Multiplication Center

How a Church Changed to Match Its Neighborhood

March 19, 2014



Download a printable PDF version of this article.

By Warren Bird

Patrick Kelley has a dream—what he calls his “delusion of grandeur” for churches—that one day, ethnic diversity will be the norm in American congregations, and that Senior Pastor Patrick Kelley followers of Christ will erase what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “most segregated hour in Christian America.”

“It’s been 50 years since Dr. King said that,” says Patrick, senior pastor of River Pointe Church in the Houston area. “It’s still just the beginning, but I think we’re living in this post-segregation age where people aren’t just looking for the black church, the white church, or the Hispanic church. I think they’re looking for an effective church where they meet Christ and get help for their spiritual needs.”

PHOTO AT LEFT: Patrick started asking if he is “too white” in an ad campaign for River Pointe Church — and it’s working. The church continues to grow more and become more diverse. See also this local news feature.

Patrick is seeing his dream come true at River Pointe, a multisite church of 5,000 people located in one of the most ethnically diverse counties (Fort Bend County, TX) in the United States.

But River Pointe is in the small minority of U.S. churches—only 8%—that are considered multiethnic (although the larger the attendance, the more multiethnic it is likely to be, according to research by Michael Emerson). While most churches in America are comprised of 80% of people being from one race, only 68% of River Pointe is white, and the rest is a multiethnic mix.

“People have said that our county is what America will look like in 50 years—or less,” says Patrick. “The church is going to have to figure out how to reach a population that looks like that. And it’s not just predominantly white churches that need this transition.”

Diversity Wasn’t the Goal

Patrick certainly didn’t start out to build one of the most ethnically diverse churches in the country when he moved to Houston 18 years ago—and he wouldn’t suggest that any church make that its goal.

“This community is integrated–no black section, white section or Latino section,” he says. “Yet there was not a church that was multiracial, including ours. I didn’t come to start a racially diverse church, but that’s the neighborhood we need to reach.  If we can’t do it here in this country, I’m just not sure it can be done.

“It’s not a goal of River Pointe to be diverse, but to help all people groups find a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. We have to figure out how to be all things to all men in order to win some.”

Patrick admits it had to start with him. It started innocently enough, with the Kelley children developing friendships with kids of varied ethnicities. “It’s funny how kids don’t see color, isn’t it? I looked at my own life and realized, all my friends are lily white,” Patrick says. “That had to change.”

“Am I Too White to Be Your Pastor?”

The product of all-white schools and neighborhoods growing up, Patrick jokes that he has “been white most of my life, and can’t get over it.” But he had to start somewhere. He became friends with former National Basketball Association player Reggie Slater, an African American who attends River Pointe.

“I asked him, ‘Am I too white to be your pastor?’ It was a good question for discussion, so I’ve used it for years in many different conversations,” Patrick says. Not only that, Patrick has been known to carry a sign in public places asking the same question, and the church placed a newspaper ad with the question before its annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration, this year included.

“The key has been humbly becoming a learner,” says Patrick, who adds that he had to overcome racist attitudes he picked up from his parents. “I went in as ignorant as could be. And more than once, I’ve gone to our church and said, ‘I want to ask your forgiveness. But if you’ll give me a lot of grace, we’ll go together trying to reach our community for Christ.’ ”

Pastor Patrick Kelley sits down with former NBA player, Reggie Slater, to have a frank discussion on racial diversity in the church.

Learning and Adapting Together

As he developed genuine friendships of color, Patrick says the church learned from each other and adapted. First it was simple things, such as realizing that all the images on-screen were of white people. Others helped him see personal blind spots in his teaching: “When you speak on segregation, remember that you didn’t experience it the way I did,” he says he was told.

But Patrick doesn’t tell “black jokes,” and River Pointe doesn’t do “Latino music” to appeal to seekers. “I don’t compromise my identity to be politically correct or ethnically diverse,” Patrick says. “If you’re coming to River Pointe from a traditional African American gospel church, you’ll have to give something up. You’ll miss some of your traditions.

“We’re going to be ourselves, but together the real spiritual growth happens in community. If people are coming as a consumer to get everything they’re looking for in a church, they probably won’t be here long.”

A significant shift, Patrick adds, has been building the church’s staff.  “We tried to find people from within our congregation and community for our staff,” he explains. “We hired to make that purposeful.”

Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Patrick hears complaints about the church’s multiracial direction—usually “noise from white folks living in fear,” he says. “But I respond that today’s world already is diverse—and heaven will be that way, too, so you better get used to it.”

Photos from the River Point Facebook page illustrate how the diversity of the community is reflected at the church. Photos are from a Father’s Day classic car show; the “largest potluck ever” effort for the Guinness book of records, and Christmas portraits.

Dreams Can Come True

Besides River Pointe’s rapid growth and momentum, Patrick had a recent confirmation that the church is heading the right way in reaching its diverse neighborhood.

An African-American member of the church died—one who came from a family strongly involved in a prominent black church in the city. Patrick helped the family make funeral arrangements, and assumed the service would be at the other church. But the parents said, “Our son loved you, and would want you to do the service. He was changed by the gospel of Christ at River Pointe.

“They allowed me to speak into their lives at their most horrid point for their grief. Peace, contentment, grace, mercy and redemption—things everyone needs. Something powerfully transcended race.”

And that event confirmed for Patrick that his dream may indeed be realized for River Pointe and other congregations that take the steps to move into lives of people who are very different.

“As I confessed and was intentional about understanding people and where they are coming from, we figured out we need each other,” Patrick says. “Make your goal to reach the people in your community, but know who that is. Our schools are diverse, our workplaces look like that, our neighborhoods look like that, and it’s time our churches look like that.”

This article was originally published 3/19/14 and updated 1/14/15.

Recent Articles