-wide prayer meeting. Each quarter, plan a prayer service to which members of all the area churches are invited. Take turns hosting it in different churches. It may start small, but remember God’s promises: “For nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6) and “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).3
5. Start an annual metro camp meeting. Set aside a special weekend once a year where all the metro churches can come together for a joint worship. In Saint Louis, this involves Friday night, Sabbath morning and afternoon, a Sunday morning prayer breakfast, and even a parade of nations. This takes much planning, but it is well worth it. Try to have programming and music that represents the diversity of ethnicities in the churches. Invite the area churches to close for this special Sabbath so that all members can come to the joint Sabbath morning worship. Some churches will do this; some will not. All the area pastors should commit to being present at the camp meeting. They should not preach in their own churches that Sabbath. By attending, they communicate that the camp meeting is important and meeting together is a priority.
6. Find a mission project in your city in which members from all the area churches can participate. It could be a one-day project like an extreme home makeover or cleaning up a park. It could be a seasonal event like a community Vacation Bible School in a deprived neighborhood. Or it could be an ongoing project like after-school tutoring, assisting refugees, or establishing some kind of community center.
When members of different churches and ethnicities are working side by side in collaborative ministry, the natural result is unity. Conversation happens. Friendships are formed. Experiences are shared. Understanding takes place. God is there. The Holy Spirit creates a tie that cannot easily be broken.
Imagine what the city will see—church members of different races, ethnicities, and cultures working together to make a positive difference in their city; a picture of Christ shining through in all the people. This is unity in action. It is a picture not soon forgotten, and it is a picture your city desperately needs to see.
All it takes is one person with a God-given vision—one person to be a catalyst. Are you that person? Is God calling you to begin a journey of unity and collaboration among the churches in your city? Is God calling the churches of your city to be a light upon a hill?
“Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’ ” (Isa. 6:8).4
1 At the time of writing, David Klinedinst served as resident evangelist for the Saint Louis Metro Area, in the Iowa-Missouri Conference.
2 Equipping University is a lay training and discipleship program designed to activate and mobilize members for ministry and outreach. www.nadei.org/article/385/evangelism-services/equipping-university
3 All Scripture passages in this article are from the New King James Version.
4 I would like to recognize the following pastors, past and present, who inspired this article and were part of Saint Louis’s journey toward unity and collaboration: Bryan Mann, pastor of Northside church; Joseph Ikner, former pastor of the Berean church; Charles Osborne III, pastor of the Berean church; Fred Montgomery, pastor of the Agape church; Claval Hunter, pastor of the Lighthouse and Tabernacle of Praise churches; Jae Wook Lee, pastor of the Korean church; Rob Alfalah, pastor of the Saint Louis Central and Mid-Rivers churches; Vic Van Shaik, former pastor of the Saint Louis Central church; Robb Long, associate pastor of the Saint Louis Central and Mid-Rivers churches; Ken Olin, pastor of the West County and Southside churches; Robb Lechner, former pastor of the West and Southside churches; and Tony LaPorte, former pastor of the Mid-Rivers and Spanish churches.