Florissant church intentionally seeks diversity
FLORISSANT—To understand what God is doing at New Life Baptist Church right now, you have to go back a generation.
Pastor Jim Goforth Jr., was just a boy in the early 1970s when his father, Jim Sr., was pastoring a church in Columbus, Ohio, but he still remembers his father driving a bus into the inner city to pick up African-American children to bring them to church. Some in his father’s congregation threw out subtle hints that they didn’t like it, but he didn’t seem to be bothered by that.
Goforth remembered one particular incident involving a pew rack that had been pulled off. A woman in the church was upset about it and she went to the pastor to ask him what he was going to do about it. She didn’t just want an answer about the pew rack though. She wanted to know what the pastor was going to do about the boys.
“My dad said, ‘I’m going to get a screw and a screwdriver and I’m going to put it back on the pew,’” Goforth said. “‘And I’m going to keep on loving them.’”
A few months later, one of the boys in question approached Goforth’s father to ask him if he’d heard the news that day. A convenience store had been robbed and the owner of the store had been shot.
“That was my gang,” the boy said. “Preacher, if you hadn’t reached me, I’d have been there and I’d be in jail today.”
Now fast forward 30-plus years to February 2003 when Goforth became the senior pastor at New Life, which was originally founded in 1928. As you might imagine, he brought compassion for people—all people—with him, and just like his father, he strongly believes that the church is supposed to look diverse.
“You see heaven in [the book of] Revelation and it is a multi-ethnic gathering,” Goforth said. “We say we are striving to be a church like heaven. Hebrews 8:5 says the temple was a shadow of what is in Heaven, so I believe the church should be that as well. We strive to look like Heaven as well as act and feel like Heaven. How does it look? It is diverse in color, it is unified in conformity to Christ, and it is a fellowship in the kinship of family.”
So, from the very beginning, Goforth began to pray for diversity in church leadership.
“I knew that for us to reach people of color, we needed leaders of color,” Goforth said. “We needed influencers, we need people of peace.”
He said that an amazing thing started to happen. He began to hear reports of people who were at a nearby Schnuck’s or McDonald’s who said that God had told them to come to New Life. One man heard from God during his devotional time one morning. When they showed up, Goforth said his response was always the same: “We’ve been expecting you.”
Wayne “Doc” Lawrence, an African-American and the current minister of education at New Life, was one of the men who heard God’s call. Donna Kennedy, an Anglo and the current director of music ministries, heard it, too. So did Aaron Layton, an African-American and the current minister to students. The diverse staff also offers Bible studies in Spanish, and they are continually thinking and praying about reaching other people groups.
Goforth admitted that his message was met with a little resistance at first from a couple of families who are no longer at the church, but he said that the vast majority of the people who stayed have been “very supportive.”
“When you consider people who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s,” Goforth said, “who’ve seen our country change—for them to stay in a church like we’ve become, I’m just so proud of them.”
Since 2003, the church has grown from 63 people in worship each Sunday to 180. It has settled in at about 150 (after the Ford plant closings). According to Lawrence, people who are new to the church recognize God’s work in the diverse congregation right away.
“Strangers tell us they feel a sense of love and genuine concern for others,” Lawrence said. “They sense the presence of God and a spirit of defined truth and sincerity from the mixed congregation.”
B.K., an African-American man who is a member at New Life, said, “I have found a place with strong teaching where you are challenged to be still and know God, and yet given freedom and liberty to celebrate him as well. I love it!”
God has burdened the people of New Life to go beyond Florissant and even the United States to reach other people groups with the Gospel. Goforth has been to Romania and two missionaries from the church have visited Guatemala and Nicaragua. Then a woman from the church, who is a native of El Salvador, returned to the country in 2005 and by mid-2006, just as Goforth was planning to go there, the Missouri Baptist Convention began to target El Salvador with the Gospel in an official partnership relationship.
By the time he visited the country, the woman from New Life who returned to El Salvador had already set up two missions, and Goforth saw that God was already at work in the hearts of people there.
“While I was there,” Goforth said, “I was able to lead four men to Christ in the streets and I saw three others come to Christ in services, including two that came to Christ by the river where I was baptizing people. I also saw 98 professions of faith at the film ministry on Saturday night.”
So the seeds continue to be planted and watered in El Salvador by New Life, and God continues to be faithful to bring forth the increase.