by Kelvin Smith
During my college years I asked the Lord to give me a church in the south that would bring black and white together, glorifying his name, and fulfilling the scriptures by creating a house of prayer for all people. The Lord has answered that prayer beyond my wildest imagination!
As a son of the American south, born in 1963 at the height of our nation’s racial struggle, I remember this tension reflected in my house, school, and church. I heard the ‘n’ word all my life. As early as the first grade, I began attending school with African American children I had not previously had the opportunity to be around. I began to view people in this truth: God loves all people. However, I did not see Jesus’ prayer lived out in my segregated church: “…that all of them may be one…just as You are in Me and I am in You …so the world may believe that You have sent Me…” (John 17: 20-21). Even at that age, it bothered me.
Due to forced integration, throughout my school years I developed more friendships within the African American community, and while at college God led me to a young Cameroonian, Ivo Ngha, who changed my view not just toward people of different color, but toward people of different nations. So began the journey to where I am today personally, and to where our church is corporately.
A Place for All People
During my college years I asked the Lord to give me a church in the south that would bring black and white together, glorifying his name, and fulfilling the scriptures by creating a house of prayer for all people. The Lord has answered that prayer beyond my wildest imagination! On a typical Steele Creek Sunday, more than 2,500 adults, young people and children from over forty nations, including over five hundred immigrants, gather to worship the Lord, reflecting the kingdom of heaven on earth.
We encompass approximately 45% white, 35% African American, and 20% Latino, African, Haitian, Arabic, Messianic, Brazilian and Vietnamese, and others from around the globe. We call the latter 20% our “Bridges Ministries.” Each bridge congregation is led by its own pastor, in their native tongue and cultural manner. Several times throughout the year we all join together as one Steele Creek Church family in celebration. God has not only called us to go to the nations, but also to receive the nations coming to us.
On July 24, 2011, we entered our new sanctuary. We built it with intentionality. The large, box-like structure with its galvanized and stucco siding reminds us of the simpler buildings constructed in the Developing World rather than of typical American church buildings. It is painted in various earth tones, reflecting the variety of soils and skin colors found around the world. Banners, with “Welcome” printed in many languages and depicting the continents of the world, hang on one outside wall. As you enter the lobby, flags from over eighty nations line the walls. They represent those in our congregation, as well as our missionaries. Our message? “Welcome—to all people!” We recently had visitors tell us that those banners, colors, and flags drew them in, and as soon as they entered the sanctuary they knew they were “home”. We have heard this often.
Intentional diversity carries over into areas other than ethnicity. Our music—gospel, praise & worship, hymns, even lyrics in different languages—is led by multicultural worship teams. Our leadership reflects our diversity with African American, white, and international pastors, elders, and staff. Our “house of prayer for all people” encompasses people from all economic levels, generations, politics, and backgrounds. We have many coming out of habitual sexual sin (both hetero and homosexual sins), addictions, prison—you name it, they’re coming. For that we give praise and thanks to God!
To the Ends of the Earth…and the Nearest Locale
With so much focus on our diverse “Jerusalem” however, we cannot lose sight of the ends of the earth. My Cameroonian brother, Ivo, lifted my eyes to look beyond the south. We serve a missionary God. You can’t read any portion of the Bible without seeing how God loves the world. Eternity is a matter of life and death—there is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain! The Lord has allowed me to travel the globe and I have fallen in love with the persecuted Church. To see how the love of God can overcome many obstacles and forms of persecution, and to experience the Kingdom of God globally has impacted me forever. It has impacted how I view the world, the scriptures, preaching and teaching, and spending the money God has given me, personally, and to the church, corporately.
It changes everything. Steele Creek Church has, for instance, begun a partnership with over two hundred Degar refugees from Vietnam who are now living in Charlotte. Many of these brothers and sisters suffered greatly for their faith in their homeland. (Even now, some of their families are in Vietnam, unable to join their husbands and fathers in America.) We seek to provide them a place to worship, English classes, doctrinal mentoring, a thriving youth ministry for their kids, and material needs as we are able. They are blessing us more than we can bless them. To hear two hundred Degar singing “I Surrender All” in their own tongue, knowing that they have, indeed, surrendered all, is indescribably humbling.
