PHILADELPHIA (BP)–Keystone Fellowship Church in suburban Philadelphia celebrated its fourth birthday by planting Epiphany Fellowship Church amid some of the City of Brotherly Love’s meanest streets.
Keystone was barely three years old in 2004 when it partnered with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board to plant Epiphany.
“It was church planting suicide,” said Eric Mase, lead pastor of Epiphany.
But that didn’t matter to John Cope, Keystone’s pastor. He had church planting in his blood. He knew all about it. Having begun in August 2000 with only six people -– the members of his family — Keystone officially launched a year later with 300 people. And partnering with Cope to plant Keystone was First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla. From this relationship Cope knew how indispensable Keystone would be to the fledgling Epiphany Fellowship.
Both Keystone and Epiphany were planted in conjunction with NAMB’s Strategic Focus Cities evangelism and church-planting initiative in major U.S. cities.
The church planting relationship between the two congregations is significant in that Keystone’s membership is predominantly Caucasian while Epiphany’s congregational ethnicity is as varied as the rainbow.
“Epiphany is not a black church,” Mase said. “We have people of several ethnic backgrounds who attend.” Mase is of African descent as is co-pastor William Branch, who both graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary.
“We’ve gotten more favorable responses from white people in this endeavor on the front end than we have from those of our own hue,” Mase said. “And I don’t apologize for the impact of that statement.
“One of my mentors told me, ‘Don’t ever apologize for the role of white men in your life.’ Now, certain black leaders may want to call me a ‘whitewashed’ something, but I could really care less about that.”
Explaining how he chooses ministry partners, Mase said, “What we did was we gathered around what God values based on the Bible. We considered the question: How does God keep score? Then we sought those who like to hold to how God keeps score, and we decided to get with them.”
Neither Mase nor Cope, who met with Mase and Branch for a Baptist Press interview, ever considered their ethnicities as stumbling blocks to Epiphany’s tie to Keystone.
Cope, who hails from Pine Bluff, Ark., said one of his best friends in seminary was African American. “Race has never been an issue with me, and it’s not because of some penance for what the white man did in the past.
“You know, racism may be an issue farther south from here,” Cope added.
“But up here the dynamic changes, Brother,” Mase interjected. “You can’t afford to be a separatist in our non-Bible Belt atmosphere.
“It’s like in World War II,” Mase said. “My daddy was a Buffalo Soldier, and he said that all the racism he saw in South Carolina changed when he got on the battlefield. He said, ‘Whoever is shooting in the opposite direction of us is on our team.'”
Cope said he and Mase have “the same spiritual DNA,” with a common purpose in reaching people for Christ, which has stirred enthusiasm among Keystone’s members.
“Many of our people grew up in the city and moved to the suburbs,” Cope said. “They still have a passion for the city. So when this opportunity came up, man, our people didn’t even bat an eye. In fact, I never heard one negative comment. Not a one.”
Mase was quick to add that Keystone didn’t help plant Epiphany out of some “Messiah complex” or guilt. “They did it because they have a heart for all inner-city peoples.”
Epiphany’s teaching pastor, Branch, is a twice Grammy-nominated Christian rap artist who founded the musical group, The Cross Movement. Known in the music industry as “The Ambassador,” Branch also founded Cross Movement Records and heads up a studio to help launch the ministries of other Christian rappers who employ the Hip-hop musical genre to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Branch, who believes God has called him to his unique ministry in the Hip-hop culture, told Baptist Press he initially was contacted about planting a church in Philadelphia. “But I don’t see myself as the lead pastor. I’m a co-laborer,” said Branch, adding that he contacted Mase about the church planting opportunity. Branch had met Mase years earlier when Mase was a youth pastor at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and had engaged Cross Movement for some youth events.
Mase said Branch “knew of a contingent of people who would love to see a missional movement of Christians who want to contextualize the Gospel among one of the most unreached people groups in the world — those who socialized and grew up in the Hip-hop culture.
“This was a shared vision we had,” said Mase, who referred to a magazine article that detailed the history and global influence of the Hip-hop culture, which includes, according to some observers, the promotion of materialism, violence, promiscuity, drug abuse and misogyny.
“We believe Hip-hop is a modern-day Hellenism,” Mase said, noting the musical culture’s worldwide spread and appeal as he cited Jesus Christ’s words in Luke 16:8, “… for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
“In other words, lost people know their kingdom better than Christians know God’s Kingdom. And they take advantage of their kingdom, but we don’t take advantage of God’s,” Mase said. “So we want to be a crew of people who maximize the opportunity God has given us without violating the Scriptures.”
