Philadelphia Gospel Movement – A Story of Disunity, and of Hope

Philadelphia Gospel Movement formally started in September, 2016 at a gathering of Christian leaders at the invitation of former Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode, Sr and Glenn McDowell. The purpose of the gathering was to begin to unite the disunited body of Christ to bless our city.

Since then the circle has been enlarging with the vision of seeing Greater Philadelphia flourish spiritually, economically, and culturally through the grace of Jesus.  A unique feature is engaging the three-legged stool of collaboration amongst leaders in the marketplace, non-profits and churches to bless our city.

Yet Philadelphia Gospel Movement’s vision is nothing new. There is a fascinating backstory of successes and failures in building trust in the Regional Church.  

Billy Graham planned a major crusade in Philadelphia for 1992.  After initially forming an “invitation committee” to engage participation from the regional church, the Graham Association reached out to city pastors to join in. They found that they were not interested. The “Invitation Committee” consisted of white suburban leaders, and pastors of color were not consulted until plans were made.

Thankfully, the Graham Association realized their mistake, disbanded the original “Committee” and started over.  They reached out to key pastors who actually represented the majority of Christians in Philadelphia. The new committee, co-chaired by Rev. Bill Moore and Nelson Diaz, then enthusiastically enlisted the regional body of Christ for the crusade. Rev. Moore was and is a leading African American pastor, and Nelson Diaz was the first Latino judge in our city. The result: Graham’s 1992 crusade in Philadelphia was the most ethnically diverse of all his North American crusades!

This story capsulizes both the challenge and the hope that Christians in Greater Philadelphia face.  We may actually be the most divided and silo-ed Church of North American cities. We are divided generationally, ethnically, politically, socio-economically, denominationally, and between city and suburbs.  Yet there have been champions for unity in Christ’s body here for centuries.  

In 1858 John Wanamaker, at age 20, became leader of the Philadelphia YMCA and helped lead a spiritual revival in our city that encompassed tens of thousands and impacted all the city’s churches. An innovative businessman, he later built the world’s largest retail store on the entire block of 13th and Market Streets. Yet at the same time he led efforts to unite Christians across denominations to serve the poor and those most marginalized.  He founded the Sunday Breakfast and other rescue missions, and organized neighborhood athletic teams, evening literacy classes, and arranged regular visitation to hospitals and prisons.  

Over the centuries there have been many unifying endeavors across denominations, but typically they have had a majority of one ethnic or cultural group or another.  For example, in 1935 Christian Endeavor held a gathering at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall which concluded with a parade of 50,000 participants. However, this probably was not well representative of all the cultures of the body of Christ.

Yet there were always champions of a broader unity. In 1971 Westminster Ministerial Institute was formed to train urban pastors – a unique partnership forged between Black Baptist and Pentecostal leaders with white Presbyterian leaders. It became the Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS) a premier training center for urban pastors.  Under the Leadership of Dr. Bill Krispin, it became a leading force for connection and ministry for the Church of Philadelphia across ethnicities and denominations.

In 1980 James Boice, Wesley Pinnock, Linward Crowe, Luis Cortes and others started meeting as the Philadelphia Coalition to pray for the advance of the gospel through greater oneness.  Deliverance Evangelistic Church (Pastor Ben Smith) and Tenth Presbyterian Church held joint worship services as a result of these trusted relationships.

In 1981 key Philadelphia Christian business and church leaders formed Philadelphia Leadership Foundation to combine their influence to serve the common good of our city.

These leaders, and very many unnamed others, formed the foundation for Philadelphia Gospel Movement.  In fact, we would not have trusted relationships across group boundaries if it were not for these faith-filled pioneers who were willing to answer to Jesus’ prayer that we be one.  We are grateful for them and stand on their shoulders.

Today our nation and city face new polarizations which challenge the credibility of the Church and degrade the honor of Jesus as Lord over His one body.  The Lord urgently calls us to unite the disunited church today.