Thanks to all those who read and/or commented on the series of posts on reforming the African-American church. It was good to read people’s thoughts, feedback and questions on that topic. My wife suggested I do a more “positive” follow-up by interviewing pastors in churches that are doing good work. Sorta highlighting places where it’s going well—which I think is an excellent idea. So, I’ve began contacting a few brothers I’d like to include in a “Pure Church Reformers” series. The first interview in the series is with Bro. Eric Redmond, Senior Pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills, MD.
1. Where are you from originally?
I was born in Chicago, where my parents moved in order for my father to attend graduate school. Since age 2, I was raised in Prince George’s County, MD. I lived in Forestville, MD for all of my pre-college years. My parents still reside in the home in which I was raised.
2. Were you raised in a Christian home? If so, what was your early church experience like? Tell us how you became a Christian.
Until I was a teen, I was raised in a nominally Christian, very moral, love-filled home. My parents, raised in the South, were church-goers with a southern African-American, Judeo-Christian work, family, and community ethic. However, it was not until my parents experienced conversion by Christ that my home took on a distinctively Christian experience. By the mighty working of the Lord’s grace, his work of sanctification in my parents has never diminished from the time of their commitments to Christ. Today they are two of the most mature and sincere believers I know.
Prior to their conversions, they responsibly took my brother and me to church with them many Sundays. On the Sundays they did not attend church, they placed my brother and me on the local Sunday School van of an SBC church near our home. It was through the work of two missionaries appointed by the SBC Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board), who preached the Gospel to us on the van every Sunday, that I was introduced to Christ as a child in my late-elementary / pre-teen years. I can remember learning John 3:16 every Sunday.
4. When and how did you decide to enter pastoral ministry?
I am a Bible college and seminary graduate. However, in my last year of undergraduate studies, through the encouragement of three of my professors, I sensed the Lord directing me to pursue becoming a seminary professor – to pursue the highest level of training. (So as to distinguish this from the modern phenomena of every young seminarian pursuing a PhD, please note that for an African-American, pursuing the lectern over the pulpit was a very novel idea among my classmates, friends, and church members. Even the ministry staff at my church found my passions to be “interesting.” But the Lord had put into me a passion to teach the Scriptures to our people. Also, I began to reason that many of our churches, traditionally, were weak in preaching and teaching sound theology because our young men did not pursue studies at evangelical schools, and that because there were few mentors – i.e., professors – to draw them to such schools. In contrast, there were plenty of examples of pastors to continue to push young men toward the pulpit. However, that was usually without the pursuit of strong solid training in the word of God. I wanted to be a drawing card to thorough, formal, biblical and theological training in an evangelical setting. This is still my passion, so I keep my hand in evangelical academia as an adjunct teacher, chapel and seminar speaker, as a trustee of a large evangelical seminary, and as a member and presenter in the Evangelical Theological Society.)
Upon graduation from seminary – without the PhD, (for the finances for studies past the Master degree were not available then), by the great sovereignty of God – I taught for 6 years at a Bible college in Maryland. While in my fifth year of teaching, the church of one of my students became vacant due to the translation of their pastor to glory. In attempting to help the church fill the pulpit during the vacancy, I was called by the church to be the interim pastor, part-time. I signed a contract in which I agreed that I could not be considered for the pastor, nor could I approach the church about being considered for the pastorate, nor could I speak to the pulpit committee about any potential candidates. Being contented with my position at the college, and only hoping to help a church have solid teaching during their search period for a permanent pastor, I gladly worked within the contract. The Lord used this six-month “interim” period to warm the church to me, and to warm me to the church and to the thought of being a vocational pastor. The church approached me to stay as pastor, offering to rescind the previous contractual agreement. As I like to say, it was only then that I knew for certain that the Lord had called me to (vocational) pastoral ministry!
5. How long have you been in pastoral ministry? How long have you been at your current church?
Prior to my current position, I served on staff as a part-time youth minister at one church, as a part-time outreach and missions pastor at another church, and as a traditional “associate minister” at my home church—a traditional, mainline African-American church. Since the missions pastor position, I have been in some form of vocational pastoral ministry for twelve years. I have been at my current church as a (senior) pastor for six years since the time they called me to the interim position.
