The offer seemed at first like manna from heaven.
A developer walked into First Baptist Church of Philadelphia and offered $2 million to buy the historic 68,000 square foot building that was suffocating the tiny congregation with constant maintenance.
He would convert the iconic building in Center City to high-end boutiques and would renovate a space inside where the 30 regular congregants could continue to worship.
Members deeply felt their caretaker’s responsibility toward their historic edifice, built between 1899 and 1900 and modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. But they were completely exhausted beneath the responsibility of preserving a brilliant history as their future faded before their eyes.
First Baptist Church in Philadelphia is America’s 11th oldest Baptist congregation and it might have gone the way of many other urban churches. Instead, First Baptist Church in Philadelphia is partnering with another congregation to keep vibrant ministry alive in Center City.
It was First Baptist which pulled together five churches to form the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1707. With an aggressive growth and missionary mentality these churches multiplied and formed the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions in 1814 to support Ann and Adoniram Judson as their first missionaries to Burma.
Forty-one years later this church hosted the meeting at which the young denomination split into Northern and Southern branches when a delegate majority refused to appoint as missionaries slave-holding candidates from the South.
Northern Baptists eventually became the American Baptist Churches USA, with current headquarters in Valley Forge, just outside Philadelphia.
But a brilliant history does not guarantee a bright future. And the future looked dim for the First Baptist remnant.
With nine others around the table, Trustee Chair Mary Lynn Williams led a reflection on the church’s nine founding members who first gathered in an empty saloon on a Sunday morning in 1698.
“We talked about the difference between the church’s first nine and us ‘last nine,’” Williams says. “What were the first nine looking at? The future. Our problem is we kept looking back.
“Our looking backward all the time and our need to preserve this tradition is part of the reason we’re in the shape we’re in. The building was an albatross around our necks.”
The congregation took steps to match income with expenses. With help from Partners for Sacred Places, whose national office is across the street, First Baptist rented space to a theater troupe for $50,000 annually. It sold a collection of early 18th-century Queen Anne silver to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to pay for air conditioning.
They also had responded positively when a young pastor named Jared Ayers approached them 18 months earlier about renting and sharing the sanctuary for his blossoming new flock called Liberti Church, an affiliate of the Reformed Church in America.
That’s why it was so hard to call Liberti’s leadership team into the office just after Christmas in 2013 to tell them Liberti would to have to find another place to meet, because First Baptist planned to accept an offer to buy the building.
Instead of leaving the meeting, Liberti’s executive pastor, Mike Harder, piped up, “What if we buy it?” First Baptist trustees almost fell out of their chairs.
Liberti’s team asked for a month to put together a plan to match the developer’s proposal.
First Baptist pastor Pete Wool said his church was not certain Liberti could come up with the money. But his leaders slowed the process with developer Jim Pearlstein to give Liberti a chance.
Liberti came back with commitments from significant donors, support from the denomination and a plan that showed they could do it.
The Liberti plan called for providing a chapel space apart from the cavernous sanctuary where First Baptist could continue to worship. Beyond the purchase price, Liberti would raise$10 million to renovate the rest of the building, preserving it as a historical worship space, but updating it for the practical needs of a modern congregation.
First Baptist trustees considered the bid and recommended to the church that it sell to Liberti. As in biblical precedence, they cast lots, using red and green stones, with the question being, “Should we sell the church building to Liberti?”
Every member, save one, dropped the green “yes” stones into the plate.
They would sell their building to a new church of another denomination and forge a future unencumbered by the need to preserve a past.
irst Baptist Church’s shadow has always loomed large over America’s fifth largest city.
Before public schools were available, First Baptist Church started a Sunday school to educate children. Church members started educational outreach to Chinese immigrants and to Native Americans when those populations were marginalized. Members started an orphanage and funded the start of Lewisburg College — now known as Bucknell University, after First Baptist member William Bucknell rescued it from bankruptcy in 1881.
First Baptist was a center of abolitionist efforts. It baptized its first black member in 1757 and on one Sunday in 1827 devoted its morning and evening offerings to enable member David Noflet to purchase his daughter from slavery.
The oldest Alcoholics Anonymous group in Philadelphia started there and it hosts the largest number of self-help groups anywhere in the city.
A rich cultural and artistic vein courses through the building. Operas were performed there regularly and a large oratorio music library it houses is even now looking for an appropriate home.
During one of its relocations prompted by growth in 1808, the congregation met in the state house, now known as Independence Hall.
