The Common Good
February 2010

Extended Interview with Efrem Smith

by Elizabeth Palmberg | February 2010

Efrem Smith

Efrem Smith

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Bio: Author of The Hip-Hop Church; Senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis.
Web site: www.sanctuarycov.org

1. What delights you in your daily work?

Smith: What delights me is participating in the transformation of community, but also a feeling that, because our church is intentionally urban and multicultural, that in some ways we’re changing the face of the church.

2. What would be an example of a moment when you experienced that?

There’s a number … One moment was, we adopted a school a couple years ago, where we were sending volunteers from our church to tutor kids in that school; we were also doing some afterschool programs there, and we found out that there were a number of kids who were being bused to that school from a homeless shelter. We didn’t have the wherewithal at the time to totally address their housing challenges to the fullest extent, but we wanted to make sure that those kids went to school with dignity, and so we provided brand-new backpacks, school supplies, and winter coats and boots and mittens for all of those kids. To be able to partner with that school in that way - and that opened doors for us to connect with some of the parents of those kids, and impact their lives - to me, that’s really what we’re about.

3. What would you say was the biggest challenge that you and folks at Sanctuary Covenant experience now?

One of our challenges as a church is moving beyond just a multiracial experience of worship, and truly building deep community with one another – [so] that we’re not just sitting next to each other on Sunday morning, but we’re really engaging in each other’s lives, to the point where we’re meeting each other’s needs; we’re supporting each other in growing in God in a deep way. It’s not that that’s not happening, but I know it’s an area where we can continue to improve and get stronger.

4. What’s one way that you’re trying to meet that challenge?

One way is through what we call community groups, which is our small group ministry, but it’s bigger than just getting together and praying together or studying the Word together. How do we get together so that we understand our stories better - so that as a diverse church, as a multicultural church, we’re being blessed by being in a deeper relationship with people that are different than us?

5. That sounds like a great move towards instantiating the body of Christ! What’s one thing that you’ve learned in your work that’s just really surprised you?

One of the things that’s been surprising to me is that, I truly believe - and I’m not just saying this because it’s going to be in Sojourners - that in this emerging generation of evangelicals, the “Jim Wallis” evangelicals have, to a great degree, overtaken the “Jerry Falwell” evangelicals. There are just so many European-American younger evangelicals [for whom] social justice and social change is just such a passion. When we first started, our church was almost 70 percent white, and the majority of them were between the ages of 19 and 35, and were clearly evangelical, but had such a passion for social justice and social change. I just wasn’t expecting when we started this urban, evangelical church in Minneapolis that we’d have such a response from white evangelicals, in terms of attendance and membership. Now we’re more like 50 percent white and 40 percent black, 10 percent Asian and Latino. I was surprised by how many European Americans, white evangelicals, saw Sanctuary Covenant Church as a place they would want to call home.

6. Do you have any tips for faith communities that might want to try to emulate your success in reaching out to a multiracial congregation?

One of the things that we did in the very beginning of our church was we had potluck meals together, where we were intentional about inviting people of different ethnic backgrounds. We invited them to bring a dish, something for the meal, that represented their heritage, their culture, their upbringing. And then we would eat those foods together, sharing each other’s food—but also what we did was share stories from our backgrounds, and I encouraged us to digest one another’s stories at the same level that we were willing to digest each others’ foods. I think, to have a healthy, growing multicultural church, it has to begin in smaller groups building authentic relationships and really sharing and receiving each others’ stories.

7. That is the welcome table indeed!

Yes.

8. What’s the best thing that anyone ever taught you?

There’s so many things, but I guess I would say that our work for social change ought to be an overflow—it ought to come out of a deep, intimate relationship with God. We shouldn’t separate working for social change from a deep spiritual life with God.

9. Our final question. What gives you hope?

What gives me hope is seeing that more and more churches around the country are becoming multicultural and are engaging urban communities. And so, though there’s still a need for more churches to pursue being multicultural and to engage the city, I’m very hopeful, [because of] the signs I see of an ever-increasing multi-cultural church.

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