6. Tell us about the church? What was it like when you arrived? How has it changed over time?
Hillcrest was founded in 1955. In its early existence, it was a predominantly white congregation. As the demographics around the church changed, so did the membership. I have been told that around 1985 the membership was 50-50 between African-Americans and whites. By the time I arrived in 2001, the church was 90% African-American in membership. As the eighth pastor of Hillcrest, I was the first African-American pastor.
When I arrived, Hillcrest had a history of being a church that preached the Gospel, trusted the word of God as true, welcomed missionaries, and gave faithfully to the Southern Baptist Convention. The church was complementarian in thought, but not completely so in practice. However, I cannot say that we were intentionally Gospel-centered as a corporate body.
The average Sunday attendance was around 250. The church had a high-church version of a traditional, white, Southern-styled, 1970’s-Southern Baptist, corporate worship liturgy, in which hymns, doxologies, and anthems were sung, and some contemporary music was sung to tracks. Only the piano, organ, and hand bells were employed as instruments, and service was (exactly) 1-hour long. There was no freedom for expression of one’s love of God or praise of him; laughter was the only audible response welcomed. Membership was taken from the floor of the corporate worship service though an altar call.
There was a traditional Sunday School model for education, and monthly (yes, monthly) business meetings. Prayer meeting and Bible study were held on Wednesdays.
The membership was significantly older than me in age, the median age now (2007) being 59 years of age, and the median age of the deacons now being about 64 years of ages (which has probably lowered, as four of the deacons have made their transitions to glory since 2001). Other than Sunday School, there was not a consistent ministry to teens and their families; there was a consistent ministry to younger children on Sundays. I was the only full-time pastoral staff member.
Since 2001, the ethnic complexion of the membership has remained the same, even though we now run 350 in corporate worship on Sundays. We are solidly partnering with the works of the SBC, now being part of a strong state-level association—Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia (SBCV). They have joined us in our focus of reaching the 20,000 people who live within a 1-mile radius of our church with the Gospel. Primarily through the SBC, we continue to give in a very strong way toward the preaching of the Gospel around the world, and we continue to show hospitality to missionaries in a faithful manner.
We no longer take membership from the floor. (Hallelujah!) Following a modified catechumenate model, and using Nine Marks of a Healthy Church as our core curricula, we now take in members through a process of completing a New Members course, interviewing with the pastor, and applying for membership—that is, being received by the membership through recommendation by the leadership and voting. We have done this in order to have meaningful membership—a membership that closely reflects membership in the New Testament and can preserve the purity of the Gospel. This also has been helpful in casting a vision for a reformation in the church.
We have developed a “scope and sequence” for educating our children and teens in the faith. This includes bringing online the Children’s Desiring God curricula and model for training our children, which is in process. We are developing “Titus 2” models for passing on the faith from the older generation to the younger generation in our men’s and women’s ministries. Being intentional about developing future leaders in accordance with the qualification of Scripture, which is important to the work of the Gospel, we have developed arenas for training men and young men in the Scriptures and for servicing the people of God.
We have added a full-time youth pastor of our teen ministry, a part-time pastor of children’s discipleship, an intern to oversee college-aged ministries, and a part-time director over worship and music. Significantly, corporate worship times have a flavor of reverent celebration. Preaching expositionally has remained central to Sunday services. The idea of becoming corporately Gospel-centered/Christ-centered is taking root around the church. Also, we are now expressly complementarian. It is a work of patient faithfulness, depending upon the Holy Spirit to do what is impossible for man.
7. Were there any areas needing reform in your mind? Did the congregation and other leaders agree that those reforms were needed? How did you lead the other leaders and the congregation through these reform efforts?
The greatest areas in which we needed and still need reform are in our leadership structure, in corporate prayer, in our understanding of evangelism and our burden for the lost, and in biblical hospitality. We have a pastor-and-deacons model for leadership, as opposed to a pastor-elders-and-deacons model. I have said to our church and leadership that our deacons, in all of their faithfulness as servants, play a role of partial-elders and partial deacons, in which they have the authority of elders without the qualifications or roles of elders, and in which they do part of the work of deacons, but not all of what deacons should do. However, I have walked slowly in this reform because earlier attempts at reform were misunderstood by a few people as grasps for power rather than as sincere attempts to position us to live and preach the Gospel with greater joy and power. However, we must reform this area in order to please the Lord. We must reform this area in order for the Gospel-work of biblical shepherding to take place. We must reform this area in order for the Gospel-work of membership care to happen responsibly before the Lord. We agree that we first need a shared understanding of this model of leadership before we can attempt to practice it. We intend to study the concept of biblical eldership and biblical church government as a corporate body. I intend to take the leadership through a preliminary study prior to the corporate study.
