Q&A with Rufus Smith

Q&A with Rufus Smith


Rev. Rufus Smith IV is senior pastor of Hope Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a large multiethnic congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, and founder of the Memphis Christian Pastors’ Network, a clergyonly network to bridge the “trust gap” between ethnically and denominationally diverse pastors. Rev. Smith has been married to Jacqueline for 34 years, and together they have three adult children.

Q: What skills must Christians develop to effectively share their faith? 01

We need to learn to look more like Jesus, our benchmark for evangelism. In John 4:1–24 we find that Jesus, a Jew, shared the good news across racial, cultural, historical and gender divides in conversation with a Samaritan woman. From that encounter we can learn at least two relational skills from the master teacher.

First, we learn that there is no impact without contact. Jesus-followers must be willing to venture into the territory of the unchurched, de-churched, over-churched or the “religiously unaffiliated.” We must go to them rather than waiting for them to come to us. Jesus broke protocol by going into Samaria, a region that was geographically proximate but culturally distant to what was “home” for Jesus. But he was teaching his disciples (and consequently us) that, if we want to enlarge the kingdom of God, we must move from familiar circles of contact to unfamiliar territory. (And be enriched in the good news ourselves, by the way.)

As a pastor, my world is saturated with church and the churched. That means I am constantly challenged—and often fail—to initiate contact with those who live in another “world.” When I get it right, I do this in various ways: through non-church sports leagues, public school volunteering, Toastmasters and other social clubs. That contact keeps me connected—and every Christian needs it.

Second, there is no information without real conversation.

In the story, notice that Jesus asked the Samaritan woman a question: “May I have a drink of water?” That sparked a followup question (“Where is your husband?”), which sparked a deeper conversation. I think it behooves us as Jesus-followers to be more Socratic (engaging in dialog) and less didactic (giving people advice or information). The relational skill of conversation, as modeled by Jesus, encourages openness and connection, not only in gospel sharing but also in every arena of life. It bonds us together, which creates a rich setting for sharing the gospel.

Q: What assumptions hold us back from rich relationships? 02

Largely, how we think of other people. Our inaccurate generalizations, as well as simple ignorance, rob us of the possibility of rich, God-ordained relationships with those different from us, especially those outside the Christian faith. We are over-saturated with audiovisual media and extensive messaging that subliminally leads us to make sweeping generalizations about people and entire groups: “rich,” “poor,” “them,” “us” and a host of other barriers, real and imagined. These generalizations are exacerbated by ignorance, which breeds fear, and often are paired with residential separation, which reinforces stereotypes. All this contributes to a weak social fabric that discourages us from getting to know each other and sharing the message of Jesus.

Q: What has your church learned about fostering rich relationship? 03

We are learning so much. In our church we have sought and fought to combat generalizations and ignorance through a course called Ethnos. It’s a 10-week covenant to explore and experience other cultures for two hours once a week. Eighteen to 24 persons of diverse ethnicity and age sign an agreement to commit and are preassigned to tables of six for the duration of the course. They listen to each other and engage in three spiritual “adventures” outside of the class with each other. The point is to intentionally practice the skills that make for a bonded, rich community.

It was there that Roosevelt met Stephen. The former was black, the latter was white. One liked rhythm and blues, one classical music. One was an engineer, the other a physician. One was discriminated against here in Memphis because of the color of his skin, the other was not. Both were Baby Boomers but from two different worlds. Both made wrong assumptions and fostered ignorance toward the other “type” of person.

But each was also curious—and a Jesus-follower. During Ethnos, Roosevelt and Stephen spent 10 consecutive Thursday nights together. They and their other four tablemates ate 10 meals together. They studied Bible teaching on “loving our neighbors as ourselves” together. They engaged in candid conversation together. They watched an assigned movie in one of their homes together. They participated in three spiritual adventures outside of the classroom together. They graduated together.

And they forged a four-year friendship that only ended when Stephen died unexpectedly from an asthmatic attack while vacationing with his wife. Roosevelt, Stephen’s friend, was one of three eulogists at his funeral. What had made the difference?

Experiencing the gospel. Together.

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