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Pastors reveal five truths about intercultural ministry and church transformation

Longtime Charlotte colleagues help kick off 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Eulando Henton is pastor at Derita Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Derita Church)

LOUISVILLE — The Revs. Kate Murphy and Eulando Henton have been friends and colleagues in ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina, for more than a decade. They speak to one another each week about the joys and challenges of leading intercultural congregations — Murphy has for almost 12 years been pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church and Henton was called three years ago to be the first African American pastor at a historically white congregation, Derita Church.

Their experiences and the easy way they bounced ideas off one another were on display during their workshop “Five things we’ve learned about intercultural ministry and church transformation,” part of the 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops offered beginning Saturday by the Presbyterian Intercultural Network, the presbyteries of Sacramento and Stockton and Charlotte, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“These are uncomfortable truths,” Murphy said at the outset of the 45-minute workshop, “but they have been life-giving.”

Pronouns matter

The way we talk about the church forms the church, the two pastors said. Is it “my” church, “our” church, or “God’s” church? Henton said congregants at Derita Church work at calling their neighbors just that — neighbors, rather than “they” or “them.” “We don’t own the church,” he said. “It belongs to Jesus, and we are stewards.”

Calling The Grove Presbyterian Church “God’s church” “creates space for us to consider that maybe what I want isn’t what God wants,” Murphy said.

Questions matter

The questions that sessions, committees and other bodies ask shape the decisions they make, and a new church requires new questions, Murphy and Henton said.

Murphy said church members used to ask traditional questions when considering a new program or another significant change: What’s the big steeple church down the street doing? What’ll it cost? Is it going to work? What will our biggest donors think? The Grove, Derita and other churches have replaced those questions with a single consideration: What does faithfulness to Jesus Christ look like in this situation?

“We find asking that question opens us up to a lot of possibilities that never make it to the table when we ask the standard questions,” Murphy said. “God isn’t mad at us for being beginners when we are beginners or for being weak when we are weak. We are never going to be able to answer that question if we don’t keep asking it.”

“I used to waste a lot of time focusing on being paralyzed by who won’t like what I’m doing or what’s it going to cost?” Henton said. “If you don’t ask this question, you will talk yourself out of doing intercultural ministry. It cuts through all my excuses and gets to the heart of the matter.”

Conflict matters

“We believe conflict is one tool the Holy Spirit uses to grow and transform God’s people,” the two said.

“My leadership was stifled by avoiding conflict,” Henton said. “I felt like I needed to have all the answers.” During the first Advent of his ministry at Derita Church, he noticed that all the angels decorating the sanctuary were white. It bothered him and some other people of color who were Derita Church members, “but I knew they were cherished decorations, and I didn’t want to cause conflict,” Henton said.

The next year, “those same angels went up again, and I decided to lean into the issue.” To Henton’s surprise, “folks were willing to talk about it. They didn’t see the issue. In their world, all angels are white. The Holy Spirit opened the door to a larger conversation about how we welcome our neighbors.”

Murphy used to wonder if conflict “was worth an uncomfortable conversation,” she said.

The Rev. Kate Murphy, shown here with her family, is pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of The Grove Presbyterian Church)

“Avoiding conflict is to give up on members, to decide there is no potential for people to grow,” Murphy said.  When transformation came to The Grove, “I thought it was going to be chocolate drops raining from heaven,” she said with a grin. “But God was sufficient. God led people on tremendous journeys of spiritual growth. It was important for me not to pre-decide who was worth investing in pastorally.”

Calling matters

“All people are called to the love and salvation of Jesus Christ,” Murphy said. “Not all people are called and equipped for life in a healthy and holy intercultural ministry. If you don’t feel called to do it, it’s not going to happen.”

A spiritual mentor once had to remind Murphy that not everyone in the congregation would get on board with developing an intercultural ministry.

“God is going to lead some people into new congregations,” the mentor told her. “Individuals need space to determine if they are called to be part of this mission.”

Henton said it’s been painful to see people leave as the session at Derita Church has worked to take “the worship experience to the next level.”

Just a few weeks ago, a beloved church member told Henton and church members, “That’s not for me. I am leaving for a more traditional congregation.”

“It was really painful,” Henton said. “Something in me wanted to say, ‘Please don’t leave. We will adjust to you.’” But “that’s not the (church’s) calling, and that’s not this particular person’s calling.”

Conversely, pastors and other leaders “called by the Spirit to help form a heathy and holy multi-ethnic church” who “currently belong to a church which is not called to that work” ought to be able to “accept that you may need to lovingly and humbly depart to join a congregation that is ready to seek this transformation,” the two said. The question then becomes, “Can you imagine that your departure might be one of the tools the Lord will use to help the church see the urgency of this work?”

Culture matters

The church of Jesus Christ “is a healthy and holy intercultural community where all cultures are valued and welcomed and no culture is supreme,” the two said.

“As an African American pastor of a historically white congregation, I think I have seen clearly that often white people don’t see their culture,” Henton said. “The default many white Christians have is the way they do church is the normal way, the right way. They would never say it, but it is the default thinking.” It’s possible, he said, to end up “with a church that’s multi-ethnic but monocultural. You can get Black and brown people into the room, but there is one dominant culture in worship and in the life of the congregation.”

He offered this advice: “Practice noticing your own culture. It’s not the only culture and it’s not the default or supreme culture. Embrace it and bring to the table as one expression of life in Jesus Christ along with brothers and sisters from other cultures.”

Murphy and Henton wrapped up their workshop with what they called a “bonus truth”: “If you’re called to this work of church transformation, you are going to be radically reliant on the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit,” as Murphy put it. At The Grove Presbyterian Church, “it was life-giving to realize if the Holy Spirit didn’t come into the room, the church was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it … There is a strange kind of freedom and peace knowing and accepting that.”

The workshops and accompanying study guides are available here.


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