Hope Church: Building a Multiethnic Church in Memphis

 

Reprinted courtesy of Outreach magazine. ©2019 Outreach Inc.

HopeChurch

From left, Rufus Smith (Senior Pastor), Eli Morris (Senior Associate Pastor), Craig Strickland (Founding Pastor). 

The prevailing wisdom is simple: If you want to grow a church, your watchword is “same.”

Choose a demographic. Age, skin color, wealth, recreational interest, education, or preferred coffee brewing method—like cleaves to like. In the last part of the 20th century, this observation was given a seminary worthy name (“the homogenous unit principle”) and taught nearly as gospel in pastoral classes. It’s hard to think of any concept (besides the parking lot) that did more for church growth between the 1980s and now.

By many metrics, this sameness is understandable. It is pragmatic, efficient, predictable, and, in many ways, sustainable. But how are we to understand church models of homogeneity in light of the still-haunting lament of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that Sunday at 11:00 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America? Put more directly, what does one do if one believes the gospel of reconciliation runs counter to “same”?

Memphis, Tenn., is no stranger to racial tensions. The very city, remember, is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Memphis is still fraught with divisions. They may rarely boil over. But they simmer.

So consider this: The largest white Presbyterian church in the country, Hope Church, has transitioned over the past eight years from an overwhelmingly white congregation to one that is thoroughly multiethnic—and continuing to diversify in genuine, long-term, and heartfelt ways. The catalyst in this change? A remarkable succession from founding pastor Craig Strickland, who is white, to Rufus Smith, an African-American, brought on as senior pastor in 2010. While the years since Smith’s hiring haven’t necessarily been easy, Hope’s transition has been one of remarkable beauty and success, into a multiethnic congregation that Hope calls a “mosaic,” reminiscent of art made from many small and colorful individual pieces.

Outreach Magazine editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor spoke with three of Hope’s key staff for this unique story: Smith, Senior Pastor; Strickland, Founding Pastor; and Eli Morris, Senior Associate Pastor. Believing that their only hope to live the gospel in a changing neighborhood was to change with it, Hope’s story is one of honesty, collaboration, patience, and vision.

Craig, let’s start with you. Tell us the story of Hope’s founding and early years.

Craig: I had been on staff at another church here in Memphis for about 10 years, and began to feel the call of God to start a new church specifically for the unchurched. Here in the South, I’d noticed a trend: Christians bounced between churches frequently, but it seemed the unchurched simply weren’t being reached. Few new fish were being added to the bowl. Our best efforts of outreach weren’t working. So with my home church’s financial and spiritual support, my wife and I struck out to plant a new church along with two other couples.

That was in 1988. Back then, the hot new thing was to use a telemarketing campaign and mass mailings to get the word out about a church plant. So we did it, sending thousands of pieces of mail, ending in an invite to our launch. We targeted only those responders who weren’t already members of a local church.

All that to say we started Hope distinctly for people who had given up on church, but not on God, and that’s helpful to remember as we begin the story.

The plant was successful, and grew. I was friends with Eli, who was working on the urban staff of Young Life at the time, and he soon joined our staff, bringing his skill and passion for urban ministry to our suburban context. As the years began to pass, we went through most of the markers of a thriving young church: outgrowing our rented spaces, eventually finding our own building, which allowed for a whole new season of growth.

Eli, what about Hope’s early vision caught your eye?

Eli: Well, my passion for urban ministry and Young Life meant I was already passionate about many kids who were holding the faith at arm’s length—young people who didn’t know about or think much of church.

I’d grown up in pretty conservative Bible church circles, and had never really seen a church that reached out to unchurched people. But at Hope, I saw much of what I was doing in a secular context of a high school with Young Life playing out in a local church.

From the beginning, it was clear that we needed to connect Hope with the city, though. And one of the reasons that we’ve been successful with this move to mosaic multiethnic ministry is that our church DNA was bigger than the confines of just “our neighborhood” or “our church.” For all our limitations in terms of demographics in those early days, there was a connection to something bigger. If you have those values from the beginning, you’ll have a much easier transition. That doesn’t mean that you’re stuck if you don’t—but that openness helped our process to multiethnic ministry.

Pastor Rufus, where were you in 1988 as Hope was being founded?

