When I stepped back into the steepled brick church building of my childhood in Denver, what surprised me most was all that remained the same. There were the same pews, half empty, the same sanctuary with organ on stage left and piano on stage right. I pointed out the hymnals to my young daughters (who had no idea what they were).

As the room filled, though, I noticed things I had never seen at West Side Christian Church. The people who assembled for worship came in a wide range of colors and ages. A worship band began to play popular praise choruses as lyrics and grainy art videos looped on a screen hanging from the ceiling. The second verse of "Shout to the Lord" came up in Spanish.

So things have changed, I thought.

Until last year, West Side was one of thousands of U.S. churches in decline. Stuck somewhere in the churchy traditions of the 1950s, the 91-year-old ministry was literally dying.

The minister of vision and teaching, 29-year-old Cody Moore, says he realized something had to change when he began burying more and more members in an aging, 100-plus-member congregation that rarely added newcomers.

The budget also was shrinking. A financial crisis in March 2004 finally prompted the board of elders to make a life-or-death decision. Could the church continue to sustain the ministry? Or should they close the church doors and sell the building? The church chose to replant itself, knowing that even the best efforts at transforming a congregation usually mean conflict and a loss of members.

"There are very few who do this and who do it well," church-planting consultant Rick Grover says.

Church leaders expected difficulties when they took out a $150,000 loan in the fall of 2004 to finance a new vision. They called it the Pearl, after the one of great price in Matthew 13. They budgeted $50,000 for marketing—billboards, direct mailers, newspapers, and local television. Grover came on board as a church-planting and urban-ministry consultant.

The leaders envisioned a dynamic urban church that would meet the needs of the racially diverse people in the community. Local Hispanics were attracted to the church that before had been primarily white. Younger people and families came.

"We're talking about God's kingdom," Moore told The Denver Post last year. "It's not about us. It's not about a social club. It's for you to know the Lord and serve others. Some people are getting it; some aren't."

That is, not everyone bought into the new vision.

New Future, New Church

The ministry team, all young 20- and 30-something friends from Dallas Christian College, put together a presentation for the elder board that led to the formation of the slogan, "The Pearl … a new experience, a new future, a new church."

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But many saw the vision as a message of "In with the new and out with the old." Nearly half of the members left. Only a handful of seniors remained. Even some of those, after staying through the changes, eventually left.

"Our rate of attrition was pretty high," Moore says. "But it was either lose half of the people or lose all the people."

Church leaders had already tried other ministry options, such as a second service and a Spanish-speaking small group, with little success. Ismael Garcia, hired to help create an atmosphere where Hispanics would be valued as members rather than as a secondary contingent in a separate space, says the church wanted to avoid a segregated outreach.

"There are no basements in heaven where the Spanish-language church meets," Garcia says.

Moore says that without an integrated, multicultural group, a certain tension in the congregation continued. "It was like we were picking at the ends and weren't really hitting the heart of the problem."

Creating a multiethnic congregation was long overdue, according to former West Side minister Doug Oakes, now senior minister of First Christian Church of Lamar, Missouri. Oakes was minister at West Side during what some would call the church's heyday, from 1976 to 1985. He was minister in 1982, the year the church completed a new auditorium. When Oakes arrived, the congregation numbered 130. When he left it had grown to 230. Even then, the church leaders realized they weren't really reaching the community around them.

"Our problem was the neighborhood changed," Oakes recalls. The middle-class and blue-collar people attending the church clashed culturally with the Asian and Hispanic immigrants. Much of the congregation resisted integration of the different races, Oakes says—partly because of cultural reasons, and, though difficult to pinpoint, partly because of racial prejudice.

He recalls marrying a mixed-race couple who later joined the church. But when they stopped attending not long after, Oakes says he went to talk to them in their home. "They said someone in the church had told them they were not welcome."

Now a mixed-race couple is part of the leadership at the Pearl. Jarrod Joplin, who leads worship, and his wife, A.J., offer what experts say is a clear sign of acceptance for potential church members of varying ethnicities.

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The Pearl's attempts to diversify leadership have paid off with a new diversity in attendance. The building is the same, same orange padded pews. But the white and gray church members have kaleidoscoped into a wider array of browns, yellows, and blacks. The congregation clearly reflects the surrounding area that is 60 percent Latino, 32 percent white, 4.5 percent Asian, 1.5 percent African American, and 2 percent other races.

With a multiethnic neighborhood in clear view, the church re-engineered everything.

