Allentown Presbyterian Church

Allentown Presbyterian Church



Allentown Presbyterian Church

Allentown Presbyterian Church

“Fanatical Hospitality with Jesus”
Allentown Presbyterian Church
Allentown, New Jersey
By Jordan Goodwin

Allentown Presbyterian Church (APC) hosted a virtual Session meeting during the month of August 2020. About forty-five minutes into the meeting, I heard a story that struck me and brought tears to my eyes. The Session had just heard a report from the Workgroup on Racial Justice and  Reconciliation (WRJR) which formed hastily during summer 2020 after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. A Session member named Kelly, a White woman in her forties or early fifties with angular features and straight shoulder-length blond hair, spoke up. She shared a recent encounter with a former kid from Crossroads, APC’s youth group. She knew him from her time as a Shepherd (youth group volunteer) and remembers that this was one of the “toughest youth groups” they had seen. Kelly recalls that “Abraham was bad, but I loved this kid; [he was] so funny.” I immediately felt touched by Kelly’s ability to hold these two things together—the reality that this youth group was challenging to manage at times, but that these kids were still wonderful and still wholly deserving of love. Kelly stated that she ran into this kid at the gas station and called him out by name, asking, “Is that you Abe?” Kelly says he laughed and said, “I didn’t think you remembered me.”

According to Kelly, this kid had a hard time and was in jail for a while. She wondered aloud, “What more could we have done for him? APC came around him the best we could, but we couldn’t do enough for him.” Kelly suggested that maybe if he had a better relationship with the local police – who are very entrenched in their small community – this kid could have gone down a different path, although he seems to be doing well now. This was a moment of vulnerability and care, of critically reflecting and imagining how APC might improve their efforts to meet the needs of their community, particularly their youth, and be more impactful in reaching at-risk youth. For Kelly and APC, such reimagination starts with listening well and understanding the perspectives of the youth in their community. This story also demonstrates the depth and longevity of relationships built through youth group mentoring at APC and the extent to which the adults seem to care for and pour into the kids who walk through their doors, even those who do not always follow the rules.

APC is a congregation that embraces change while maintaining a constant focus on their goal of sharing the love of Jesus and growing in faith. The shape of APC’s ecclesial imagination is modeled after the Trinity; that is, the communal nature of the Triune God serves as a model for the kind of community God offers humanity and the kind of community APC strives to be. APC members tell stories as a way of understanding who they are in relation to their community and so that they can understand their ancestors (who laid the foundation of their 300-year-old church) as well as God’s story as recounted in the Bible. An important part of APC’s story is their sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit working within their midst and producing remarkable acts of abundance. Given their long history, APC walks a fine line between tradition and modern relevance. They demonstrate willingness to approach ministry with creativity and passion rooted in the Bible and congregational history while adapting to their changing environment. Holding these things together allows them to continue growing and thriving. APC focuses on mission and acts with intentionality to offer “fanatical” hospitality to newcomers, to share the love of Jesus with youth and the “unchurched,” and to have fun together as they enjoy the God-given gift of community.

Allentown Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest churches in New Jersey and has a rich and celebrated history. Referred to as the “light on the hill,” the church celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2020. The history of Allentown Presbyterian Church dates to 1685, when a band of Presbyterians in Scotland refused to pledge allegiance to the Church of England. They were banished to slavery on a ship heading to the West Indies when it was blown ashore on what is now the coast of Monmouth County in New Jersey. Some of these “faithful Presbyterians,” or their children, eventually moved to “Allen’s Town,” where they worshipped in homes until they could call their first pastor in 1720. In 1744, the present church site on High Street was purchased, and in 1756 a meeting house was built there. It stood for 80 years before it was torn down to accommodate their growing congregation. The present church was built on the same site in 1837. Over the years, the church campus has grown to include a large fellowship hall, an administration/education building which also houses the church’s Little Tree Preschool, the Crossroads youth center, and the recent acquisition of a new property adjacent to the church to serve as the “backyard of Crossroads.”

While APC has steadily grown over the years, it is now experiencing unprecedented growth, with over 600 members and more than 300 attendees on Sunday mornings. The growth and impact of APC is made even more impressive given the size of Allentown. With a population of 1,892 in 2019, roughly one-third of the town calls APC their church home. A long-time member of APC remembers that when he became a member in the late 1980s, APC was a “little dying Presbyterian church.” With the  subsequent call of a young pastor and the implementation of incremental changes, beginning with a simple improvement in APC’s childcare, more families began attending. Before the church was even talking about children, the Session thought, “The future of the church is the children, so let’s really buy into that.”  The current senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Heinzel-Nelson, was installed as the nineteenth pastor of APC in 1997 and today presides over a predominantly White church with a self-proclaimed “missional” orientation. The church focuses on ministering to the unchurched youth and families in their community, as well as growing in relationship with Jesus and one another. Located just off Main Street in Allentown, a little town situated halfway between New York and Philadelphia, the church is iconic in the community and is situated in prime location for ministry outreach. It has proximity to local schools and the congregation owns a former deli on Main Street that it has refurbished for youth ministry.