Rufus: Houston, Texas. I was in the last couple years of working in the business world, and beginning to move toward full time pastoral ministry. I took my first senior pastor role in 1990. It ended in disaster a year and a half later—I think from my youthful arrogance. I left pastoral ministry after that to return to business.

But every step along the way would prove to be important in my ministry. In 1996, I got into nonprofit sector ministry, then in 1998 took a church in Houston called City of Refuge. It was an Evangelical Presbyterian church that wanted to look like their neighborhood, a group of people who had originally formed out of a rather conservative congregation, with an eye to be a church that reached people on the margins. They also wanted to become multiethnic but didn’t know how to do that.

By the time I met them in 1998, the church was on life support—about 40 people, 39 of them white. “We don’t know what we’re doing,” they said, “but we have a heart for more. Before we give up, would you consider being our pastor?”

Now something was going on in me between ’92 and ’98. The painful separation from my first congregation—a middle-class, African-American Baptist church—had been used by the Lord to move my heart toward mosaic ministry and thinking about the beauty and possibilities of church as a multiethnic community. I had been primed to want this, partly through some pain.

Ironically, the church I’d had that painful separation from extended me a call to return as pastor at the same time City of Refuge invited me. But by that point, even though the other church was much larger, I knew that the multiethnic ministry I had begun to feel called to would be better if I started with a smaller group. I also felt that it would be easier for a majority Caucasian church to transition to a mosaic than for a majority African-American church. (Based on my study at the time, I knew that the most difficult churches to integrate were African-American or Korean congregations.) City of Refuge it was.

During that time, what were some of your influences or learning experiences?

Rufus: Well, God had been leading me since I was young toward understanding the dynamics of integrated racial settings. Starting in the fifth grade, I was bussed for three years to a nearly all-white school as a sort of test case for our school district, which was my first exposure to an all-white environment. In sixth grade I was elected as student body president, and the whole experience taught me a lot about white culture and about racial relationships. From eighth grade on, I was back in an all-black school in a poorer district of Houston, so I had both of those experiences to help shape me. I had a new frame of reference.

As I moved into business, many formative experiences there shaped my thinking too. I simply had to become comfortable walking across demographic divides.

In addition, my pastor and mentor would frequently preach cross-culturally. One week he sent me to a preaching opportunity that slowly led to many other invitations to speak in both African-American and Caucasian churches. All these dynamics contributed.

Let’s talk about Memphis. What’s the specific context that Hope was planted in?

Craig: Eli and I both grew up in Memphis and know the city well. Racism in Memphis never went away, it just went underground. Every now and then it pops its ugly head up. Invariably politicians or the sheriff are blamed when it does, or an industry or a similar institution. And all of them have responsibilities of course. But racial reconciliation, I believe, is the responsibility of the local church. I have preached that here for 40 years.

There are great divides in Memphis, and always have been. Some shifts are happening, but in general the city breaks down into neighborhoods based on race and income. The “haves” are stereotypically white and suburban. The “have-nots” are stereotypically African-American and urban. So from the beginning, Eli’s work in the city helped connect our white, suburban church to people and needs different than what we encountered on a daily basis out in the community we had planted Hope in.

Eli: Church leaders have a remarkable opportunity to impact culture, don’t they? You can encourage a culture of service, compassion, and acceptance, or a culture of rigidity and all sorts of things that are negative. Involving people throughout the city for years helped lay the groundwork for what God had in mind for our church to become.

It sounds like even though Hope was essentially all white at that point, you were cultivating an open church.

Eli: Yes. But the problem was that we were operating under a church-growth model that was a philosophy of being homogeneous. Birds of a feather, right? The strategy was really clear: Find a neighborhood that is booming (which probably means “all white”) and get in there and grow. There was never a serious discussion of being multiracial in that traditional church-growth model.

Craig: Yes, that tug to be diverse complicated things for us. It’s so much easier not to seek community with people who are different than you are. Part of the complication was that we had this incredible urban ministry with hundreds of volunteers. We were known for it in the city. Still are. But that did not translate into any of those people we were serving coming to our church. Largely, that was because of access—they were in other parts of town. If you’re from urban Memphis, getting out of the city center to go to a thriving, white, rich suburb doesn’t feel accessible.