Mase is quick to add: “We’re not a Hip-hop church. We despise it when people call us that.”
Branch agreed. “We don’t want the adjective to modify the noun. It may be bad grammar, but we want the noun to modify the adjective,” meaning that Epiphany Fellowship wants to use the church to share the Gospel with those entrenched in and influenced by Hip-hop culture.
Mase unhesitatingly credits Branch’s stature in the Christian Hip-hop music industry as a draw for some to Epiphany, but he finds it ironic that Branch rarely ever “does any art” via his rap music at the church.
Branch’s popularity draws such Christian rappers as Da’ T.R.U.T.H., Steven the Levite, Shailinne and God’s Gang. “They are doing more than just rap artistry,” Mase said. Many of them assist with Epiphany’s First Friday Fundamentals sessions. Held the first Friday of the month, the meeting fills the church’s basement with about 150 people, wall to wall, and what follows for about two hours is biblical teaching, discussion, reaction and artistic expressions in song and word regarding the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
A self-proclaimed inerrantist, Mase outlined the philosophy, goals and practices he and Branch envisioned for Epiphany: To show inner-city residents “the nutrients of the Gospel — the exaltation of Jesus Christ, the exposition of the Bible, the evangelism of the lost and the edification of the saints, locally, nationally and internationally.”
Mase said Epiphany’s values are reflected in its motto: “Showing off the glory of Christ in every area of life through Christo-centrism, commitment, community, communion, conversions and culturally relevant ministry.”
“We do line-by-line teaching, and expositional preaching,” Mase said “We believe in Christ-centered preaching and worship.” And the Lord’s Supper is observed every week. “Everything we do,” he said, “points to Jesus, exalts Jesus, points to the cross as the only thing that can bridge the gap between man and God.
“These truths of the Gospel aren’t theological announcements at Epiphany” but are principles the church community learns and lives, Mase added.
If numbers are any indicator, the co-pastors’ philosophy works. Officially launched almost two years ago, Epiphany has grown from nine to nearly 300, with about half the growth coming from conversions to Christ.
“Not a lot of transfer from growth from other Southern Baptist churches,” Cope said.
“Not up here,” Mase added. “This region is 85 percent unchurched.”
“The hardest thing up here is that so many people grew up religious,” said Cope, who added, “They know just enough about religion to be angry.”
“But we want to see the reality of Christ formed in people,” Mase said, “in a manner that predates 325 A.D., when Constantine institutionalized Christianity. We want to see the historic Christian faith engaged among unreached people groups.”
Noting the spiritual appetites of the people Epiphany is reaching, “They’re just so hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry, hunngggggreeeee,” emphasized Mase, who sometimes preaches nearly hour-long sermons.
Another aspect of Epiphany’s approach is “We don’t put God first. We don’t believe in putting Jesus first,” Mase said. “We believe in putting them at the center of life. That’s because if a Christian puts God first, then He’s just on a list of priorities — something to check off as done. But when He’s at the center, He pervades everything. He’s injected into every area of life.”
Mase believes such ministry ideas are responsible for Epiphany’s growth: “The word’s got out. Our whole neighborhood in North Philly knows us. People are excited about where we’re going. We’re not trying to be a children’s church or a youth church. We’re not a bunch of brats with Similac breath and pacifiers in our mouths, still wet behind the ears, thinking we can do church better. No, we’re a group of people who actually want to do the grown-up thing in Jesus’ name. You know what I’m sayin’?”
The average age at Epiphany is 26, with college students comprising a third of the congregation. Mase said one reason the church has grown in this age bracket is because the 20-somethings at Epiphany who have a church background want to be treated as adults: “They have careers and families and mortgages. They aren’t junior anything. They are saying, ‘I want to be responsible for the Christian faith.’ They want the history books to talk about them as those who held up the blood-stained banner, so-to-speak.
“Another thing we work on at Epiphany is manhood,” Mase said. “We want to see Jesus-centered, testosterone-driven men. We don’t want any Granola bar eatin’, Hippie weed smokin’, sunflower smackin’ hallucinators. We want men who see Jesus as the ultimate God-man” and who follow Him, Mase said. “To them, Jesus is not just an example but is the resource to become all that God wants them to be.
“A lot of people look at Epiphany as really different,” Mase added. “But we’re not really different. We simply see ourselves as missionaries to a particular people group, that’s all.”
Norm Miller is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. For a pictorial/musical essay of an Epiphany Fellowship Church worship service, click here.