Church Starting and Faith Sharing Ministries / Feature

This is What Heaven Looks Like

Challenges are certainly not new to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church starter Wayne Weathers, who serves as pastor of Vision of Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

After all, Weathers spent 10 years pastoring in one of Philadelphia’s most distressed subsidized housing networks and later planted Vision of Hope in the nearby Strawberry Mansion neighborhood (don’t let the name fool you). But when Vision of Hope moved into a former Church of Christ Scientist building seven miles north in Jenkintown—think Tudor-style manors and towering Alaskan cedars—the real challenge began.

“It was a challenging shift for me because of my mindset; I’ve always been an ‘urban pastor’ since I started pastoring in Durham, North Carolina,” said Weathers, who was the first African-American church starter to be commissioned by CBF. “Suddenly, the commute was long and the culture was different.”

“It’s not that I have a problem joining a community where the ethnicity is different, but I’ve heard horror stories about African American churches literally having to move out of a changing neighborhood because problems developed, and complaints, and they were unable to sustain themselves. But I’ve learned that ministry is ministry, whether you’re in an urban or suburban setting. The mindset has to be that wherever you are planted, there’s an opportunity to do ministry in a community who needs to experience salvation in Jesus Christ.”

The light bulb came on while Weathers was working at a local Starbucks and happened to glance at the Jenkintown community board. People and organizations from all over town were hosting venues for conversation, he explains, whether for caregivers, those living with Alzheimers or those battling depression. Why couldn’t Vision of Hope host similar conversations and begin to engage people’s everyday needs and passions?

They began by hosting a community-wide “Coffee and Conversation” about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court and followed up a few weeks later on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a conversation titled “Is the Dream Still Alive?” Vision of Hope continued with a community health fair, yard sale and cookout, all of which pushed the congregation beyond their comfortable instincts and into their neighbors’ lives. That’s the beauty and burden of church starting, Weathers says—no single ministry model will work forever, and that’s okay.

“I would say to any church starter, you must be prepared for paradigm shifts, because your church will not always stay on the trajectory you began with,” he says. “There isn’t a standard, formulated model when you start a church. And that’s positive, not negative, because when that straight road starts to wiggle or curve, those are indications that your congregation is growing and evolving.”

The indications kept coming. Just as Vision of Hope was moving into their new space, Jenkintown’s first and only African American church, Salem Baptist Church, was departing for a larger building in Roslyn, Pennsylvania. “Right as they left, God planted another African American Baptist church in Jenkintown to be a blessing to the community,” Weathers says.

In September 2019, a local white family contacted Vision of Hope offering to donate their baby grand piano as they downsized and moved out of Jenkintown. The family even paid for half of the transport cost. Furthermore, a local florist sent flowers welcoming Vision of Hope to the neighborhood and the Abington Friends School, located across the street from the church, began sharing their parking lot with the congregation and staff. These gestures of hospitality were soothing to the church’s early trepidation, he says, but they also confirmed that Vision of Hope has found a vital role in God’s mission in Jenkintown.

“It was healing to know that we were welcomed into Jenkintown with open arms,” Weathers says. “Although our ethnicities may be different, it didn’t stop people from saying we welcome you, we embrace you.”

“We’ve received a blessing going into a community where our ethnicity is different than those who live in Jenkintown. And we’re already preparing for our church to one day transition from being predominantly black to being multicultural. The communities surrounding Jenkintown have a large Jewish, Hispanic and Asian population and the gospel we are proclaiming is not monolithic to one ethnicity but it’s holistic to all ethnicities. That is what heaven looks like—all ethnicities coming together to worship—and we embrace that opportunity.”

To learn more about CBF’s New Church Starts Initiative or explore your own call to church starting, please visit cbfchurchstarts.net.

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