The ecclesial imagination of APC is characterized by the stories they tell about themselves as a 300-year-old congregation and the way their stories are directed by and indicative of the Holy Spirit and the story of Jesus. At APC, there is wide support for and recognition of the power of storytelling to throw you “in the thick of things,” as one member put it, “[because] these are people we know and people we love.” In this way, I experienced the members of APC as challenging one another to create, perform, and live into a communal identity that is more Christ-like through the sharing and receiving of personal stories and through a  willingness to allow new perspectives to broaden their own. For instance, one Session member self-identified as one of the only Republicans sitting in on the  Workgroup on Racial Justice and Reconciliation meetings mentioned above, and while he did not agree with everything that was said, he agreed on most of the  group’s recommendations to the church about how to be a more diverse and inclusive community.

At APC, the story of Jesus is understood as a story of hope and love that all people need to hear, including children and youth. Responding to the problem of unchurched children in the world, APC has taken an approach of “radical welcome”—kids are not kicked out of youth group for misbehaving or using bad language. Youth ministry is tailored to kids in the community who do not go to church or have never been to church. The “explosion” of the youth program, with over 200 teenagers attending each week (pre-pandemic), resulted from a clearly communicated vision and the extensive youth ministry experience and visionary leadership of Pastor Stephen’s wife, who started APC’s organized youth ministry a few years after they arrived at APC. The transformation of the youth program into a mission to the community was a point of controversy in the church. Stephen says congregants asked,

‘Oh, what about our own kids?’ You know, there are all these kids that they don’t like, . . . kids that use bad language and stuff—but aren’t those the kids we’re called to reach? Some of our own church families wouldn’t send their kids to our youth ministry because they thought it was too edgy or the kids who were going there were too wild, . . . and we said, ‘Oh, well,’ you know, as long as you understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. You know we hope your kid will come, but if that’s not the right place for them, they can still come to Sunday school, they can still go to VBS or other, more traditional kinds of churchy things.

There seems to be tension about how to minister both to the unchurched and to the churched. Nonetheless, APC has been successful at both bringing in new congregants and keeping them.

No small part of APC’s impact has to do with their willingness to embrace fun. The staff, elders, and congregants enjoy, respect, and laugh with one another freely. I experienced this firsthand while sitting through a three-hour Zoom Session meeting that was filled with laughter, banter, and storytelling.  Congregants conveyed mutual respect and genuine interest in one another’s lives during the focus group conversation. Participants listened closely to one another, lifted each other up, joked, and provoked laughter . . . but at no one’s expense. They relish the fun they have together as a church  family. One Sunday morning, after Pastor Stephen had left for a year-long trip to Africa, the scripture lesson was about not praying to idols. A cardboard cutout of Pastor Stephen emerged, and “everyone was like ‘Oh, Stephen! Oh, Stephen!’” (spoken in a dramatic idolizing tone), which produced much laughter and left a lasting impression. This humorous and creative method of sharing a powerful message convinced one member, Rich, when he was still on the fence about APC, that this was a great place because they’re “not focused on the cult of personality; they’re focused on the right thing.”

Creative, intentional, and memorable worship is central to the life and ministry of APC.   People are filled up spiritually and encouraged to take the church outside of the church. Adults rave about the creative children’s moments that they look forward to each week. Additionally, regular mission trips to Maine, Guatemala, and “friendship trips” to Malawi (where they learn about authentic faith and joy from Malawians) are spoken of as transformative and are regular highlights of APC. The adult volunteer program for the youth is extensive, and the level of dedication demonstrates a deep care for area youth, even after they leave the program.

allentown vbsThe congregation views children’s ministry as vital for the future of the church, as it relies on the transmission of core beliefs and traditions to young people. When talking about the children’s  ministry, one focus group member was overcome with emotion, stopping mid-sentence before saying under her breath, “I don’t know if I’m going to cry.” Anna volunteers with the story team of VBS, which she describes as a week that is upbeat and energetic, at times more closely  resembling a rock concert than a sanctuary. During the Thursday sessions of VBS, however, the story team takes on a more serious tone by focusing on the death of Jesus. Anna says, “Kids from Pre-K to sixth grade, a lot of them respond to that.” She hopes that bringing the message of Jesus to these kids at an early age will be something they can draw from in the future. At APC, there is a strong emphasis placed on Jesus: seeking to follow and grow closer to Jesus and not being afraid to say the name of Jesus (unlike some Protestant churches who say God instead of Jesus, “almost as if they’re afraid to say [Jesus]).” APC’s motto, “Growing in Christ,” is clearly outlined on their website and clearly evident in their words and actions.”

