On a recent Sunday afternoon, I made my way up from the subway, walked a few blocks down the street. As I stepped into the lobby of the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, a young woman, whom I later learned is a seminary student, welcomed me and pointed me toward the sanctuary. The wooden stairs are well worn. As you enter the worship space, your eyes are drawn upward to the soaring ceiling above you. Suspended there are windmills and flocks of peace cranes. Paint peels from the clerestory windows. The pews and the pulpit are gone, replaced with an assortment of chairs, many whimsically painted. A large table set with huge loaves of challah is in the center. A band, complete with drums and electric guitar, whose members are of different ages, gender and ethnicity grace us with music. The congregation is as varied as the band. Many are young, some are old. They are black and white, gay and straight. Some are homeless. Others, like me, have come into the city from the suburbs to hear the preacher for the evening, Jeff Chu, author of Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.
We sing together. Chu preaches a moving sermon on Luke’s gospel. People crowd around to receive communion from the two women who preside at the table. The seminary student shares a prayer affirming those who are LGBTQ. After worship, during a Q&A time with Jeff Chu, a member of the congregation talks about her homelessness, her struggle with addiction, her grief over the people she has lost to death. Another member of the congregation moves to sit next to her and embraces her.
In addition to Sunday worship, the Broad Street Ministry serves lunch Monday through Friday for 200 to 400 people in this sanctuary. The ground floor is home to health, dental and mental health care, as well as clothing and benefits counseling. Thousands of homeless individuals use the Ministry as a mailing address. There is a group that gardens to provide fresh local food.
I have long wondered what the future of the church will look like. As I sat there that evening, I believe, no I hope, I may have glimpsed it. What I saw was ministry that matters, camped out in the ruins of a church that is passing away.
The Broad Street Ministry is housed in the former Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church, a gothic revival building completed in 1901 with a design based on Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire England. The sanctuary sat 800. The neighborhood has undergone a lot of changes through the years. It now sits across the street from the Kimmel Center, a large performing arts venue. But before that renaissance began, the church’s final pastor died in 1999, leaving a congregation of 100 members. The Presbytery closed the church in 2001. But, in 2005, in what some have called a miracle, a Presbyterian minister named Bill Golderer, with the help of six area Presbyterian congregations reopened the church as the Broad Street Ministry and it has only grown.
It’s no secret that churches of many denominations are struggling. As congregations continue to shrink in membership, we are often left with huge edifices, such as Chambers-Wylie Presbyterian, to maintain. According to the 2018 UCC Statistical Profile found here, 68.8% of UCC congregations were organized before 1900. and another 12.4% between 1930 and 1939. That doesn’t tell us about the age of their current buildings, but I’m sure if you look around, no matter where you live, you’ll see plenty of aging church buildings. Four in ten congregations report a membership of 100 or fewer. Resources to maintain those buildings are hard to find.
And yet, here is this vibrant ministry, rising from the ruins of a church that used to be. If this is what God’s future looks like, I find plenty of joy in it. My prayer that all of us would put the legacy we’ve been given to such inspired use.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.