Authentic and Intergenerational Community at Old Pine Presbyterian Church

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

How can a church engage the intergenerational landscape of their changing neighborhood? This is a common question asked by congregations throughout our Presbytery and around the country. For the faithful of Old Pine Presbyterian Church in Old City, the answers are not as complicated and glitzy as what many might imagine. A congregation that recently celebrated its 250th anniversary, maintains a cemetery with 285 Revolutionary War soldiers buried on its grounds, and shares property with the Presbyterian Historical Society, this historical faith community has also embraced a steady influx of young families and individuals and doubled membership in the last seven years. “For people who know our physical presence in the neighborhood, our history is one of the things that stands out,” commented Rev. Jason Ferris, pastor of Old Pine since 2012. “But as you get to know us a little better, hopefully you’ll see that we are a very authentic congregation that is trying to live the gospel in a way that is authentic to our experience and directed to people who live in this area.”

Rather than fall to the (false) assumption that more contemporary music, high-energy instrumentation, and the manufacturing of a particular spiritual experience will lure in a younger demographic, Old Pine has invested their energies in hospitality, education, community engagement, social impact, and traditional worship that merges thoughtful preaching with liturgical depth. “I think what is working at Old Pine is making the gospel relevant again. We don’t do anything too fancy,” Rev. Ferris added. “We really believe [the gospel] changes lives. We really believe it is totally relevant to contemporary life; that it gives us something that the secular world doesn’t. And that we haven’t outgrown our need for Jesus Christ and the life that he gives us.”

One of the ways Old Pine has affirmed this belief has been through the addition of Rev. Rebecca Blake, who also serves as the organizing pastor of the Beacon Church, to serve as Pastor for Christian Education. In addition to writing a localized curriculum to nurture spiritual formation and discipleship across generational lines, Rev. Blake has added pastoral support to ensure younger members who walk through the door of the church feel welcomed, affirmed, and empowered to use their gifts and passions for the cause of Christ. “When you have people who are doing what they are meant to do for the benefit of other people and God, that is when you start to see people responding,” Rev. Blake remarked. “Those are the things that bring people alive and invite those in the pew into their vocation and their sense of call. That, I think, is really profound.”

As Old Pine has continued to grow in both diversity and size, storytelling has played a pivotal role in its ministry. This has included creative and intentional engagement with technology. While the worship is traditional, media including film, photography, and digital media have played a pivotal role in its community formation. One example has been through the “Humans of Old Pine Project,” an adaptation of the popular Humans of New York digital photo series that went viral in 2010. Rev. Ferris, who has a professional background as a documentary filmmaker, initiated a series of portraits of both church members and the low-income seniors who are served at Old Pine’s weekly meal program. The result was a sacred collection of testimonies that deepened human connections across generational lines. “These guests are now a part of our lives in a new way because we know something about them. It is not just handing somebody a meal and never learning their name and never learning their story,” Rev. Ferris said. “These tools really can take us into new areas of church life. They just have to be used deliberately and you have to keep that goal in mind. We are using this tool because we want to tell a story and connect with someone in a deeper way. It is not just using it because it looks cool. That, to me, is not a healthy way of using media. You have to use it more authentically.” In essence, “Humans of Old Pine” reinforced the theological foundation that, in Jesus, all belong and each individual narrative is a part of the fuller mosaic called the body of Christ.

As Old Pine continues to enhance its witness alongside younger residents in Old City, the congregation offers a faithful reminder that what counts is incarnational connection across generational lines. While the things of worship and the methods of ministry matter, what ultimately attracts those in search of belonging is the intersection of the story of God with the diversity of human experiences and the opportunity to live out vocational interests for the common good. “We do not try to promote ourselves very much. We just try to be an authentic community and the word has gotten out,” Rev. Ferris added. “We are practicing a kind of community life that is really needed but is not as available as it used to be in the outside world.”

May the ministry of this historic congregation continue to be a beacon of hope to all our churches scattered throughout Greater Philadelphia. May it nudge our congregations from the city to the suburbs towards a similar authenticity and welcome that invites people of all generations to participate in expressions of the gospel near and far.