November 2009

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Perspectives Journal
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November 2009: Church Review

Tenth Presbyterian Church
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

by Susan A. Sytsma Bratt

Rittenhouse Square arguably forms the heart of Center City Philadelphia. Walking past it on the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend is a counter-cultural experience. Many others in the city of brotherly--and sisterly--love have left town for a weekend at the Shore or sit at cafes and coffee shops reading the Philadelphia Inquirer or New York Times. Yet I noticed a steady stream of people walking with me to Tenth Presbyterian Church. Looking up I couldn't help but notice a much-reduced stately spire poking above the roofline of brownstones and row houses.

Like many Presbyterian churches in Philadelphia, today's Tenth Presbyterian is a result of mergers and denominational controversies. Indeed, Philadelphia Presbytery offers a 350-page historical directory that details a number of these stories. Founded as West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church in 1856, the church served as a satellite congregation for the original Tenth Presbyterian, which was located at the corner of 12th and Walnut. The transformation of the eastern portion of Center City into an industrial and commercial district drove many original Tenth Presbyterian congregants to join West Spruce Street; the two eventually merged in 1893.

West Spruce hired noted Philadelphia architect John McArthur (who was also a church member and deacon) to design its sanctuary in 1856. McArthur used an Italianate Revival model that takes many of the architectural features of the Lombard Romanesque style, with rounded windows and doors being prominent parts of the sanctuary design. 10th Pres Upon the 1893 merger, McArthur's interior space was remodeled to allow for more seating, and the Italianate interior was significantly altered to include Tiffany windows and other trademarks of neo-Byzantine design. The church's steeple, once the tallest structure in Philadelphia until the new City Hall (designed by McArthur as well) was built in 1901, collapsed due to structural decay and was removed in 1912.

If the church's building was embracing stylish architecture in the early twentieth century, its theology remained conservative Presbyterian. The Philadelphia Presbytery was the seat of conservative Presbyterianism during the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the 1920s and 1930s, and Tenth Presbyterian was no exception. The departure of noted conservative pastor Clarence Macartney from nearby Arch Street Presbyterian to a new call in 1927 led to Tenth becoming the conservative Presbyterian Church in Center City, and it has remained so until this day. Under the leadership of senior pastors such as Donald Barnhouse (1927-1960) and James Montgomery Boice (1968-2000), the congregation blended conservative Reformed doctrine with cutting-edge technology, including radio and television programming, to spread its message. The church's membership continued to grow after World War II, and ministry efforts to college students gave the congregation a metropolitan focus. The congregation grew increasingly hostile to the denomination's doctrinal latitude, and after the Presbyterian Church USA amended the Book of Order to mandate the election of female elders and deacons in 1980, Tenth Presbyterian left the denomination to join the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America. After a lengthy property battle that only Presbyterians seem capable of enduring, the congregation was allowed to leave the denomination and keep its building.

Tenth Presbyterian Church has grown and emerged as a leading "big-steeple" PCA congregation in the northeast United States. Many of her pastors have come from Westminster Theological Seminary just outside of Philadelphia. True to PCA form, the ministry is focused on Reformed doctrine and a healthy engagement with the community. Small-group ministries abound for all ages. The church sponsors an extensive global missions program. Outreach to the neighborhood includes a strong connection to the rising generation of doctors attending the medical schools in the neighborhood. Touring the web site and reading the bulletin, you can't help but notice the church's clear theological foundation and the abundant opportunities for the body of Christ to grow in their faith and serve the community.

This fullness is also evident upon entering the sanctuary for the 11:00 Sunday morning service. Warmly greeted by a wall of women who handed me a bulletin and gave a welcoming handshake, I was carried into the sanctuary. As in most Reformed spaces, the pulpit is front and center in the chancel, but the Table and Font are missing. The pews are padded and there are two side balconies for those who appreciate a bird's-eye view.

Conversations percolated ten minutes prior to worship as the space built for 700 filled almost to capacity. People of varying generations, genders, and races were finding their seats. I was struck by the large proportion of worshipers who were young adults of college age or recent graduates that kept streaming in, mostly in pairs. There was the usual buzz about the previous week, but what caught my ear was the chatter of one college-aged woman seated in front of me. She was recounting her summer to the family next to me, mentioning her excitement at working in a clinic but most importantly the opportunity she had to share the Gospel. I was immediately struck by her testimony and ability to use her voice to--in effect--preach.

