by Rev. Greg Klimovitz
What opportunities is the Spirit exposing when the neighborhood around your congregation rapidly changes and shifts the cultural landscape surrounding your sanctuary? This is a question churches must ask to ensure their ministry is both faithful and relevant.
But what is a congregation called to do when this question is raised because the newest neighbor in town is a Fortune 50 corporation who has constructed a skyscraper next door?
This is the unique challenge leadership of Arch Street Presbyterian Church has faced since 2008, when Comcast first opened the doors to their state-of-the-art, high-rise corporate complex a mere sidewalk-width away from their 162 year-old church. While many may have been tempted to collapse in the shadows of this entrepreneurial giant, possibly digging in their heels to prepare for battle, leadership of Arch Street instead adapted their witness and rediscovered holy opportunities for renewed community formation on their block of Center City.
“What are you prepared to do and how are you prepared to behave and how are you prepared to pivot in a way that takes into account these potential threats and not get defensive and not be paralyzed by fear,” Rev. Bill Golderer, pastor of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, has asked with regularity. “[We must] recognize that what is being asked of you is to figure out what faithfulness means inside what could be understood as a threat.”
One way Arch Street figured out faithfulness has been through literally pivoting their witness and flipping their historical main entrance along 18th and Arch Streets to the newly formed terrace in the back that connects skyscraper and sanctuary. As Arch Street has become more of a loading and unloading zone, with minimal foot traffic and less visibility for the church, the congregation carved out new openings with three doors in the wall of their St. David’s Chapel. While the quaint chapel at the building’s south side remains an open worship space, it now has expanded functionality for varied formative gatherings and fellowship opportunities accessible to those who may never have previously set foot into the church. This project, officially dedicated on Monday, increases the probability that employees who come in and out of the Comcast Center, locals who rest in the plaza’s green space, and others who pass by in their pedestrianizing can find their way into what God is doing in this faith community. “We’re trying to figure out again how we can be a blessing on this corner in the future,” commented Rev. Mike Pulsifer (HR), who previously served as moderator of an Administrative Commission to Arch Street and now calls this congregation his home.
The new entrances attest to Arch Street’s refusal to fear the giant and instead to bless with welcome and unhinged hospitality those the giant draws to their shared corner. This redemptive posture has been assumed as they have recognized that along with their new corporate neighbor comes an influx of fresh cultivators of God’s dreams for a world made right and whole again. As Rev Golderer added, “There are believers all in these buildings. They’re everywhere…This church’s space is [now] a convening space to surface the agents of the invisible church who are kingdom workers, on their terms not ours. We are not here to turn them into pledging units but to help organize, coalesce, and unleash their capacity in the world.”
Arch Street Presbyterian Church, much like other congregations throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia, has regularly wrestled with questions related to inherited real estate, property management, budget constraints, membership fluctuation, and an evolving community context. Along the way, the faithful have returned again and again to their central call to be the Church of Jesus Christ right where they are with whatever assets they possess- including the ability to install new doors. Their leadership has released grips on tired models of ministry and covenanted to the exploration of new metrics of fidelity, ecumenical partnerships for resurrection possibilities, and a willingness to take costly risks for the sake of the Gospel. In so doing, Arch Street has not only become agile enough to flip their building one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, but also opened a preschool for children of families across socio-economic divides, hosted world-renown choral benefit concerts, facilitated public discussions with local officials on issues facing their city, engaged in interfaith bridge building, and even forged a relationship with this global corporation whose employees just may become cultivated companions in genuine expressions of neighborly love. All of this is the work of a church that, nearly a decade ago, dwindled to only a handful of members uncertain about their future.
As our congregations continue to ask questions about relevance within evolving community contexts, may the witness of Arch Street Presbyterian Church serve as invitation to carve new openings for faithful witness. Where there are supposed threats to the work of the Spirit and the movement of God’s people, may the faithful choose not to collapse in the shadows of giants and instead construct new entrances for ministry partnerships. When what once were gateways to sacred spaces are no longer trafficked by our neighbors, may the church be willing to pivot and reconfigure in such a way that extends hospitality and welcome to new residents gathering around us. When tempted to be paralyzed in fear about the future or to dig our heels into protecting and preserving what always has been, may we hear the call of Christ to be willing to loose our grips and expend everything for the hope of the gospel. After all, the call of the church is to point to the person and work of Jesus Christ whose kingdom doors are always open to whomever seeks entry.
Audio Excerpts from Interview with Rev. Bill Golderer and Rev. Mike Pulsifer (HR).
Read more about Arch Street Presbyterian Church’s recent project in an article by The Inquirer last November: http://www.philly.com/philly/business/20161127_Venerable_Arch_St__church_embraces_the_busy_environs_its_corporate_neighbor_creates.html