Over the years, sixty families have been called to serve both locally and globally, and we see that number increasing. This is due, in large part, to many opportunities the Lord has brought our way to build “missions” into the life of our church.
We have, for instance, been privileged to host the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course, which has raised awareness and commitment to world outreach. Additionally, because several international mission agencies have headquarters in our greater Charlotte area, many home-staff missionaries attend Steele Creek. We leverage these opportunities by creating partnerships as often as we can. Our youth, for example, have joined SIM’s Sport’s Friends to drill a water well in Uganda (and we continue raising funds for clean water wells through donations for beverages in our “World Cup” café).
Through a former member who was a SCCC Nigerian brother and a SCCC/SIM missionary, we recently began a church-planting partnership in a strategic area of that country. This is new territory for us and we are learning as we go. We have joined with the Nigerian Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) and their missionary arm, the Evangelical Missionary Society (EMS), which has sent a Nigerian missionary family into this area.
Another unique opportunity came in the summer of 2012, when our youth leaders held an on-campus, five-day (and night) “mission boot camp” for one hundred of our teens, utilizing several of our home-based, Steele Creek missionaries and providing daily service opportunities with our local outreach ministries. The purpose was to highlight both cross-cultural and local missionaries, and to give the kids opportunities to “do” missions locally, encouraging them to form their own mission DNA.
Finally, this past February we sent a group to Nicaragua to join a team from Finish the Wall who had chosen our missionaries’ work there as one of their 2013 construction projects. We set aside over 15% of our current budget to go toward missions and benevolence. We have learned that the Kingdom of God cannot advance if we are not willing to pay the cost financially and personally, by giving from our own means, by sending our own people, and by being willing to be pushed out of our comfort zone, whether going to the nations or welcoming them into our family here in Charlotte.
A Firm Conviction
We cannot pass along to our churches what we ourselves are not convicted of or passionate about. If missions is not celebrated in the church, then there’s very little chance that the church will participate in advancing God’s kingdom. Being on mission for God both locally and globally is a great and exciting adventure. Few Sundays go by when we are not celebrating baptisms, missionaries, or missionary efforts in the church. It continues to remind us that we are doing something together that we cannot do as individuals.
There will be struggles and obstacles. Besides the added strain on staff and budget to be intentionally international, there is the far more important spiritual battle. Our enemy, Satan, does not want us to focus on other people. He wants us to not see the Church achieve oneness, and will do whatever it takes to cause division and fear. We have seen that here at Steele Creek where the cost of oneness was too high for some to pay.
What I’ve learned over the years is to bless people, but to not be afraid to challenge them, especially if it is over some issue with which God wants to deal. It, however, must be a work of God’s Spirit to get people where they need to be. When your church grows culturally and ethnically and the majority begin to feel pushed by the increasing minority, some people get uncomfortable. But we, as a leadership, need to place our flag on top of the hill and declare to the Lord, to the enemy, and to everyone else that we will not be moved.
We are called to lead the church with truth, strength, and gentleness. We do this not forcing people to do things for which they may not be ready, but also not compromising on what God asks of his Church. We can’t make an idol of diversity. We lift up Jesus and give an opportunity for everyone to come to him. In our flesh, we cannot create such a church. That is a work of God. But there are things we do in our speech, attitudes, and behavior, and in our lack of being intentional around that issue that can hinder a church in being multi-international.
Final note to pastors: Trust God, submitting yourselves first to him, then to one another, to love all people. This begins when, as Paul enjoins us, we look out not only for our own interests, but for the interests of others, preferring others as not just equal to ourselves, but better than ourselves.
Kelvin Smith is founder and senior pastor of Steele Creek Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. While in college, God deeply burdened his heart for those in need and for the lost in every nation. Seventeen years later, Kelvin serves a multi-cultural family of over 2,500 united in Jesus Christ. Kelvin is the author of Living on Target, a message of living in biblical order and character for the glory of God.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 350-354. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.