Then worship began, led by a wall of men in dark suits seated on the chancel. A quick glance at the bulletin identified them as three of the six ministers on staff: Senior Minister Philip Ryken, Jonathan Olsen, and Paul David Tripp. (The other three are males too, befitting PCA rules.) The three also served as liturgists, calling us to worship with a Psalm and then inviting us to pray silently during the prelude. A prayer of confession was absent from the liturgy, with the doxology used as a response to the spoken call to worship. The tone of worship leadership up to that point was as muted as the dark suits, yet the service flowed well with no pauses or awkward breaks. The tone quickly shifted as the Westminster Brass ensemble played the introduction to O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. Everyone rose from their pews, opened the Trinity Hymnal, and sang with gusto. The sound of the brass, organ, and robust congregational singing gave me chills, as did the congregation standing to affirm their faith with the Apostle's Creed. I was quickly brought back down from heaven, though, by one of the pastor's facial ticks and rocking motions during the responsive reading. It seemed he was trying to get his child's attention in the front row by pulling faces; he certainly garnered my rapt attention.

Warmth and connection returned during "The Living Church" portion of the service. On this week the City College and Career director spoke about this vibrant ministry of the church and invited folks in this demographic to weekly meals and Bible Studies. The pitch was heartfelt, theological, and brief, pointing to the connection between the worshiping body and their journey together as disciples. The hospitality for this demographic was borne out by all the young adults sitting around me.

Moving to the offering, the wall of women emerged to collect our tithes and visitor cards. I laboriously filled mine out, hoping a pew-mate would notice and welcome me. No smiles or greetings were offered when I passed the plate.

Scripture was woven throughout the liturgy, with a Psalm used as a call to worship, a reading from Judges, and then, at the end of the liturgy, the sermon. The preaching moment came at the end of the service, not in the middle as is typical for many Reformed churches.

Oh, to be a preacher at Tenth where the congregation expects a sermon of at least forty-five minutes! Accustomed to a prayer for illumination, scripture reading, and then the sermon, it took me several minutes to recognize and tune in to the expository preaching style of Dr. Ryken, who has served as Senior Minister since 2000. The preaching was solid, linking an introduction to the context of Paul and Corinth to the specific context of the famous 1 Corinthians 13. Focusing on only the first three verses, Dr. Ryken wove in references to the Gospel of Mark and Exodus to reinforce his thesis that there is hope for loveless sinners, but only if one welcomes Jesus' love into one's heart. There was a lengthy subtext on the need for confession in order to prepare one's heart, which seemed odd since the liturgy didn't model that act. It was apparent that Scripture is taken seriously not only by the preacher but by the congregation, as many had their own Bibles or the English Standard Version in the pew open and notepads in hand. Worship concluded with another rousing hymn, More Love to Thee, and a wonderful Bach postlude.

Sensing the hospitality and vibrancy of the congregation both before and during worship, I attempted to look lost and elicit connection afterwards. It turned out there was no coffee that day, just a meal for young professionals. As worship concluded I sensed that I had entered a space set apart from the Philadelphia I call home. I experienced welcome but not embrace. Standing at the door of the narthex, I was ushered out by a wall of male pastors who heartily shook my hand and sent me out onto the sidewalk.

I re-entered the bustle of city life a bit confused. How can a church that is so vibrant in terms of raising up the next generation to proclaim the gospel ignore the voices and gifts of half the population sitting in the pews? The words from the young woman and Dr. Ryken were rolling through my mind as both preached, both testified to God's work in our world. Yet the ethos of the church defined strong walls built to protect. I'm still mulling over those walls, but thankful that the Spirit moves through and around them, shaping and challenging a church that remains committed to serving God in an urban context. I'm curious how the Spirit as architect will continue to subvert and shift Tenth and her ministry over the next hundred years.

The Church Review series aims to explore current worship and preaching practices at different Reformed and Presbyterian churches around North America. Some of these are "traditional," some "innovative," but together they represent a cross-section of the current Reformed scene. Reviewers present factual data about the churches they visit along with their own reflections upon what they observed.

Susan Sytsma Bratt is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA, currently serving as a pastoral resident at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.