Its current building at 17th and Sansom was designed by Edgar Seeler, who found inspiration for the magnificent dome in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, for nearly 1,000 years the world’s largest cathedral.
A church history by William Thompson describes the building’s general style as “a free adaptation of the architectural forms of the Byzantine and Romanesque periods.” Visitors note the leather covered and studded entry doors, and filigree even on top of the chimney, high above the city streets and well beyond viewing.
Seeler’s plan made First Baptist the first church in Philadelphia to utilize a steel frame. The exoskeleton is Indiana limestone and brownstone.
The ornately decorated dome contained 12 glass panels, each naturally lit by a dormer above it. Seeler’s concept represented the light of God passing through the 12 disciples and illuminating the congregation.
Twelve electric interior lanterns had gas backup, since electricity was still not dependable in 1900.
The entire interior from wainscoting up was covered in gold leaf. A fire in 1949 destroyed most of the gold leaf and the glass panels in the dome, which were replaced with the plaster present today.
The deeply colored, intricate stained glass windows by the small firm of Heinike and Bowen are incredibly rare, according to Roy Harker, who has been involved at First Baptist for 40 years, including two decades as building maintenance manager. It’s a Tiffany influenced approach with a more modern style, featuring saints, the Gospel writers and angel musicians.
The original flooring is oak, as is the thick, dark trim and moldings throughout the four-story building. The baptistery is Italian marble.
“The building is unique,” says Harker, an organist with an engineering degree from Temple. “It is exceptionally large and replete. It was a new worship experience in Philadelphia, given its large and lavish approach, especially with no columns.”
The building is the first church in town “built to code” and the first with emergency exits.
Its design incorporated the philosophy of Michigan doctor John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-day Adventist, who emphasized the importance of exercise for holistic health, offering a gymnasium with basketball court, shuffle-board and pool tables. Players could clean up in locker rooms with hot water showers. (Kellogg ran a sanitarium in Battle Creek and is best known for the invention of the breakfast cereal known as corn flakes with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg.)
This recreation center became important for soldiers during World War II, who utilized it on leave and in transit.
First Baptist grew in part by merging the congregations and assimilating the assets of up to 20 smaller Baptist churches in the city. Tradition asserts that ushers worked in tails and gloves, and served communion with silver service.
First Baptist was the résumé church, counting politicians, industrialists, developers and bankers among its members. It was one of the city’s richest churches, and formed expensive habits.
“It was a high faluttin’ church,” says Trustee Williams, who loves the church because of its diversity. Much of the sheen already had rubbed off when she came in 1984, but it conducted business as if it were still rich, chipping away at its endowment to support its spending habits.
The sanctuary seated almost 1,000. At the time, 1,400 to 1,500 people attended services each Sunday.
Because it was a steel structure, the building was able to withstand a 1949 fire started when the furnace ignited a fuel oil spill in the basement.
The blaze shot up through the organ chamber, which had the serendipitous effect of funneling flames through the enclosed space above the dome and sucking them out through the tower. Although the dome glass and gold leaf wall covering was ruined, most of the building suffered only smoke damage.
But, even by then, the church was past its prime.
iberti is a church plant of the Reformed Church in America, started in 2008 by a young pastor who left a thriving church in Michigan when he concluded that “Jesus is for the city,” and that his skills would best be matched with needs in the Northeast metropolitan corridor.
So in July 2008, as the economy was heading south, Jared Ayers, then 27, was heading east in a rental truck with his wife, Monica, their 9-month-old son, Brennan, and dog, Baxter.
While driving Ayers fielded calls from one donor after another telling him they could not keep their promises of support upon which he’d built his plans to replant his life in Philadelphia. The young couple arrived totally broke, their financial foundation crumbled.
“We were driven to pray a lot,” he says. “We tried to become students of this place and to really learn it and care for it.”
Jared, Monica, Brennan and Baxter became familiar sights in the neighborhood and before long new friends were meeting in their living room, quickly forming the nucleus of a new church — just the kind of church he wanted to lead.
“I had done ministry for a long time where it was a part of Christendom. I wanted to go where starting a church was a needed thing,” he says.
“We are living among people with no Christian memory. There is a willingness to engage around significant ideas and questions of life that we’ve grown to love here.”
Ayers, now 34, feels the loss of Christian privilege in American society “is a blessing in disguise” because it exposes assumed, half-hearted, cultural Christianity that “I think is all too common.”