To attract fellowship-centered Hispanic culture, they began a coffee time after Sunday morning worship and spent more time during services meeting and greeting. A Cinco de Mayo fiesta on the church lot included rock and Spanish-language bands, a bungee bull, kids' games, and food that attracted hundreds of the holiday revelers who typically cruise the street in front of the church. Sunday morning worship also changed to include Spanish and English welcomes, Scripture readings, and prayers. "Not to say we're fully bilingual," Garcia says, "but just to send a message that we value both cultures."

The music speaks that message, too. A Latino trill on the guitar and a couple of songs in Spanish, Garcia says, are included "just to add the warmth and the culture of the Hispanic people."

In addition, the hymns on piano and organ and the structured, one-hour service gave way to screen-projected choruses, a worship band, and a looser feel to Sunday morning.

Worship Wars

According to a March 2001 Faith Communities Today report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, worship styles dramatically reflect the decade when a congregation was organized, so any change signals a disconnect from what many may view as the heritage or history of the church. The change in worship style at the Pearl stirred up a perfect recipe for conflict.

Disgruntled members came to ministers and accused them of lying. Scott McWhirter, former family and community outreach minister who helped with the replant, admits there may have been miscommunication or a lack of communication. The congregation wanted to know all the details of what was taking place and wanted to vote, he says, but "the church isn't a democracy."

Teaching minister Moore says there was nothing secret about the open vision meeting held in June 2004. He also notes that the volunteer launch team of 30 to 40 people knew the details of the changes to come, and that no one was excluded from joining that core group.

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Former elder Stan Thields, 81, has been a member of the church since he was a boy. He says he feels Moore has ignored him, his preferences, and those of other seniors.

"I'm sad," he says. Though officially still a member, Thields stopped attending the church even before the replant because his wife, Ann, was injured and left homebound. He says a deacon from the church, an old friend, delivers Communion to them each week. About a dozen older members, he says, have transferred their membership to another congregation.

According to David Bradshaw, former minister at West Side from 1994 to 2000 and now minister to seniors at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, ministry to seniors slipped through the cracks during the transition to the Pearl.

"Some people seem to forget that older people need Christ, too," he says.

Moore, however, says the church has resumed ministering to seniors. "Only a handful of seniors stayed with us—some left after trying to stay, and those I respect," he says. "But we're also reaching seniors now." Among new members and guests at the Pearl are several older people, Latino and white. A team of seven deacons has begun delivering Communion to shut-ins.

Thields, who had been an elder at the church for decades, also laments that the leadership of the board diminished after it hired Moore. "It seemed to me that Cody [Moore] just ran the whole show," he says. "The elders just did whatever he said." Bradshaw also says the Pearl abandoned solid leaders when it abandoned the elderly.

Moore acknowledges that control and power issues cropped up during the painful process of change. "We got called names," he says. "I personally got called a cult leader."

Once the dissenters left, the congregation began to build itself back up. January 2005 attendance averaged 140 for Sunday worship—including many new faces along with some familiar ones.

New Births

Fourteen new members joined the Pearl within a few months of the launch, and Moore hopes for more from the estimated 200 people who have visited. Thirteen new Christians have been baptized. Moore recalls fewer than 10 baptisms during the three and a half years he was at pre-Pearl West Side.

The ministry is now 60 percent self-supporting, with additional money coming from special fundraising projects. While a verdict is yet to come on the success of the replant, Moore says the vision is solid.

"We really believe in what we're doing," he says. "If you put the kingdom of God first, everything else falls into place. That's what we're trying to do."

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Rebecca Barnes is a freelance writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Related Elsewhere:

More CT articles about becoming a multiracial church includes our April cover package:

All Churches Should Be Multiracial | The biblical case. (March 31, 2005)
Harder than Anyone Can Imagine | Four working pastors—Latino, Asian, black, and white—respond to the bracing thesis of United by Faith. A CT forum with Noel Castellanos, Bill Hybels, Soong-Chan Rah, Frank Reid. (April 01, 2005)
Big Dream in Little Rock
What multiracial church looks like in the town formerly infamous for segregation. (April 01, 2005)

Our October, 2000, coverage of Divided by Faith includes:

Divided by Faith? | A recent study argues that American evangelicals cannot foster genuine racial reconciliation. Is our theology to blame? (Sept. 22, 2000)
Color-Blinded | Why 11 o'clock Sunday morning is still a mostly segregated hour. An excerpt from Divided by Faith. (Sept. 22, 2000)
We Can Overcome | A CT forum examines the subtle nature of the church's racial division—and offers hope. (Sept. 29, 2000)
Shoulder to Shoulder in the Sanctuary | A profile in racial unity. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Common Ground in the Supermarket Line | A profile in racial unity. (Sept. 27, 2000)
The Lord in Black Skin | As a white pastor of a black church, I found the main reason prejudice and racism hurt so much: because we are so much alike. (Sept. 25, 2000)

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