“Making friends, and making friends disciples of Jesus Christ.” That is how Foursquare Pastor Donald Noonan describes the mission and goal of The Philadelphia Gathering (Northeast Philadelphia Foursquare Simple Church Network) in Pennsylvania.
Anyone who strolls down Tremont Street where Donald and his wife, Mildred, live in the city’s northeast neighborhood of Bustleton will see a simple homemade sign posted on their front lawn with the words: “Got Questions? Join The Gathering, A Community of Believers.” The advertisement invites anyone to come on Friday nights to have conversations about faith and love.
Donald and Mildred, a retired Army colonel, moved from Van Nuys, Calif., to Philadelphia in 1990 to become church planters, when Mildred was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J. Donald was 48 and a recent graduate of Life Pacific College (also called Life Bible College). The couple eventually settled in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Bustleton and established their simple church network. The network is not a traditional church plant, but rather a group of believers who desire to engage in intentional relationships more than they desire pastor-led programs.
Donald, who also serves as a Foursquare disaster relief chaplain (Mildred as a disaster relief worker), explains his church model as merely going house to house with other followers of Jesus, breaking bread, praying for one another, loving one another, caring for one another’s needs and receiving the grace of God to walk in faith together. It sounds simple, but embracing an invitational lifestyle of discipleship takes commitment and focus.
“Our community puts effort into building intentional relationships, rather than building buildings,” Donald explains. “We don’t promote programs or events; we promote relationship with one another, rooted in our mutual love for Jesus Christ.”
Following the model of the house churches in Acts, Donald is committed to gathering people in his home, where they meet together every week to worship God, discuss the Bible, and disciple one another in an informal and spontaneous setting. The house church, he believes, reflects God’s character and qualities, and builds Christian community by emphasizing trust, love and the application of biblical truth.
Focusing specifically on friendship and relationship, the primary intention of the simple church model is to reach out to people who are unchurched and those who are wary of anything with the “church” label attached. The Philadelphia Gathering seeks to attract people who are disconnected and disenfranchised from the traditional church—people who want to follow Jesus but perhaps have lost their way.
“The traditionalism that hovers over Bustleton is thick,” Donald tells foursquare.org. “But our house church is focused on an atypical church model. We have found a number of people in Bustleton who want something that is more personally nourishing, a place where they feel like they can ‘let down their hair.’
“We’ve broken away from the Pennsylvania image of the high-hatted churchgoer,” Donald continues. “We merely sit around the kitchen table, have meals together, or sit on the sofa with coffee and cookies, and talk about the Word of God. The Gathering is an extended family where the kids sit on the floor and listen, and participate in an organic way.”
The pastor emphasizes a setting where people can be honest, and where healing and wholeness result from the interactions of the community, all together. He believes the small and informal setting of his home becomes a safe place where people’s masks can fall off.
“This is not a ‘honey, I shrunk the church’ model of doing church,” Donald emphasizes. “It’s an environment where we allow people to experience the universal priesthood of all believers, and where we allow people to exercise their God given authority in Jesus by praying for one another and speaking out what God is teaching them.”
Donald is following Jesus’ “great commandment” at it’s fundamental level: He intentionally leads people into a relationship with their savior, Jesus Christ; disciples them in a relational setting; baptizes them; and then facilitates and empowers them to fulfill God’s unique call on their lives.
Church growth and multiplication at The Philadelphia Gathering may look different than in a traditional church. Donald encourages his disciples to seek God’s vision for their lives, and go and do something beyond what is happening in his home.
“In order to grow, we have to send people out, released into their calling and strengthened to walk faithfully in their prophetic assignment,” he explains.
Every quarter, the house churches in Don’s network meet together in a local setting to celebrate and connect their experiences with what is going on in their respective house communities.
Currently, those who attend The Philadelphia Gathering are working on creating a food bank in Bustleton. Donald’s house church seeks to find a felt need and look for a way to meet that need. They do not want to merely run a food warehouse; they want to focus on feeding people the Word of truth, accompanied by a wholesome meal.
“Our goal is to bring the churches together,” Donald explains, “to create an ecumenical effort to run a 24-hour coffeehouse where churches in the area can bring food to feed the homeless and hungry.
“We are bringing people in, loving and feeding people,” he continues. “That’s what simple church does. We are moving the same direction as any traditional church, leading people to Christ by meeting their physical and spiritual needs.”