“I found here that thoughtful, historic, robust Christianity that’s practiced humbly with a view to be a blessing to everybody and to be for the common good of everyone has been well received and respected.”
Liberti is intentionally a church for the city, reversing the decades old trend of churches abandoning the inner cities along with their members to move to the suburbs.
Utilizing its prime location and facilities, Liberti intends to expand services to people on the fringes.
“What is happening here in God’s strange providence is a piece of history,” Ayers says. While often in city centers many churches that once “proclaimed the gospel and served their neighbors for hundreds of years are now really great condos, restaurants and boutiques. Here in a unique way is a historic institution that is going to stay a church, that is going to stay an active congregation in a growing city center.”
First Baptist’s new goal, now that it is relieved of its preservationist burden, “is to re-imagine who we are,” says Pastor Wool. “We’re almost like a new church start.”
Empty nesters are flocking back into the city, Wool says. That is a potential focus population that would work very well with Liberti’s need for volunteers in its outreach to the city.
Harder says Liberti’s leadership supports First Baptist and anticipates another season of fruitful ministry.
Data from a 2012 symposium sponsored by the Lower Merion Conservancy said that 20 percent of the 1,000 churches in the city of Philadelphia were likely to close in 10 years, due to many of the same issues that plagued First Baptist.
Almost lost in the feel good story of a new, vibrant church attracting and growing with an eclectic and diverse swarm of young professionals is the fact that Liberti and First Baptist are churches from different Christian denominations.
One of the oldest Baptist churches in the country, First Baptist at one time was one of the most prominent. Liberti is just an infant by the standards of church history.
Yet, Liberti Church is new and old at the same time. The Reformed Church in America’s predecessor in America, the Dutch Reformed Church, is the first corporate entity registered in the state of New York.
“We heard over and over again, this never, never, never happens,” Ayers says. “For a church congregation that has gone through hard times, to be able to continue as a church, and for a new church like ours that’s grown and flourished to join them and put down roots for the long term will have far reaching effects in the life of Philadelphia that I think is really unique.“
“In God’s economy we’re really glad this building will continue to serve the purposes of God’s kingdom, even though it won’t be through First Baptist Church in just the way the church was,” says Roy Medley, retiring executive of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. “But being the ecumenical body that we are, we’re glad to see the RCA and Liberti create a flourishing ministry there.”
s vibrant and exuberant as Liberti is, their goal is to serve the city. The theme of their $10 million fund raising effort is that Jesus is for the city, and Liberti is for the city.
“When churches establish themselves with a physical building, something happens that the community understands this group of people is here to stay, they are committed to this community,” Harder said. “We are committed to the community. We’re not just a church for us. We are for the city.”
When Liberti gets past the first phase of renovation, installing the first elevator and fixing elements like heating, air conditioning, plumb-ing, roof repair, electric wiring and Internet that makes a building comfortable and efficient, it will address the exciting work that will open the facility even wider to the community.
Phase 2 will bring online the gym and additional space for receptions, weddings, community functions and partnerships with compassion organizations around Philadelphia. A commercial kitchen will become a hub for a Center City meal ministry.
Conversations are ongoing with Bethesda Project, one of the major organizations working on homelessness in Philadelphia, to make the renovated gym an engagement center for the homeless population during the day. It may include a laundry, shower room, computer stations and volunteer counselors to help with job searches and paperwork.
Harder sees potential for a haven where homeless can get off the street, find services and be safe during the day, before making their way to an overnight shelter to sleep. Immigrant services such as English as a second language, help with job applications, shopping and registering children for school are likely.
“We’re a church that wants to engage and make a difference,” said Harder. “Jesus’ gospel makes a difference in people’s lives spiritually, socially, physically and economically. As a church we want to help our people live that out. It’s extremely gratifying to see people be the hands and feet of Jesus.”
“I have great hopes for what the next five, 10, 15 years could look like if we simply rely on God’s grace. I stand in the sanctuary and wonder how many more hundreds of lives could be changed from the ministries in this church if we can squeeze out every drop of juice contained in this 68,000 square feet the Lord has provided.”
And it might have been a shopping mall.
— Baptist News Global’s reporting on innovative congregational ministries is part of the Pacesetter Initiative, funded in part by the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. This article was first published in the November/December 2015 issue of Herald, BNG’s magazine sent five times a yearto donors to the Annual Fund. Bulk copies are also mailed to BNG’s Church Champion congregations.