Matthew 25 and Repurposing Space: Discerning New Possibilities at Valley Forge Presbyterian Church
by Rev. Greg Klimovitz
How do Jesus’ parables in Matthew 25 speak to the physical structures of a church building? This has been an ongoing question for the faithful of Valley Forge Presbyterian Church (VFPC). Located in the heart of the changing corporate district of King of Prussia, VFPC has discerned a call to make their space universally accessible, aesthetically hospitable, and mutually beneficial for both members of their congregation and local neighbors. “We find ourselves in this time of really taking stock of who we are, what we have, and trying to understand that in a new season,” noted Rev. Tim Dooner, pastor of Valley Forge since 2017. “[Matthew 25] and its theological invitation to be a steward of what we have, not for our own sake or for the sake of our survival but in service to God and neighbor, really helped to point us in a new direction.”
Over the last several years, Valley Forge’s leadership has recognized significant transitions in the context that surrounds their church. Along with major renovations to the King of Prussia Mall, which is the second largest in the nation, new businesses have arrived, traffic has increased, major roads have expanded, and the demographic of local residents has diversified. While there have been related gains for some members of their community, a lack of cohesion and sense of belonging has also been a byproduct for many who call Valley Forge and King of Prussia home. Aware of this fracture, VFPC spent nearly a year reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) to discern how they could uncover their physical assets and invest in cohesive welcome to those often isolated by these developments. They trusted the Spirit and leveraged old funds and the carpentry skills of church members to outfit various elements of their building that had not been repurposed since the 1960’s. A major wall in their narthex was torn down and replaced with a hospitality and fellowship space that greets first-time visitors. An all-abilities and handicap accessible bathroom was installed adjacent to the sanctuary as a gracious accommodation to the challenges faced by many older congregants and visitors. Their leadership even removed several pews at the front of their sanctuary and replaced them with several child-size tables, chairs, and art supplies. Children are now encouraged by both pastor and parents to participate in the fullness of Christian worship and community versus ushered away to the building next door. The guiding question for the church, said Rev. Dooner, “How do we make it obvious that this is not a sanctuary from our children but a sanctuary for them?”
While each of these structural changes encountered their fair share of resistance, ongoing biblical and theological reflections enabled detractors to be shepherded into a wider understanding of the call of the church. This has included their session’s embrace of the Matthew 25 initiative of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which empowers congregations to move towards a renewed embrace of Jesus’ word to care for those most vulnerable to a wide range of social inequities and injustices (Matthew 25:31ff). “We really have an obligation,” remarked Elder Michael Henry, clerk of session at Valley Forge and former Moderator of the Presbytery (2015), “if we are going to be a church, to do things here, to serve here [in the community].”
This holy obligation, as discerned through their commitment to be a Matthew 25 congregation, has helped congregants to have their eyes and ears attuned to the needs of their neighbors often overshadowed by preferred narratives of affluence. As Rev. Dooner has strengthened relationships with local community leaders, like elementary school social workers, they learned of the significant number of children on assisted lunch programs, families stuck in situational homelessness and eviction loops, and seniors who faced food insufficiency. “We realized there was a need here,” added Rev. Dooner. “[Yet] nobody believes these needs are here.” The church, then, put the parables to practice. Aware there was not a food pantry in proximity to King of Prussia, Valley Forge applied for and received a Covenant Fund Grant, dug up old church funds untouched for fifty years, and repurposed their original kitchen. In collaboration with their township and initial response to pervasive local food insecurities, this church of about 100 members now welcomes weekly upwards of forty of their neighbors to their newly-launched Upper Merion Area Community Cupboard. As Elder Michael Henry shared, “We are becoming more visible [as a church] and the issues of our community are becoming more visible to the congregation. So this is a start.”
As Valley Forge Presbyterian Church continues to tear down figurative and literal walls of division and create more cohesive community, intentional discernment and trust in God’s Spirit remains central. VFPC’s revitalized vision and openness to new community partnerships have also made the mission of the church, realities of their neighbors, and the hope of the gospel known in ways previously unimaginable. “The voice of the other is so huge. It is so critical in developing a missional imagination,” noted Rev. Dooner. “It is really that discipline of discernment that allows us to pause, take stock, open our eyes, and to see what we have in our hands to share and who in our neighborhood needs us to share it. Our life becomes less about the habitual and more about the faithful.” May the work and witness of Valley Forge nurture a similar receptivity to all voices as our churches discern incarnations of Christ’s call to care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, cloth the naked, and welcome the stranger in our sanctuaries, kitchens, and neighborhoods no matter the cost- even if we have to knock out a few walls.
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