Circle the wagons - at 'hipster church'

Posted: April 07, 2014

There is something very new and very old happening inside the Circle of Hope.

Born of the mid-1990's Philadelphia Christian punk scene, the church with four locations in the area is rooted in one of the state's oldest denominations, the Colonial-era Brethren in Christ.

Some observers glibly dismiss the current iteration as a "hipster church." And, sure, there are plenty of beards and blue jeans and a certain laid-back stagecraft.

But the theology here is meaty. There may be talk of using Google maps to view Biblical sites, but there are also citations of the Law of Moses to help contextualize the scripture.

Who we are: Pastor Rod White described the church as "a people called to reconciliation" and a place for those people "to explore and express God's love."

Last Sunday's afternoon service at the church's South Philly outpost, on Broad Street near Washington Avenue, drew a diverse crowd of about 60 despite a driving and chilly rainstorm.

As a projector displayed scripture and pictures on the wall behind a simple altar, White and his son, Ben White, spoke about the season of Lent. People attending the service were invited to speak up about what the religious season meant to them.

While the congregation is diverse in age, it tends to "trend younger," White said, with a mean age of about 30 and more than 50 children.

Where we worship: The church, above a check-cashing store at 1125 S. Broad St., holds Sunday meetings at 5 and 7 p.m. There are also locations in Kensington, North Philly and Pennsauken, N.J.

What we believe: "We intend to keep all the great things God has given through the church of the past," White said, "and be totally at home in our own time, ready and able to relate to the people of our day."

What we're known for: Along with being informal and personal, White said the church is known for its strong sense of community. Additionally, he said, "We have a lot of art and music going on."

At Sunday's service, a nine-member house band helped lead the congregation for nearly 90 minutes, from a moody, atmospheric service start to a body-swaying beat as the congregation stood for the self-service communion. The lyrics moved from English to Latin to Hebrew to Spanish to Arabic.

And for a cool thrift shops ...: One is on the first floor of their Broad Street building, next to the check-cashing place. Another is in Fishtown, at Frankford Avenue and Dauphin Street.

Something that would probably surprise people: "Even though we started with punk concerts in 1996, we are part of a denomination who have been in Pennsylvania since the 1780s," White said. The Brethern in Christ, founded by German Anabaptists in Lancaster County and now in about two dozen countries, consider it their calling to follow Jesus, "grow in Christ-likeness" and serve others.

Good works: In the Philly region, Circle of Hope's 18 "compassion teams" work on a wide variety of issues, from urban farming and land use to homelessness and serving the needs of prisoners.

Big moral issue we're grappling with: Among other quandaries, how "data addiction" and other habits stemming from technology can numb people and disempower them from standing up to what White called "the powers that impoverish the 99 percent."

God is: "In fact, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," White said. "God is love revealed in Jesus, the way, the truth and the life."

God moment: "I think I feel God is present every week when we worship," White said.

He also felt God's presence recently when his members reacted "with grace and offers of friendship" after someone struggling with alcohol issues "did not use the church list-serve with wisdom."

"He was circled with love, not rejected," White said.

If pennies rained from heaven into our facilities budget, we would ... "be tempted to siphon them off for personnel and action," White said, "when we should be buying a building."


On Twitter: @ChrisBrennanDN

Blog: ph.ly/PhillyClout.com

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