Like many churches, we need more time to pray, and to make the focus of our corporate prayer times items in line with God’s will for the corporate body—the church. Our numbers for corporate prayer meeting are low in comparison to worship service attendance. The majority of the body agrees that this reform is needed and we are working toward it.
In the Lord’s grace, we have reformed the altar call. We first had to gain a shared understanding of the Good News, election, regeneration, and the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing people to faith. We studied these concepts, and the concept of meaningful membership, for more than three months, allowing for the “Billy Graham generation” to ask many questions. It took a period of six months from the time of the first discussion for the actual change to take place. In the end, I struck a compromise with the altar-call-traditionalists among the leadership in which I did not have to sacrifice my convictions about the Gospel, and in which those favoring the altar call did not have to feel completely displaced. There is no such thing as receiving membership from the floor of the corporate worship service, for which the majority is thankful.
In terms of hospitality, we are growing. However, developing biblical community, and receiving people unlike us who have ideas different from our preferences and traditions, are areas in which their significance to the Gospel needs to be grasped more fully. I am in need of grace to lead us to embrace the lepers, entertain strangers, and to receive every new member as a member with equal standing in Christ, and thus in the local assembly and household of God. We have not really explored this area for reform. There have been discussions, but not an all-out assault on this for the sake of the Gospel.
8. What fruit is the Lord bearing in the people of the church through these reforms?
At this time, the greatest fruit is the patience the Lord is working in me to wait on him to bring about reform. The language of reforming, in very primitive forms, is beginning to permeate the church and take root. The Lord is raising up men and young men who are grasping Biblical Theology and a Gospel-centered view of the kingdom. People are beginning to see how marriage and the family fit into the plan of God for the spread of the Gospel; we are beginning to fight for marriage, for marriage joy, and for raising our children in the fear of Christ, and we have hired a part-time associate pastor to help us in this endeavor. Also, people have an expectation of strong, expositional, Christ-centered preaching from the pulpit week to week. As one member said to me, “Pastor, now when I listen to the sermons of others, I notice when they do not tie their preaching to the Gospel. I have noticed that you present the Gospel in every sermon, tying every passage back to Christ’s work.” This is the sort of “ah-ha” in the members that makes me burst with joy!
9. What issues occupy the bulk of your prayer life for the church?
As we continue to grow in the area of corporate prayer, our prayers are changing from being related to sickness and financial provision primarily, to a balance of praying for the physical needs of the membership while also praying toward reaching people around us with the Gospel. As noted above, praying for missionaries has been a hallmark of Hillcrest for decades, for which I am most grateful. Praying for the Lord to send out missionaries from among our own ranks is something that is growing around the congregation.
Our prayer time also is given to the end of the war / peace in the Middle East, and for our staff pastors and their families. In almost every prayer time I hear people call out my name and ask for the Lord’s blessings on me. I am thankful.
10. As you look out over the African-American church and the wider evangelical church world, what things encourage you?
I am encouraged as I see the Lord creating a reformational movement among the African-American church. I am hopeful for a Spirit-wrought revival and reformation. I see younger men talking about the significance of theology and the Gospel to their ministries. I am excited as I see the humble, high-brow theological discussions taking place at Reformed Blacks of America, the Council of Reforming Churches, and at blogs like yours and Non Nobis Domine.
I also am encouraged by our Anglo-brothers’ no-strings-attached support of this reformation. In this I see a shared burden for our reformation, with a desire for ethnic minorities to have equal-in-Christ sitting at the table, without patronization or paternalism on the part of our Anglo brothers in the Lord. I see no suspicion of impure motives or taking advantage of post-60’s white guilt on the part of our African-American brothers; it seems that the Gospel, not guilt (or feelings of inferiority) are driving this cross-cultural reforming partnership. Together for the Gospel, the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals, Desiring God Ministries, and The Gospel Coalition have been key players in this development. From where I stand, these ministries, themselves, are indicators of a reformation blowing across the land, which brings me great joy.
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