So what changed?

Craig: The neighborhood. [Laughs] Over the years, the demographics around us changed. It had been virtually all-white when we planted Hope. But within 10 years that wasn’t as true anymore, and after 15? We recognized that we no longer were reflecting our physical neighborhood on a Sunday morning.

Eli: Today, our neighborhood is about one-third African-American.

Craig: So Eli and I had to do some real soul-searching. We had said that we were a church for our community. But what were we really doing to accomplish that? MLK’s famous quote still rang true: Our Sunday morning at 11:00 was part of the most segregated hour in America.

We began to slowly make intentional steps toward a more diverse staff and leadership. We brought on a youth pastor, worship staff, and eventually deacons and elders who were African-American. We began to find ways to integrate the church to better reflect our neighborhood. For us, those decisions felt very slow to implement but very strategic. We had to remind ourselves that this was not going to be an easy overnight change. It was too important for that.

In the middle of that, our staff committee came to the realization that our church, like many large churches, was very vulnerable to something happening to me as pastor. If I went down for any reason—health, moral failing, or what have you—the church likely would not survive. We realized that we needed to act early to plan for me to retire one day and to build resilience in now for our congregation. They came to me and asked me to put together a succession plan.

After about six months of reading, studying, and praying, I had one. My plan was to bring someone on gradually to replace me, allowing me to ease them in, and then for me to remain as a member of the church once they were the senior pastor. I would be out of his hair, with no formal responsibilities, but if there’s a crisis or he needs me, I could help. They thought that this was a brilliant idea. But the clincher was yet to come.

“One other thing,” I said. “He needs to be African-American.”

Now this is Memphis, Tennessee. This is where Dr. King was assassinated. Man, their eyes got big.

“Just pray about it,” I said. And they did.

A couple months later we revisited it, and to the person, they decided it was the right direction for the church. Then we took it to our session, which also unanimously agreed, and so we began to search for the right fit.

Rufus, when the invitation from Hope came, you weren’t eager to leave City of Refuge, were you?

Rufus: Not at all! It was unimaginable. I had been there just shy of 12 years, and the church was doing very well. We were growing, having created a strong culture. We had ups and downs like any congregation, but those 40 people bought into the vision of being a community that looked like our neighborhood in Houston. We were meeting in a homeless shelter, which lent itself to ministry on the margins, and then bought a piece of property in a slightly more affluent neighborhood. Over time, the church grew to about 400, and we were very active in the community, including through a Christian school for low-income kids and a community development center.

So connect the dots between City of Refuge and Hope.

Rufus: Craig, Eli, and I had a relationship since 1998, when I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor. About 2003, I asked Craig to come down and visit in a consulting role with our staff and leaders. I considered him to be an excellent exegete of a community. His insights on our building and development plans were important.

But when Craig first called with the invitation, things were going well. I was not interested in leaving. The church was growing in size, diversity, and impact. I was just seeing the fruit of hard work—I didn’t want to have to start over again! There was no way I was going to say yes.

… Until you did.

Rufus: [Laughs] Exactly. Craig was persistent. He called back and stayed in touch, at one point asking, “Rufus, why is it that we only consider the call of God when we’re either failing or burnt out? Why can’t we consider the call of God when things are going well?” That convicted me.

I didn’t even tell my wife about the invitation until a few months after Craig’s first call—I wasn’t going anywhere, right? But finally I did, and she reminded me that this was my second invitation to a church in Memphis. I’d completely forgotten, but another church had reached out a few years earlier, also with an invitation that had multiethnic ministry as its heartbeat. “Maybe we ought to pray about it,” she said. And so we did.

I was impressed during conversations with Craig and Eli, with the fact that they stayed in the conversation with me. Since I didn’t plan on seriously considering the opportunity, I asked the hard heart questions with complete freedom—didn’t try to soften or talk around anything. My goal at that point was to try to help them think of everything that could go wrong with that kind of transition in leadership, and of all the possibilities. One of those questions threw the whole conversation into sharp relief.

“Why would you, the largest Presbyterian church in the country, want to take this risk?” I asked. And Eli replied, hardly skipping a beat, “It would be a worse risk if we didn’t do this.”

