Progressive church fills a need for many

Kent Jacobs, pastor of Epic Church, a contemporary, non-denominational Manayunk church, delivers a sermon at their new Center City mid-day service, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on South Broad St.
Kent Jacobs, pastor of Epic Church, a contemporary, non-denominational Manayunk church, delivers a sermon at their new Center City mid-day service, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on South Broad St. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 14, 2012

Actress Rin Barton moved to Philadelphia two weeks ago and wanted a modern, progressive church similar to what she had attended in Virginia.

"I went to Google and I put in 'cool churches' in Philadelphia, and the first thing it gave me was Epic," said Barton, 24, who describes herself on Twitter as a Shakespeare nerd and future crazy cat lady. "I thought - whoa! It's epic. I better check it out."

And that's what she did Sunday morning, joining a couple of hundred other mostly twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who gathered to worship at Epic Church's Center City location at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.

Billing itself as a casual, contemporary Christian church, Epic was started nearly four years ago by Pastor Kent Jacobs, 32, a North Carolina native who trained at an Oklahoma ministry school.

The church became so popular at its Manayunk location - it rents out auditoriums at the United Artists Theater - that Jacobs opened a second site in Center City in February. Epic uses a creative website, podcasts, and texting to reach out to its young worshipers and encourages close-knit friendships within the church.

A military officer, a lawyer, a chemical engineer, and a filmmaker, along with a contingent of college students, were among those who attended the hour-long service on Sunday, which opened with spiritual music by a band and a tattooed female singer.

Parishioners took their seats in the dimly lit theater, breakfasting on doughnuts, bagels, and coffee provided by the church. Scripture, messages, and videos were projected on a screen.

In a black T-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, Jacobs led the service, this week continuing a series he calls "life apps."

"Application is everything," he said, deftly weaving in jokes and examples from his own family - wife Tiffany and children ages 2 and 4 - with Bible lessons.

In the previous three weeks, he had emphasized "forgive," "confess," and "rest."

"Today's life app - it's a toughie," Jacobs warned, then kidded: "I've already instructed the ushers to lock all the doors, so you're stuck."

Jacobs urged members to have the courage to "confront" fellow believers if they make a spiritual mistake.

"In your life, you made decisions you wish you would have never made," he said. "If someone that you respected would have just thrown themselves in front of you and lovingly and appropriately confronted you - not condemn or judge you or belittle you - there's a chance that maybe things could have been completely different."

Members raved about the church and its message.

"I love that it's young and community-oriented," said Erin Van Dorn, 31, a lawyer who has belonged for two years. "I have a really great community of young singles that I hang out with."

J.D. Foy, 33, an Air Force major, said he walked into the church after an extended military deployment and felt like "this is where God wanted me."

"I just like feeling like I really belong."

Jos Duncan, 37, a filmmaker, was introduced to the church by a friend and liked that it was different from the traditional African American church she grew up in, which she found to be restrictive and judgmental.

"It's open. It's laid-back. I don't feel nervous," she said.

About 450 people belong to the Manayunk site and about 165 in Center City. Jacobs envisions the church eventually growing to 800 between the two sites, and he has no intention of stopping there.

"Our long-term goal is to start other locations in other neighborhoods throughout the city," he said.

Jacobs launched his career at a church in Tulsa, Okla., then moved to this area to become a youth pastor at Victory Church in Trooper, Montgomery County.

He went into Philadelphia for lunch one day with his wife and a friend, and over a bowl of pasta at a little Italian place, the friend suggested he start a church in the city.

"With excitement, we started to dream about how the church could make a difference in the city and in the lives of the people that would come," he wrote on the church website.

Jacobs said his goal was to make church meaningful.

In addition to weekly services, Epic encourages members to join "life groups" of 15 to 20 worshipers who meet at members' houses during the week for Bible study.

"As we grow big, I think it's really important that we stay small," too, he said.

Members also are encouraged to perform service. On Mother's Day, for example, Epic selects a single mother for a "mini home makeover." They fix her stove, paint - whatever is needed.

The church's message seems to be reaching more people each week as membership grows. As the service ended, Barton, the new city resident, said she would be back.

"I would definitely like to see more," she said.


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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