Philly preacher urges his community to live a grace-filled life
By Tobin Perry
When you preach in the inner city of Philadelphia, you don’t have to work hard to convince people of humanity’s depravity. The people of Philadelphia’s 19121 zip code know depravity. They see it every day—in drug deals, shootings, and families falling apart. You don’t have to work hard to convince them of their own sinfulness either. They know how to own their sin.
If the gospel of Jesus Christ were only bad news—that “all have sinned,” the people in 19121 would all be master theologians. Yet Eric Mason, who started Philadelphia’s Epiphany Church in 2006, says it’s grace that stumps them.
“It’s a very transactional culture here,” Mason says. “Take a guy who has gotten out of jail, for him everything is based on a point system. When you’re in jail, there’s a principle of reciprocity. If I do something for you, you have to do something for me. Nothing is for free. If I accept something from someone, I better make sure I can deal with their reciprocity system to make this transaction not make me look weaker.”
For the past eight years, Mason has preached the message of grace in one of Philly’s toughest neighborhoods, and God has worked powerfully to change lives and grow the church. Today, God has done what looked impossible a decade ago—600 people a week attending worship services, half of those having come to Christ at the church. This robust message of grace is also the theme of Mason’s new book, Beat God to the Punch.
Mason, who grew up in Washington D.C., and cut his teeth in ministry in Texas, began Epiphany as a small Bible study of nine people in his home in 2006. The plan was simple—and biblical.
“We sensed our calling—based on Colossians 1:16, ‘all things are made for Christ’—to show off the glory of Christ in every area of life—through Christ-centeredness, commitment, community, conversions, and culturally relevant ministry,” Mason explains.
Mason says people had been praying for a church in the neighborhood for years—people from every Christian tradition imaginable, including Baptists, charismatics, and Mennonites.
“We’re sailing and surfing on the prayers of people who have been praying for this neighborhood for a 100 years,” Mason says. “We fell into this neighborhood at the right time.”
Riding on the coattails of those prayers, Mason got to work telling people about Jesus, leading them to faith in Him, and teaching them the ways of the gospel. Those he and his team led to Christ reached back into their circles of influence to spread the gospel even faster.
|Beat God to the Punch by Eric Mason|
“When people got saved, we didn’t pull them out of their environments unless they were crack addicts or something,” Mason says. “People began to tell their friends: ‘Hey, man, the Word is being taught. It’s healthy.’”
In an inner-city community that had often been the victim of unhealthy spiritual leaders, Mason—though admittedly not perfect—attempts to be a healthy model of integrity, a good father, and a good husband. Maintaining a ministry of presence among his neighbors that’s rooted in the gospel has been an important part of his pastoral ministry.
Remaining flexible has also been a key part of his ministry over the past eight years. He describes the surrounding community as a fluid ministry context where someone with a Ph.D. at Epiphany could minister side-by-side with a blue-collar worker without a high school diploma. Mason and the other elders of the church have specifically focused on developing a regional church in order to draw both the poor and upper class so the poor don’t have to “bear the burden of the church” on their own.
“Doing ministry in this context demands flexibility,” Mason says. “Because of that, we need a biblical missiological framework. We can’t allow our commitment to the gospel to be shaped by the transiency of the context but rather by the faithfulness of God. We let that bleed into how we do ministry in our context.”
To reach its inner-city neighborhood, Epiphany has served its community in a variety of ways—from a vibrant collegiate ministry to evangelistic events with 3,000-plus people to a Christmas store where low-income parents are empowered to buy low-cost gifts for their kids.
Born out of his experience as an inner-city church planter, Mason calls his new book Beat God to the Punch, a symphony of three ideas—discipleship, the Lordship of Christ, and the grace-filled life.
“God invites us to beat Him to the punch,” Mason says. “His punch is His wrath. He invites us—through the gospel—to beat Him to punching us literally for eternity. Believers who have trusted Him have already beaten Him to the punch. So for them, beating Him to the punch is no longer an issue of His wrath. For them, it’s about living a grace-filled life.”
In a community where nothing is for free and reciprocity is the law of the land, the message of Beat God to the Punch is a particularly important one. The struggles of people in the inner city to embrace the grace-filled life have led many to turn to Islam. Mason believes many in his neighborhood simply see grace as weak. Islam, which calls its followers to return good for good and bad for bad, is seen as a stronger alternative. He adds that there are more Muslims in the city than Protestant Christians.
“Once people realize grace isn’t a reciprocity system, they are overwhelmed with joy that God accepts them where they are, but He doesn’t let them stay where they are,” Mason says. “He’s the one who ushers them—for free—through the process of sanctification to help them be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ and have an abundant life.”
Mason points, as an example, to those in his community dealing with homosexuality. He says he has been surprised by how many homosexuals have found their way to Epiphany. As they come, Mason tells them God isn’t expecting them to become “perfectly heterosexual” to become a Christian. He reminds them that God isn’t like the father who views their homosexuality as a public embarrassment and forgets to demonstrate love.
“No one is functionally changed in every area of his or her life [when they come to faith in Christ],” Mason says. “When you become a Christian, you still struggle.”
Mason believes his book can have a profound impact on believers as they embrace this grace-filled Christian life.
“I wanted to write a book that was on the Lordship of Christ but was motivated by grace,” Mason says. “I want people to catch a passion for making disciples in light of this whole idea of Jesus demanding your whole life.
“No area of your life is off limits to His Lordship or His grace.”
Tobin Perry (@TobinPerry) is a writer living in Seattle, Washington.