by Derwin L. Gray
I used to ask pastors and seminary professors why the church was the most ethnically segregated institution in America. The answers I received were ridiculous, unbiblical, racist, and cowardly.
A black pastor said, “I don’t like white people! You can’t trust them! The only time we can be black in a white-dominated culture is in church on Sunday. This is our time. Plus, white people will never submit to the leadership of a black man.”
A white suburban megachurch pastor explained, “If my church became diverse, many of the white fathers would be afraid that their daughters would date and marry black men. I can’t risk that happening.”
A Latino pastor warned me that if I planted a multiethnic church, I would “steal his people.” I thought all people belong to Jesus.
An Asian pastor told me, “Our culture and language are more important than reaching the non-Asians in our community.”
As a young follower of Jesus, I was dazed and confused by the nonsense I was hearing.
High-definition leaders live a multiethnic life before they try to plant a multiethnic church.
If the apostle Paul were alive today, I think he would be greatly disappointed. He would rebuke the American church for its segregation and lack of gospel understanding. It is an irrefutable fact that Paul and Barnabas planted multiethnic churches. They didn’t plant a church for Jews, another for Greeks, another for Arabs, and another for Syrians. Biblical scholar Christopher J. H. Wright wrote in The Mission of God that Paul and Barnabas were “the first to establish whole communities of believers, from mixed Jewish and Gentile backgrounds—that is, to plant multiethnic churches.”1 So you want to be like the apostle Paul? Become a high-definition leader and build multiethnic local churches like he did.
By 2004 I became angry by what I saw as an offense to King Jesus and his beautiful community-forming gospel. I sensed God saying to me, “Derwin, don’t criticize. Create.” I hadn’t wanted to be a pastor because my life experience taught me that if people got close to me, they would hurt me. However, God had other plans that he needed to awaken inside of me.
As a football player, I was a student of the game. When I became a follower of Jesus, I became a student of the Bible. As a result of this passion to learn, I went to seminary. While taking a New Testament course at Southern Evangelical Seminary, I could see Ephesians 4:7–16 in high-definition:
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
To me, the words of this text jumped off the page. Sitting in that classroom I knew God had called and gifted me to lead a multiethnic church. So I made a deal with God. I said, “God, if I do this, it can’t be a segregated church! There are enough of those! It has to be a church where Asian people, Latino people, white people, black people, and ethnically mixed people would come together and be one in Christ. If I do this, Father, it has be a diverse church like the church in the new heaven and the new earth.”
Over the next few years I attended a local church—a suburban, homogeneous megachurch—while God shaped me through my years in seminary and continued ministry as an itinerant evangelist. I attended a conference at Willow Creek and deeply sensed God’s speaking to my heart that I would be a pastor, not just a speaker, very soon.
I called Vicki and said, “Sweetie, I think God is calling me to pastor.” All I heard was silence. My wife had been as opposed to pastoring as much as I was. Then I said, “If God is calling me to pastor, he will affirm this call in your heart too.”
Church Planting 101
Over the next few months, God confirmed our call to pastor a church. I use the words “our call” because everything my wife and I do, we do as a team. Vicki is anointed with the gift of administration. She was valedictorian in high school and college, so she’s really smart and is a great strategist and organizational leader. So, basically, I married Superwoman.
Eventually, God led me to partner with some local pastors to launch a church where I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do as a church planter. For example, three lead pastors is an awesome idea on paper, but in reality, not so much. So, with a lot of passion, a lot of inexperience, and a lot of emotional immaturity, we launched a church in January 2007.
God continued to grow my desire to plant a gospel-centered, multiethnic local church. Eventually the day came when the lead pastors went off on their own, choosing to multiply rather than divide God’s church. In the spring of 2009, Vicki, our best friend, Angela, and I began preparing to plant Transformation Church. Our congregation prayed and decided which new church plant they’d join. One group of people went with my copastor, and 178 others felt called to partner with me. We overcame the initial challenges of finding a place to hold services—we ended up in a warehouse in Indian Land, South Carolina, which is close to Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a tough process, launching a church with dust and chewing gum in our pockets, but God did it anyway.
On February 7, 2010 Super Bowl Sunday—we had our first worship services. I came up with the crazy idea to launch with two services even though I didn’t think anyone was going to show up, not even the 178 people who made up our church planting team. And even if they did show up, we would still have a lot of empty seats in both services. Despite my fears, I prayed for 700 people to come. Looking back, I would have never prayed such a faith-filled, courageous prayer if I had any clue that 700 people was a lot to expect for a church plant’s first services.
At the end of the second service that beautiful day, executive pastor Paul Allen looked me in the eye, with tears flowing down his face, and said, “Pastor, 701 showed up.” Then I started crying. As a new church, God shattered all the growth barriers in one weekend. Ever since that opening Sunday, God has grown Transformation Church like crazy. I feel like we are experiencing what happened in the book of Acts: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:47).
I was told by pastors and church planters, “Don’t plant a multiethnic church. It’s hard. Those churches don’t grow. The offering is terrible. People in America want to be with their own people.”
In our first year as a local church, we were the second-fastest-growing church in America by percentage, and then in 2011, 2012, and 2013, we remained one of the one hundred fastest-growing churches in America.2
I believe Jesus is longing for pastors to ask him to do a work that can be explained only by his power. Trust Jesus to move some mountains so he can be glorious and beautiful in the world through his bride, the Church.
1) Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 191.
2) See “2013 Outreach 100: Hundred Fastest-Growing Churches in America,” Outreach Magazine, http://www.outreachmagazine.com /2013-outreach-100-fastest-growing-churches-america.html.
Adapted from The High Definition Leader: Building Multiethnic Churches in a Multiethnic World by Derwin L. Gray (Thomas Nelson, 2015). Watch the video below to learn more.
The book is available now!