The Storefront Church


April 24, 2012 by DKC

I have mixed feelings about storefront churches.  I grew up worshipping in a storefront and know firsthand the complexities of worship in this kind of tight environment. We lived in North Philly but commuted to South Philly for Sunday school and Worship Service(s), Wednesday Prayer and Saturday Outreach and whatever else could be added during the week. There are literally thousands of small urban churches existing with small budgets, a bi-vocational pastor and a membership roll between 15-50 members.[1] Many of these churches have either converted old grocery stores or drug stores into places of worship oddly positioned in impoverished and violent urban neighborhoods. Many of these places of worship have been organized in response to what many founders held as a  call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It could be said that many of these storefronts are also the result of church splits.

As I look back on my younger days I remember looking forward to the day when I could get away from this lifestyle. Sundays were always packed days. Most Sundays you had two services with a meal in between. The services were either on home court or away. I must admit that there was this unique culture of fellowship between storefront churches. Usually churches similar size would scheduled joint services to celebrate special days. Pastors would exchange dates usually twice a year; one service at home and the other would be a visit to a church clear across the city. There were the traditional Men’s day, Women’s Day, Joy Nights and other annual days which seemed maliciously scheduled to break up sleepy Sunday afternoons. As I reminisce on these days I realize how easily this became a sub-culture. The ‘storefronters’ are a unique group of hard core believers who have made a conscious decision to serve and worship in these unique outposts. These worshipers could have easily joined a mega church where they could slip in an out of any of the gatherings without so much as a question. Instead, they have chosen to fulfill duties as church mothers, clerks, trustees, deacons, sextons, VBS coordinators and others roles in a place where numerical growth is probably non existent due to size and street parking.

These storefront churches are like a little oasis in the urban dessert. Most of the time, I enjoyed the intimate family atmosphere–everyone knew each other, it was a family bond. Each Sunday it was customary to pick up conversation where you dropped off the previous week. The traditional worship service would begin with devotions.[2] This part of the service was filled with contextualized Southern White hymns or Negro Spirituals. Interspersed within this time would be testimony time—this was perhaps the most entertaining time for the uninterested teenager.  Adults or a “spiritual” young person would stand and “give honor” to such and such and then go on to share about “…the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”.  There was the occasional ringer testimony—someone would craftily re-arrange events so that it becomes a testimony. Next up was the choir, they (we) would sing three songs usually a popular Andrea Crouch or Walter Hawkins song or maybe a jazzed up hymn to “bring in the Spirit.” After that there would be a Sunday school report of attendance and the offering followed by an introduction of the pastor and then a message lasting about an hour and fifteen minutes.  Lastly, the closing procedures consisted of an invitation for salvation and discipleship, offering, announcements and then a closing benediction.

What was surprising is that once service ended people weren’t in a rush to get home—there was genuine fellowship and enjoyment just being with family. The small sanctuary would often smell of sweat and peppermints as the young and old laughed and reflected on life and how God met them right where they were at. The times of celebration seemed to always be mixed with tragedy. Folks would talk about death, sickness and every kind of news that would cause most folks to give up. There was always the underlying hope that things would get better. South Philly in the 1980’s were violent times—you could often hear gun shots during Sunday night worship or Wednesday night Bible Study and prayer. I can remember my father visiting hospitals, morgues and the projects on a regular basis. I would frequently accompany him on these outings and I often found myself passing tools while he repaired a church member’s plumbing or I would eavesdrop on a conversation about the importance of a relapsed addict going back to rehab. I can distinctly remember on one occasion going with him on a visit to the Raymond Rosen projects.  This visit in particular has remained a vivid piece of my memory.  I can recall to this day the smell of hopelessness as I watched a single mother with no food and several naked babies barely holding it together in the middle of a major American city. It was on that visit that I realized the burden of a call to serve God by serving others.

It has become fashionable to look down on storefront churches and those who occupy these miniature facilities. Some might suggest that they serve no real benefit to the community but I beg to differ. I will admit that there are many storefronts that simply need to close their doors but in many cases there are real needs to be met. You will probably never hear terms like ‘missional’ or ‘emergent church’ in these places—they will never purchase an espresso machine or evaluate a work of art as an essential part of their worship experience.[3] These churches serve on the margins—reaching the ‘un-sexy’ of society. It’s been my experience that many who find their way into these kinds of churches have been saved from harsh living and are extremely grateful for the grace of God. The gospel is not simply a didactic theologically pure statement but it translates into, “I once was lost but now I’m found”.

There’s a lot of unnecessary ‘high church’ in many of these small churches. However, I’ve learned not to disregard the traditionalism as simple foolishness because it represents for many a connection to the past. These churches tried and are trying their best and many still employ archaic methods to reach their community like preaching on a bull horn or having church outside hoping that someone would respond. Most churches in North America are internally focused. Churches generally believe that people should just come into the doors of the church as they did in the good ole days.  Most churches  believe that Christianity is still widely accepted as a primary choice in a post modern society where there are various other options.[4] The early church stands in contrast to the consumer driven, size conscious church of today. The early church was marked by koinonia or fellowship[5] around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  There was a commitment among the early followers of Christ to the preaching of the Word, prayer, the Lord’s Table, public baptism and confessions. (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:42-45; 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34) These early disciples recognized the importance of loving God and others as well as fulfilling both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission of Christ. (Matthew 22:38-40, 28:19-20; James 1:27; 2 Corinthians 8-9)

In their unique context, these storefront churches could mirror the first century house church where saints under persecution and oppression met house to house and were mindful that they were a subversive presence to the dominant culture. (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:2) The size of the storefront church may be an advantage as they could be more nimble in their response to their immediate context. Additionally, the proximity of these churches to community provides a great opportunity to display real incarnational ministry.

The communities where most store fronts exists are most likely culturally predisposed to a strong emphasis on fellowship and community. The innate quality of small community could very well be used to reach places where larger churches could only dream of reaching.  The time of my youth was marked by a frustrating urgency to get away from the storefront, but I look back twenty two years later with gratitude at the lives touched and missional lessons learned in this small blessed community.

[1] “Black urban churches that change locations frequently tend to be storefront churches usually found in the poorest section of black communities where the rents are lowest and the population transient.” (p. 137) Mamiya and Lincoln’s research reveals that concerning the Black Urban Churches in America that roughly 7% worship in storefront structures. (p. 138). Lincoln, E. C., & Mamiya, L. H. (1990). The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[2] This devotion time is the traditional time of hymns and testimony. The progressive and more contemporary equivalent is known as, ‘Praise and Worship ’.

[3] Missional is understood as the recognition of God’s missionary effort in the world and the churches call to be like God by being on mission into the world under His authority (mission dei). In the book, Missional Church it is stated, “We have learned to speak of God as a “missionary God.” Thus we have learned to understand the church as a “sent people.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).  Guder, D. L. (1998). Mission Church, A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (p.4)   Concerning Emergent or Emergent Churches, “, emerging churches are missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their place and time.” Gibbs, E., & Bolger, R. K. (2005). Emerging Churches, Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics. (p. 28)

[4] (id. at 51)

[5] Bob Gilliam defines Biblical “fellowship” (koinonia) this way, “Fellowship is a relationship of inner unity among believers that expresses itself in outer co-participation with Christ and one another in accomplishing God’s will on earth.”

3 thoughts on “The Storefront Church

  1. […] If you enjoyed this blog post you might like this one as well… The Storefront Church […]

  2. […] written here, here and here about the various happenings on street corners. Back in the day you would see guys rep corners. […]

  3. I like looking through an article that can make men and women think.
    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!

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