Like the broader congregation, leaders at APC also consistently focus on Christ, as evident by the lighting of the Christ-candle at the start of a Session meeting and frequent prayers offered throughout the meeting, including a prayer that, “We would walk each step with Jesus and not turn one step to the right or the left but follow the way Jesus would have us go.” The pastor’s advice to the Workgroup on Racial Justice and Reconciliation was to “keep Christ at the center.” For the congregation’s leadership, this involves intentionally striving to be a more colorful church, in part through hiring people of color (such as their current full-time Director of Music and their former full-time Director of Senior High ministry, both of whom are Black.) There is both a desire to become a more integrated congregation and a recognition that APC has a long way to go to realize this aspiration. From Pastor Stephen’s perspective, it is hard for someone new to APC to come back if they don’t see someone leading “who looks like them.” In the “very homogenous little town” of Allentown, New Jersey, where “there aren’t a lot of people of color” and this poses some significant challenges. As Pastor Stephen notes, however, “they [people of color] certainly are all  around us.” APC is intentionally striving to grow in diversity, racial justice, and racial reconciliation, while acknowledging their reliance on Christ as their Guide. APC’s frequent, explicit focus on Jesus Christ and his life and ministry as a path to follow imperfectly and yet relentlessly, brings me hope.

In following Jesus’ example of giving, APC tells stories about the generosity of their community and the way in which the Holy  Spirit has provided. A significant part of APC’s story involves a history of financial struggle for the first 223 years of its existence. The financial picture radically changed when George R. Waln, a lifetime member of APC, died in 1940 and left the bulk of his estate to the church.  This gift is now worth over two million dollars, and APC continues to receive an annual earnings income of roughly $90,000 from the investment of the gift.  Such generosity is also evident in more recent history. Stephen spoke enthusiastically about Alabaster Sunday, constructed as a one-day cash offering that would be matched by the endowment to pay off the debt from the new building. In one day, the church raised $240,000, which was $40,000 more than their goal. A more recent act of “Waln” generosity occurred in the mid-1990s, when a member left over two million dollars to the church with no strings attached. This endowment allowed APC to give money to struggling churches, as well as to support mission partners and individuals in need. This monetary generosity and the way in which the Lord has provided for the ministry of APC demonstrates the Lord’s  faithfulness and APC’s good stewardship of the Lord’s blessings.  This provides evidence of individuals’ trust in and dedication to the mission of APC. Regardless of their present financial security, APC does not come across as cold or aloof but makes everyone who walks through their doors feel warmly welcomed into their community. When asked about a mascot for APC, Nancy, a long-time member and lay leader of the church, thought the Philly Phanatic fit well because “we can be fanatical about our focus on hospitality.” Nancy laughed as she said this and went on to say, “It’s really giving the sense that we, by our interaction with people as they come in . . . [are] really wanting to know who they are and [to let] them know that we’re happy that they are here.” Nancy expressed that she always felt welcomed at APC and always felt she belonged.

Nancy is a pleasant woman in her seventies who lives next door to APC and grew up going to church there. Her mother was one of the first two women ordained as Ruling Elder in the congregation in the early 1960s. When Nancy’s father died suddenly just after she had graduated college, she and her mother were surprised and hurt by the lack of contact from APC’s pastor at the time. However, this did not stop them from continuing to worship there. According to Nancy, “You get over things and make sure it doesn’t happen to others.” To Nancy and others, APC’s mission is to go beyond providing individual pastoral care to its congregants—it is a community of imperfect people seeking Jesus and seeking to share Jesus with others. For some people, the pain of an absent pastor at a family’s time of great need might sour them from the church, but not Nancy. Her dedication to APC is but a glimmer of her dedication to Christ. This dedication to Christ and to APC was present in others, too, as evidenced by congregants speaking with passion and excitement about APC, volunteering in numerous ministries, and making me feel welcomed, valued, and acceptance as a newcomer.

allentown-2APC is a church with a rich history that is unafraid of change and is proud of its missional outreach. Storytelling is an important vehicle of APC’s ecclesial imagination, especially the cultivation of a well-told version of the story of APC and its mission, which points to the greatest story of all, the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The story APC tells of itself is one of divinely inspired generosity and a pouring out for kids in the community in need of church. But it is also more than that. The story of APC is about realizing the importance of “Growing in Christ” through discipleship and coming alongside those who congregate at APC either in worship, study, or mission, which transforms lives. APC’s striving to live by their mission, even through imperfection, is inspiring. The leadership at APC is stable, passionate, and effective at leading; change is implemented intentionally and incrementally over time, with clear and repeated rationale, such that people “buy into” and believe in the church’s broader mission, even if they don’t personally love the style or approach.

While APC strives for high-quality telling and retelling of their story, they do not shy away from authenticity and vulnerability. APC actively seeks to more effectively reach unchurched youth and reimagine new ways of doing ministry during a global pandemic. There is a strong sense of community and camaraderie at APC, where newcomers are “fanatically welcomed,” and deep mutual respect provides fertile soil for old timers to share stories of the olden days, while younger folks listen on eagerly. In the same gathering, young adults are given space to use their voices and gifts. Meetings and events at APC are lively and filled with laugher. Individuals enjoy and encourage one another to lead with their passions and to try serving in new capacities. Efforts are made to promote mutual respect, with an emphasis on commonalities over differences. APC is striving to promote racial reconciliation, to support at-risk youth, and to meet the needs of their community while seeking to embody the authentic joy and love of their international neighbors in Malawi and Guatemala. APC is an inspiring “light on the hill,” serving with ingenuity and respect for tradition, prioritizing the community over the individual, and seeking to bring the church out into the world.

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