Making a long story short, the rest was history. By September 2010, I was here in Memphis.

Eli, what specifically was that “worse risk” you referred to?

Eli: Well, besides the gospel heartbeat at the core of mosaic ministry, the truth was that the neighborhood was changing. Our church would survive for a while out of its current health, but it could not survive long-term as the demographics changed in the neighborhood. So anything less than a strategic transition was just stalling an eventual decision to either move or close the church. You can see churches all through the United States destroyed by demographic changes that could be bringing them new life. I’m 63—so I wouldn’t have to live through the church’s demise. But my kids would. My grandkids would. The smart thing, we saw, was to make the transition now. There would never be a better time. We’d be idiots not to do this.

Fast-forward to now—give us a snapshot of where Hope is today.

Rufus: We’re a congregation that is about 70 percent Caucasian and about 26 percent African-American, and about 4 percent other. We are a church that has started to move from acculturation to assimilation. We use the 20 percent model that sociologists point to as a tipping point for a group: Get past 20 percent and you won’t just have African-Americans coming to Hope and acculturating to the existing culture, but you have real assimilation, which is much more reciprocal. They aren’t just adapting to the culture—they are changing it.

You’ll feel that during the musical worship—sometimes you will even feel tension in the room as we sing, because there is nearly always someone in the room who is encountering something culturally unfamiliar in a given song. If you visit, you’ll feel that we’re a congregation finding a third way. We’re struggling to be a third way—not white, not black, but something bigger than both. That’s a tension. It’s also a joy.

We think of this as a three-step process. Congregations moving toward integration go through three stages: toleration → appreciation → celebration.

We are at the stage of genuine appreciation. But we’re not at that third one of celebration yet. It takes time. But we have definitely moved from toleration to appreciation in our church.

Eli: Rufus is right in saying that about 26 percent of our worship gathering is African-American. But if you go to our new members classes to see what our future is going to look like, they are at least 50 percent African-American. The numbers are moving more rapidly than I ever thought they would.

And that is a remarkable victory. This transition, in terms of the work and care involved, is about as difficult as church planting—more so, in some ways. It is one complicated thing. You need more than token faces on stage. You need leaders at every level of the staff and team.

It requires so much awareness and intentionality. You must be open-minded. You must set aside a lot of preferences that you didn’t know you had.

That difficulty undoubtedly holds many congregations back. Craig, what did it take behind the scenes to ensure that Rufus would be welcomed?

Craig: In my experience, the single biggest factor that indicates any succession is the outgoing pastor’s ability to set their ego aside. We made this transition slowly—it took over two-and-a-half years. Our goal was to eventually have shifted every single thing to Rufus so that when we finally made the announcement that I was stepping back and he was stepping in, we could enthusiastically reply, “Nothing!” when people asked, “What’s going to change?” The change, in terms of leadership, had been incremental and was essentially completed by the time awareness about it was really surfacing.

So we phased everything to Rufus—slowly. Meetings held in my office gradually shifted to his. One by one, I quietly stepped down from leading various committees and he stepped up.

One moment that stands out as a tipping point was when we were trying to figure out the logistics of our office, having brought on a new staff member, and the layout just wasn’t working. A group of us spent about three hours brainstorming, until it finally dawned on me. “I need to move out of my office and give it to Rufus,” I said. We all knew that we weren’t just talking about a building at that point. Rufus looked at me, and said, “Craig, do you think that you can make that move OK?” “I think I can,” I replied. “But we’ll just have to see.” So we found a great little space for me, and I moved out. That symbolized to all the staff that I wasn’t in charge anymore.

That thought—I think I can do this, but we’ll have to see—came to me probably 20 times throughout the transition. I think I can preach less. I think I can go to fewer key meetings. I think I can yield to Rufus’ authority when we have a disagreement.

For senior pastors, that will always be the most important factor for success or failure in a succession. It took incredible trust on Rufus’ part, and it took incredible trust on my part. We only have had a few times where we seriously disagreed on an important issue. Most of those times, I swallowed hard, and said, “OK. This is your decision. I’ll live with it. I won’t be a baby about it. I’ll accept it like any staff member should.” There was only one exception to that, one hill that I was not willing to let go. In that case, Rufus let it go, proving that this was a two-way street.

