Danny Schaffner Jr. is the preaching and teaching minister at Common Ground Christian Church in the urban corridor of Tampa, Florida. He has lived with his wife and three boys in this community since 2007. His church’s website is www.commongroundtampa.com.
What makes your ministry distinctive?
Common Ground is a restart of a church that was closed for a year and a half. Our zip code, 33603, is where much of America will be in another generation: predominantly Hispanic-American, then African-American, and then Caucasian American. It feels like the mission field, where most of the people look, act, and think differently from us. Our church looks like the neighborhood—multiethnic, multicultural. That is different from more than 90 percent of the churches in America.
You sound passionate. Where does that come from?
There’s no simple answer to that. Revelation 7:9 describes the church made up of every nation, tribe, people, and language. I think we should be working for that, but the passion developed from several influences.
Can you detail them?
My wife, Kristi, is a big part of it. We were in a really good ministry at a great church, Connection Pointe in Brownsburg, Indiana. She got my attention with two statements: First, “You may not be becoming who you think you are becoming.” She saw me veering from my passion. Second, she told me she had been praying hard and saw us moving somewhere else, and, “Wherever it is, I’m OK with it.” That surprised me. She’s a small-town, Midwestern girl, and we were living in a suburban community that had the best of everything. But she felt like that wonderful, comfortable setting was not developing in our kids the kind of worldview we wanted them to have.
You had a lot stirring. What was next?
We prayed and sought guidance. I thought I should maybe find a church more in line with who I am. A few peers suggested I should be a church planter. I had a hard time seeing myself in that role, doing set up and tear down, working odd hours.
One friend said, “Danny you’re kind of wired to take on ministries that are not the norm. When do you feel most alive?” I asked what he was getting at, and he asked how I felt about urban living.
He had hit a vital spot—I love the city! I often took students on mission trips to the city. He told me a church plant was needed in Tampa. I knew that was not God’s call. I’m a big guy built for Midwest winters. Florida is not for me. But he kept on, telling about this empty church building that could be the setting for an exciting new church.
So your attention was clearly drawn?
My wife reminded me of what we had been praying about, so I began interviewing church planting agencies and talking to people in Tampa. We hooked up with Stadia, did assessments, and moved to Florida with the blessing and support of Connection Pointe. It was not what we expected, but it was the result of a yearlong prayer journey in which we were asking God how we should use our gifts.
What did this lead to?
The transition took place over a year as we planned, recruited a staff, raised funds, rehabbed the church building, and launched the church on September 9, 2007.
Say more about the setting.
We live in a largely Hispanic-American and African-American neighborhood where we [Caucasians] are in the ethnic minority. Our children are minority students in their public school. They are among the 4 percent who do not qualify for the free lunch program. There are wealthy people who live a short distance away, along the river, but intense poverty is all around us. And our church is committed to being an integral part of this community.
OK, let me ask a question as a Midwestern grandpa: Are you sure it is a good idea to move your kids out of a nice suburban community into inner-city Tampa, 1,000 miles from their grandparents?
First of all, the grandparents have been amazingly supportive. People think our kids pay a price to be here, but they would pay a worldview price to live in a monocultural community. We were recently at a restaurant back in the Midwest, and my kids thought it was really strange: everybody in the restaurant looked like us and spoke our language. Our kids are exposed to diversity. They are on the front edge of becoming “world Christians.”
There’s more to being a multicultural church than just being in the neighborhood. What are you doing to make it work?
We try to be sensitive to the diversity at every point. When we were rehabbing the building, a paint company offered a color palette that would have fit any traditional church, but I said, “No way. It won’t fit here.” We empowered a recent art school grad to choose colors, and now the rooms don’t reflect any one culture, but they are influenced by all cultures. My preaching has adapted, too. I focus on Scripture, but I may quote anyone from Kierkegaard to Jay-Z. If I use a film clip, it may come from films that never hit the suburban multiplex screens.
What about your staff?
The five of us are a cultural blend, and we value our heritages without championing them. Our collective culture is Christ-centered. That trumps everything else.
Are you successful?
How do you measure that? It isn’t like a parachute-drop church with a nucleus of 300 on its way to being a megachurch. We have had more than 80 baptisms, and our Sunday attendance averages a bit over 200. The worship gathering looks like that Revelation 7:9 assembly. We’ve partnered with the nearby grade school, and in five years it has gone from being on the hit list for closure to being the only public elementary school in our area that raised its test scores.
And your wife who played such a big role in your move . . . how is she doing?
Kristi is involved in a variety of areas, but she currently emphasizes mentoring girls in our student ministry. About two years ago, her mom fought with and eventually died from cancer. It was really hard, with many trips back to the Midwest to be with her. One night in bed I said, “I am sorry. I never would have moved you to Tampa had I known your mom was going to die with cancer.” She quickly responded, “If we weren’t with this church in Tampa, I don’t know if I could have made it through it all.”
Next steps for you?
Keep reclaiming this community for Christ, doing what we can to help the church be strong, and spreading the Word to other churches: If you’re going to serve your changing communities, Common Ground is what your church needs to look like—a multiethnic church, creating one culture in Christ.
Paul Boatman is chaplain of Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.