Being the ministry
Leaders of Broad Street Ministry made a church to serve its neighbors. The result is an unconventional Christian community that embraces everyone from homeless people to investment bankers.
April 28, 2009 | There's no cross in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministry, a Christian community in Philadelphia's arts district.
It's not an attempt to be interfaith, although the mission attracts people from across the religious spectrum. Nor does the church have a minimalist aesthetic; its sanctuary has glorious stained-glass windows and a flock of origami birds made of prayer cards hanging from the vaulted ceiling.
Instead, Broad Street's cross -- or temporary lack thereof -- symbolizes what the church is about: creating itself in the image of the community around it.
When Broad Street started four years ago, its leaders wanted a cross that reflected their community. But they didn't know who would be in their congregation, so they waited. Gradually, artists, students, ex-cons, homeless people, gay people, investment bankers all found their way through Broad Street's red doors.
They worship by the hundreds each Sunday night in a joyful, music-filled service, then break bread together at a family-style meal.
In creating Broad Street, Convening Minister Bill Golderer has created a process for building and revitalizing an urban church: understand deeply those for whom the church is to be good news. Then create a place which people leave delighted to have taken part, “even if they don’t love Jesus,” he said.
At Broad Street, that means providing shelter, food and access to services for the homeless and the impoverished; concerts and art shows for students and artists; one of the city's largest recognitions of World AIDS Day for gay neighbors; and opportunities for the wealthy and powerful to give back to those in need.
Above all, it means being welcoming and treating people with unconditional hospitality, no matter what their background.
A church of the future
Golderer, 39, seems an unlikely pastor. With floppy brown hair and quick flashes of smile, he wears jeans and a green velvet jacket to one Sunday night service (he’s headed to a Morrissey concert afterwards), then dons a pinstriped suit for an open-to-the-city dinner a few days later. Exuberant and energetic, he could be mistaken for a civic booster or political operative until he starts talking about the kingdom.
But the community he has built is a model for the outward-focused church of the future, said Jeanne Radak, associate executive for congregational ministry at the Presbytery of Philadelphia.
“At Broad Street, it’s not about doing the ministry, it’s about being the ministry,” she said. Going forward, “the church has to be about connecting people and catching that vision of what God’s calling us to do.”
That idea is at the heart of the theology that guides Golderer and his team of about 20 full-time and part-time pastors, seminarians and lay leaders.
As a Calvinist, Golderer believes that a covenant has been forged between God and God’s people, a covenant that is impossible for people to sever. God wants a relationship with us, even if we don’t want to hear it, he said.
Broad Street’s work likewise is driven by the idea of reconciliation between God and people, as well as between individuals and groups. That means bringing together people of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, educational levels and sexual orientations to form one community.
The laboratory is the former Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church, a grand old Gothic building on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. The building was home to a powerful, socially prominent congregation until about 2000, when it closed following dramatic changes in the neighborhood.
The church sits across the street from the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the city’s most prestigious venue, and next door to the University of the Arts. It is within view of the Union League, Philadelphia’s most exclusive social club and just blocks away from the cheapest hourly-rate hotel in the city, a predominantly gay neighborhood, a senior center and middle-class families and city dwellers. And, since opening its doors as a shelter in the winter, homeless people have become its neighbors, too.
“If you’re only interested in someone to the extent that they’re willing to join your church, that’s not really loving people,” Golderer said. “It doesn't go into the deep water of figuring out how to be a neighbor to them -- to live reconciled to them and to unearthing alongside them what God is trying to do with their life.”
So Broad Street doesn’t have members. There’s no way to join the church, but plenty of people -- Christian and otherwise -- belong to the community. Some people attend worship and rock shows. Others work in the homeless shelter, attend classical recitals and dine at the monthly dinner but want nothing to do with worship services. All are equal members in Broad Street’s community.
The goal is to open the doors and allow people to take part in whatever they choose, no strings attached.