Story Magazine - Fall, 2009

Efrem Smith's Sanctuary Covenant Redefines Church, Evangelism

by Kelsey Holm, Communication Specialist

Pastor Efram Smith is leading Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis into a new form of evangelism.

A few months ago, the sound of crying brought Efrem Smith out of his office at Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis. A young woman was distraught. She appeared to be searching for someone.

"When I asked her if I could help, she said she was looking for one of our staff. She was looking for Jen," says Smith.

The tears turned out to be ones of happiness. "She said, 'I'm so excited. I got a job today, and I just wanted to tell Jen,'" says Smith, '96. "See, that's what we're about. She has this pivotal spiritual thing going on in her life, but she also got a job. She's empowered. That's what we call a holistic impact."

Smith also sees reconciliation in the link between the young woman, who is black, and the staff member, who is white. Through the Community Development Corporation (CDC) founded through Sanctuary, Jen had
taken the young woman under her wing, got her excited about church and helped find her a job.

"This is why we exist," says Smith. "At the end of the day, it's not about 900 people. It's about a relationship between two women and how that relationship leads to transformation."

A True Community Church

None of the pieces of this story happened by accident. From the time Smith planted Sanctuary Covenant Church in January 2003, he has intended it to be evangelical, urban and multiracial. Smith was called to lead Sanctuary through the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Inspired by the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. while working on his master's thesis at Luther Seminary, Smith thought, "'If Martin Luther King were still living and pastoring today he would be pastoring a multiracial church.' It became my vocational passion over time."

He is living out his passion at Sanctuary, which started with 22 people and has grown to 900. His original goal was to have 1,000 members fill the seats each Sunday. For Smith, it wasn't so much about the sheer magnitude of a number as it was about proving something.

"I felt like to prove that the multicultural, multiracial church can work and be sustainable and have an impact we needed a critical mass, so people wouldn't write us off as an exception," he says. "I wanted our church to send a statement that church should be about tearing down walls across race, class and gender."

The cultural breakdown of Sanctuary is about 50 percent white, 40 percent black and 10 percent Latino and Asian. Forty-five percent live in Minneapolis, and the rest come from all over the metro area. "There's a good mix of everyone from single moms to executive VPs of Fortune 500 companies to professional athletes to homeless folks," says Smith.

More Than Just a Church

From the beginning, the intention was for Sanctuary to be more than just a church. It was important to Smith that transformation move from inside the church walls into the surrounding community. A year after Sanctuary opened its doors, Sanctuary Community Development Corporation was started.

"The CDC was just an extension of the ministry of the church," says Norman Harrington, executive director of Sanctuary CDC. "The genesis of it was intentional. Part of the strategic direction in founding both the church and the community development corporation was for the church to play a more active role in community development."

The CDC creates more avenues in pursuing financial resources, and it also gives the church another platform to speak to various issues, says Harrington. The CDC was recently restructured, with focus put on three main areas: children, youth and family; economic development; and community engagement.

Founding and getting involved in initiatives and projects like Love Minneapolis, school-supply and wintercoat drives, tutors, Catalyst, Bridge of Reconciliation and Rock the River, among others, allow Sanctuary and the CDC to dig into these three key areas in focused ways while really getting their hands dirty and making a difference in the community. In addition to a key staff of five, an army of volunteers and interns helps the CDC live out its calling in the community. Harrington estimates the CDC has put in more than 1,000 volunteer hours spanning more than 75 community projects, mostly in North Minneapolis over the past six months. Smith and Harrington have seen both long- and short-term results from their efforts.

True Transformation

The duality of these results signifies a larger transformation of the term "evangelical" that Smith is hoping to see down the road. Personally, Smith continues to build on his deep biblical roots and what he learned at Luther, to think creatively and to be innovative. He has a desire, like others in his generation, to redefine what "evangelical" means. He wants to restore it to what he believes it should be about: good news.

"'Good news" is not just about a faith conversion experience but also about the liberating experience you read about in Scripture," says Smith. "Jesus not only preached the gospel around salvation but also lived it out in his actions. He healed diseases and stood with those marginalized. He radically impacted the social structures of his day. For me, I wanted to be a part of painting a picture of evangelicalism that is beyond Jerry Falwell and James Dobson."

Like the experience of the young woman impacted by a Sanctuary staff member, true transformation, says Smith, is both spiritual and tactile. "I feel like, at the biblical root, to be evangelical is about the conversion experience and the liberation experience. It's an experience of life empowerment and eternal life."