That mutual humility and care has been what has allowed this to get a strong start. The spirit of compromise is essential for this to ever work. I continue to preach a couple times a year, at Rufus’ request. I’m still available should he need me. But we have entered a new season.

Rufus, anything to add to that?

Rufus: It helped that we knew each other and had very frank conversations before I got here. It also helped to get a range of perspectives. We did study, talked to people who went through similar transitions, and paid special attention to dissect models that had failed to not repeat the mistakes of others.

I especially appreciated Craig’s humility in giving me key decisions—such as staff hiring—from Day 1, knowing that they would affect me, and for his openness to my leadership style, which was much more collaborative. (As a church planter you need more directive leadership, but my style is very collaborative.)

Let’s talk about the tensions present as a church searches for the “third way” you mentioned earlier. Rufus, what does it demand of a pastor to lead a church toward mosaic ministry?

Rufus: Well, many of the lessons that I learned through previous ministry paid off after coming to Hope. God had been gracious in letting me learn through some mistakes.

What kind of mistakes?

Rufus: The first mistake that I’d made was not having patience with people. The biblical principle of being a mosaic congregation like the first church in antiquity is a gospel imperative. But that doesn’t mean that people will automatically accept it.

In my previous church leadership, I see now that I did not give people time to digest the principles that we needed to live out. You can’t assume that a church, even if they’re open to becoming a mosaic congregation, is going to automatically accept anything. It takes a lot of time and a lot of incremental changes. In Houston, I pushed the envelope too quickly.

I also learned the importance of giving people a voice even if they don’t have ultimate choice. It’s hard to get people to buy into a change if they don’t feel heard. One example of this in Houston had been in our children’s classes. There was a sharp divide between kids with strong biblical knowledge and those without. It just happened that the breakdown there was between more privileged, largely white families (who’d attended church and often private Christian schools) and the newer African-American families who’d begun attending. Understandably, those with more biblical knowledge felt that Sunday school was being “dumbed down,” and there was frustration. I made certain decisions to keep the teaching friendly to those hearing the stories for the first time. What I should have done sooner was simply get everyone in the room and talk about it. Even if we’d ended in the same ultimate strategy, there would have been greater consensus and a sense of unity. That’s just respecting people.

How did you teach to encourage this third way?

Rufus: I learned in Houston to keep the biblical example of Jews and Gentiles foremost in people’s minds. Ethnic divisions in the church are not a new problem. The Holy Spirit has tackled this issue before, right? And he won. Frustration forced me to seek out that biblical blueprint. The Jewish Christians, who were exclusive, “chosen,” arrogant and stuck in their thinking were used to reach out to a Gentile world quite different than they were. How in the world did they make that work?

I decided to teach Scripture on this point, without making any explicit reference to the brown/white racial tensions of our day. I was just teaching on the Jews and Gentiles, right? We saw the spirit of reconciliation at work in them, without ever overtly connecting it to our setting. That gave people the necessary distance to ease into thinking about how they were being exclusive without directly threatening their social context.

I remember going to a large Barna convention in Houston in 1998. At the end, I went up to George Barna with a question. “Dr. Barna,” I said, “I am leading a church that wants to become multiethnic. Can you give me information on models?”

I’ll never forget his reply: “Young man, when you find out what works, you let me know. It’s not even a blip on our radar.” That was just over 20 years ago.

I simply didn’t have a blueprint. I’m sure there was one somewhere, but I didn’t know where to look. Eventually I discovered The Brooklyn Tabernacle and went in 1999 to spend four days with that church behind the scenes. But that was the first model of a church like that that I’d seen in practice, and even then there were many gaps that I had to fill in for our context.

But it’s the biblical example presented carefully that breaks down walls. When people really hear what Paul taught—that there is neither Jew nor Greek (race), bond nor free (class), male or female (gender)—when they really see that and how the Spirit of God led the church in the Bible 2,000 years ago—it’s different than them feeling accused. They begin to see the joy and hope of it.

What other principles about the transition can you share?

Rufus: Well, let me just be totally transparent about everything that feels relevant here.

