CONCORD, North Carolina - When the Ohio-born Rick Ross became pastor of Concord First Assembly in 2003, he couldn't help but notice all the photos on walls in the foyer marking significant events in the history of the church. Everyone in any leadership role in the first 45 years at the church in the northern suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, had been white. In fact, out of 1,500 attendees, only five black families attended when Ross arrived 12 years ago.
Ross, coming from years of ministry in the Seattle area, realized that Concord First Assembly, like many Southern congregations, remained segregated long after civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
Today, the 57-year-old Concord First Assembly is comprised of 40 percent ethnic minorities, with fully two-thirds of new visitors being nonwhite. In addition, attendance now tops 3,800 weekly with six other multiethnic or minority congregations being Concord First satellites or parent affiliated churches. People representing 30 nations attend Concord First, the 25th largest church in the AG.
At Concord First, a noticeable blending of races is evident in the choir and band members on stage, as well as in the musical numbers. A contemporary Christian song in the intimate auditorium with seats close to the stage is likely to be followed by an energetic black gospel number.
The changes extend beyond platform performance. Nonwhites increasingly are part of the pastoral staff and church board.
"We were deliberate and strategic to be representative of the community," Ross says. "All who are here know they are valuable and they have a voice. We want to be all tribes and languages worshipping together."
Concord First Assembly is located just north of the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, in a city where 18 percent are black and 13 percent are Hispanic, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The trim, energetic, even antsy Ross pumps his fist in the air during worship and retains his animation while preaching.
At weekly staff meetings Ross seeks out feedback from ethnic minority pastors in an effort to be more aware of the issues facing people of different skin colors. He doesn't mind pushback.
"I don't want to just hear from everybody who is like me," Ross says.
Joe DeJesus, 49, is pastor of the Spanish-language congregation that meets on campus, Concord First Assembly Español. The church, now in its fourth year, has 240 attendees.
Initially DeJesus, the Brooklyn-born son of Puerto Rican parents, had concerns that he would be squelched under Ross's supervision. He quickly learned otherwise. DeJesus says Concord First Assembly could easily add a third service, but Ross would just as soon have people attend affiliated churches where they are more comfortable, churches where other pastors might do a better job reaching the growing Hispanic and black populations.
"Rick doesn't micromanage," DeJesus says. "If he trusts you, he trusts you. His willingness to pour himself into pastors has been a huge blessing."
Jonathan Hernandez, family life and youth pastor, has been at Concord First for seven years.
Hernandez, 38, is impressed that Ross fosters a team approach to sermon writing -- whoever happens to be preaching on Sunday morning. If the topic is race relations, Ross is more interested in hearing what nonwhite pastors have to say rather than expressing his own viewpoints.
Anthony Calvert has been affiliated with Concord First Assembly since 2008, pastoring Concord First Assembly 29 North in China Grove, a primarily African-American congregation. Calvert says he has been able to glean some ministry experience from Ross.
"I took the pros and applied them, and missed a lot of the pitfalls," says Calvert, 46. "Rick's not challenged by race. He's just a person who sees people; he doesn't see color."
Ross's brother Randal Ross is senior pastor of Calvary Church in Naperville, Illinois, the seventh largest church in the AG. Their sister, Becky Hennesy, is women's ministry director at Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. Her husband Jim Hennesy is senior pastor at Trinity Church, the 15th largest congregation in the AG.