Christ Church began on a quiet morning in May 2012. I had just finished a run and was cooling off in a park in Marlton, NJ, reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans. As I came to chapter 15 I read this verse,
I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written, "Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand." (Rom 15:20-21 ESV)
Now I had read this verse many times previously. However, this morning I felt the Holy Spirit speak a question straight into my heart, “Would you be willing to make this your ambition?” I had just begun a pastoral internship and was in the process of obtaining my theological education. Up until that point my plan had been to simply be a pastor. Church planting was nowhere on my radar. Yet I could not deny the stirring that I felt that morning.
That morning led to an extended season of prayer for my wife and I, as well as extensive counsel from friends and mentors. Through this time it became clear to us and our church community that church planting was a call that God had put on my life. However, this raised another question. The scripture verse had spoken about “Christ not being named”. Where does that exist? My options were limited to the US as it would be very hard for me to relocate to another country due to my complicated case of Crohn’s disease. So where in the US has Christ “not been named”?
Missionary organizations define unreached people groups as any people group that is less than 3% Christian. With that knowledge in hand, I started doing some demographic research. Very quickly what became apparent was that the most unreached people groups in America reside in cities. To go to an unreached people group, I didn’t have to go very far. There was one just over the bridge in Philadelphia. The Passyunk and Pennsport neighborhoods of Philly are full of some of the richest history in the city. Yet, they are places where almost no Christians lived. Only a mere 2.7% identify as evangelical Christians. So Angie and I started taking trips into these neighbors, praying, talking with neighbors, spending time in the parks and coffee shops. We quickly fell in love with the people and this place and felt a clear call from God that this is where he wanted us to go.
After completing my theological education in 2013, I spent a year casting vision, raising support and recruiting for the church plant. I didn’t know much about church planting, but the one thing I did know was that I did not want to do it alone. However, almost all of my relationships were with those outside of the city. So my expectations on building a team were low. Who would want to move from the suburbs to South Philadelphia? I was praying for 2-3 solid families and a few on fire singles. However, God had other plans. We ended with an incredible group of 32 adults and 14 kids who were all Jesus loving, missional living Christians. Most of these people came from our home church (Sovereign Grace Marlton). However, by the time the recruiting process was over, there were 5 different churches represented on the team from 3 different states. I learned two important lessons through this. First, God’s plans are even bigger than my faith. Second, if you are clear about your mission, God loves to bless you with missionaries, because no one cares more about the mission than Him.'
On March 2nd, 2014 we were sent out from Sovereign Grace Marlton to start Christ Church South Philadelphia. It was a tearful day for me to leave a church that I dearly loved. Yet, our call was clear and our hearts were filled with anticipation of what God was going to do. However, I had no idea about what God was going to do to take this seed of a church plant and make it grow roots.
The week after being sent out from Marlton, I had a severe flare of my Crohn’s disease and ended up in the hospital for 5 days. I preached my first sermon to Christ Church South Philly with an IV line hanging out of my arm.
For the next 10 months I battled this flare which resulted in me needing major surgery that kept me out of the pulpit for 7 straight weeks.
Also, we had entered into a lease agreement on a building that required major renovations. It was very important for us to have a building as we wanted to communicate to the neighborhood that we were here to stay and putting roots down in the ground. However, as we began the renovation process our timeline doubled and our costs tripled, due to a change in the zoning code.
So we were a church plant with a very weak church planter and a building that we could not use. Not exactly the ideal way to try to start a church! Yet God met us during this time of challenge in ways that only those who have gone through adversity know. What Satan wanted to use to discourage and defeat us, God used to bring us closer together. We met in a church member’s home for several months and then a small section of our building. Space was tight, things were chaotic, but God was good. We had workdays in the building that stretched late into the night and meals in each other’s homes that went even later. We prayed a lot, cried a lot and sang a lot. We built relationships with one another and our neighbors. Through all this a church was planted. What became clear to the church planting team was that God doesn’t need a church planter or a church building in order to plant a church. We wouldn’t advise anyone else trying to repeat this process. But in the midst of unique adversity, God met us in unique ways.
On March 22nd of 2015, just a few weeks after our first anniversary of being sent out as a church plant, we opened our doors at 229 Moore Street and held our first public service. Since that time God has allowed our church the privilege growing into a community where everyone is welcome to come as they are, but none are expected to stay as they are. We’ve seen marriages transformed and the addicted freed. We’ve seen the homeless find homes. We’ve seen those who think they have it all find out what it means for Jesus to be their all. By the grace of God, Christ Church is thriving in its mission to make, mature and multiply disciples of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God.
If you don’t already have a church family, we’d love to have you come and join us. We are just a bunch of ordinary people, but God is doing some pretty extraordinary things here. This verse from 1 Corinthians 15 really sums up our story as a church,
But by the grace of God I am what I am, (1Co 15:10 ESV)
Grace and peace,