It took about two-and-a-half years to complete the succession plan, and about six-and-a-half to go from 1 percent African-American to that tipping point of 20 percent. We did suffer a total membership loss of about 700 people, and a financial loss of about a $1 million. We have not made it a habit over the last eight years to discuss race except during one short sermon series per year. We believe that more is caught than taught. It’s also important to state that we do not deify or idolize multiethnicity.

Go deeper here. Talk to us about the reconciliation aspect of this kind of ministry.

Rufus: Language is important for us here. We think the biblical approach starts with spiritual reconciliation rather than racial reconciliation. The term “racial reconciliation” is great, but it draws our attention to the surface issue of skin whereas the term “spiritual reconciliation” calls us to focus on the deeper issue of sin, which lies at the roots of our racial history and pain. Go to the root—spiritual reconciliation (harmony between God and humankind) must address racial inequity, but racial reconciliation (harmony between human being and human being) does not usually address spiritual reconciliation.

Racial reconciliation is often driven by law and guilt. Spiritual reconciliation, while encompassing all that racial reconciliation does, is motivated by love and sincerity of heart. Racial reconciliation looks to the greater good and what is seen, which is wonderful, but spiritual reconciliation looks to the Kingdom and the unseen soul. Racial reconciliation is empowered by the human will, which will weary over time, but spiritual reconciliation is emboldened by the Holy Spirit, whose power never wanes. Racial reconciliation is important, but spiritual reconciliation is indispensable if a divided people want to go beyond mere coexistence to enriched living. Government policies have gone as far as they can go; only when spiritual reconciliation is practiced can we perfect our churches, cities, or our country’s union.

Let’s return to your earlier triad: toleration → appreciation → celebration. You say that Hope is at the “appreciation” phase. What did it take to get from toleration to appreciation?

Rufus: Well, besides simple visibility—diverse faces sharing the stage and social media, that kind of thing—there are three principles that we’ve learned that have gotten us to appreciation: conviction, conversation, and community.

First, it takes a conviction that mosaic ministry is a gospel imperative. It’s not extra. It’s related to the core of the faith.

The second principle is conversation. Fellowship is how you move forward. You get people together to converse, centered on the Word of God.

Finally, community. Get people together. Create spaces for civil, candid, Christ-centered conversations. Make it about the Bible, not just cultural or political views.

We do this through a program called Ethnos, which is our multigenerational, multiethnic small group ministry. We get people together—six people to a table, 24 people in a room. They spend 10 weeks together, eating meals together and studying the Bible. Then the group does three “spiritual adventures” together, which takes them outside. Friendships grow there, and we conclude the time by having people invite people they know to take part in the next cohort. We now have about 400 graduates of this, and the impact has been incredible. Those people have become the grassroots culture of diverse friendships.

What will it take to get to celebration?

Rufus: A growing culture of diverse relationships. We want our congregation to all be able to name at least two real friends who are different from them, generationally or racially. As well, we look forward to the day when our music is a real symbol of who we are—when no one is complaining about their preferences, but our mixed mosaic congregation can worship freely together in all sorts of styles. We’re getting closer and closer to that. But it’s not complete celebration yet.

We’re just now getting to the place where we don’t need quotas any more. In the past, we have had to count key volunteers—“How many elders or deacons are white? How many are brown?” We don’t like that and are glad to be past that stage.

One interesting dynamic is that moving to be more multiethnic has side benefits—for example, we are more multigenerational now. We are addressing that formally in our mission statement to reach our unchurched neighbors of every age or ethnicity. Mosaic encourages the mosaic.

Younger people are the ones who must get this. They are realizing that they are not part of the post-racial society that they thought they were, and they understand that every generation must work hard for unity. But they want to sustain it. All of this plays into the celebration of the differences that God’s made us with.

We learned a long time ago that this is the Lord’s church. He gave us the example of what a worshiping community is supposed to be. We just have to be faithful to that vision and the hard work of preserving it in a culture that works to separate us according to human divisions of age, gender, race, and class. The true gospel of Jesus creates a community that’s more like a salad bowl than a melting pot. I use that example all the time. We maintain our distinctions and celebrate them. We don’t leave all our cultural differences behind to become homogenous. Our individual differences and identities contribute beautifully to the larger whole that God is building.

That’s not easy. But it is so worth it.

 

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