Diverse Houston church experiences explosive growth

HOUSTON—Until he went to college, Johnny Teague hardly ever associated with African Americans.

But God has a way of changing circumstances to advance his kingdom.

Today, Teague, who is white, pastors Church at the Cross in Houston, where a wide majority of the congregation is African American. And under his leadership the church has exploded from 16 attendees to nearly 450 with 71 baptisms in the past year.

“I’ve never been in a happier church my whole life,” Teague told the TEXAN. “I mean, this church is happy. They love each other. They’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. We’re striving to be what God wants us to be. We’re being transformed in his image.”

But his experience at the church has not always been joyful. Before Teague was called as pastor five and a half years ago, the congregation had sold its property and moved into an eight-story building. Then it shrank to fewer than 20 in average attendance. It was also four months from bankruptcy and $5 million in debt when he arrived.

Teague led the church to sell its building with one month to spare before it would have gone bankrupt. Then the congregation voted to move to west Houston and purchased property there.

Just when things seemed to be improving though, a contractor ran off with the church’s money. Absorbing another blow, it had to meet in a movie theater. When the theater closed, the congregation moved to a middle school. Finally, in May 2010 it moved into its own building with about 60 in attendance.

Then, God started to work in amazing ways, Teague said.

In one year Church at the Cross saw its attendance jump to nearly 400, attracting an international array of people, including first-generation Americans from 12 countries.

“A lot of our African Americans have said, ‘Pastor, a lot of our friends question us, and they say, “How can you go to a church where you’ve got a white preacher?”’ And they say, ‘We don’t think of him as being white. He preaches God’s Word,’” Teague said.

Despite an upbringing in which he was largely separated from blacks, the pastor said he began to make African-American friends while playing college football and later semi-pro football with the Houston Express. Later, at a pastorate in Weimar, his predominately white congregation began to have an influx of black worshipers.

Those experiences prepared Teague for leading Church at the Cross, he said.

“We’ve not targeted anybody. We’ve preached God’s Word,” he said. “But it’s been an astounding element, for some reason, in my ministry that the Lord has blessed us with diversification that I could never fathom. And I can’t explain it.”

When asked the reason for his church’s growth, Teague points to expository preaching. He is preaching through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and averaging 16 Sundays per book. Currently the church is studying Proverbs.

“We preach hard things. When Scripture deals in Levitical law with how we present ourselves, we talk about people wearing these pants below their britches and below their hips, and we talk about how girls dress seductively and [how] these things aren’t right. We speak about illegitimacy rates. We speak about living together. We speak about homosexuality,” Teague said.

“When you go through God’s Word, there’s not one issue that we skip over. If God deals with it, we deal with it and we deal with it from a biblical perspective. And what has thrilled me is that our church doesn’t have itching ears. They’re willing to hear God’s truth.”

When Teague came to Leviticus in his preaching, people told him he should avoid the book because it seemed irrelevant to modern believers. But he preached it anyway, and six people were saved on the first Sunday in Leviticus, the pastor said.

In light of his experiences in racially diverse churches, Teague said having a ethnic mix in leadership is important at both the local church and denominational levels. He affirmed the SBC’s adoption of a report last month calling for intentional leadership inclusion of people from all racial groups in Baptist life.

Teague cited the importance of dispelling the myth that Southern Baptists are prejudiced.

“I have heard some African Americans who come to our church say, ‘I never thought I’d go to a Baptist church. I always had the feeling that Southern Baptists were somewhat prejudiced,’” he said. “I say, ‘Well that’s a misunderstanding. That’s a bad perception and it’s inaccurate.’”

In fact, at Church at the Cross ethnic diversity among the ministry staff is a key to reaching people for Christ, Teague emphasized.

“There can’t be apartheid in our church,” he said. “…We just wanted what’s on stage to reflect what’s in the audience and what’s in leadership to reflect what’s in the church. The Lord has given us good men and women who meet that criterion who happen to be diversified.”

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