Accent on youth draws young families to worship

Pastor Eric Simmons, first lady Tiffany Simmons, and their children (from left) Elijah, 12, Emmanuel, 6, Amani, 9, and Aaliyah, 14, stand together for a family portrait. Simmons is in his eighth year as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Paschall in Southwest Philadelphia. — TRIBUNE PHOTO BY SHIRA YUDKOFF

The First Baptist Church of Paschall in Southwest Philadelphia is doing what many churches are not able to do. It is building a congregation of young people and growing families. In fact, anyone who attended its Resurrection Sunday services would find that the average age of the congregation is about 25 to 30-years-old.

Pastor Eric Simmons credits this to the youthful vibrancy he brings. The 39-year-old senior pastor was the youngest ordained minister at his original church home, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. There he served as youth pastor for many years.

“We say that we are a church with a helping hand for a hurting humanity,” Simmons said. “When I started here as pastor in 2006 we had 100 members, but now we have grown to about 850 to 900. We have an influx of young people, between the ages of 20 and 35, who worship along with a few senior members. But, the majority in our church is young.

“I think they really like my style. I am (approaching) 40 but I look younger than I am. I am into Gospel music with a more youth-oriented sound. I am a Gospel artist known nationally and I have served for many years as a youth pastor. I understand young people, and that is why we have an influx of them at this church,”he said.

So, among the ministries at the church is an intensive pre-baptismal program. Rather than having new members attend weekly Bible instruction or a series of conversion classes stretched out over months, the church holds a special half-day Saturday session. This is followed by baptisms on the fifth Sunday of the month, when congregants arrive at 10:30 a.m. for baptisms that begin by 10:45 a.m. By no later than 11:15 a.m. the baptisms are completed and the worship service begins.

“We know that young people don’t like to come to church week after week for classes,” Simmons said. “We give then everything that they will need to get baptized in four hours on a Saturday. After they get everything they need, they are baptized and are extended the right hand of fellowship. After the baptism we have a brunch. This way they are quickly acclimated to the church as members, and we ensure that they will be back.”

Many of the young families have school-age children. These youngsters are not only involved in the church’s Sunday school, but many also attend a charter public school that the church runs. This is because First Paschall now includes the old St. Clement Catholic School and campus.

When the congregation purchased this site in 2006 it acquired a 1,200-seat sanctuary and two other buildings in addition to the education campus. The church then began an $800,000 construction project that converted the property into a new church facility, the Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School. It educates more than 500 students, a residential home for boys and a mentoring program for young men and women.

“What makes us unique is that offer an alternative education,” said Simmons, whose wife of 15 years, Tiffany, coordinates the youth and women’s ministries at First Paschall. “I use alternative in the sense that we are providing education to everyone. We know all the things that are going on with the Philadelphia School District, so we are offering an alternative to that.

“We stress that education is important, but we are not a Christian school. We acquired the school when we purchased the property where we are located in 2006. It was a $4 million investment that now includes the charter school building. As a young church we do have parents who send their children to our school, and we are growing,” he said.

The church also provides many other services for its growing membership. A boys’ residential facility serves youngsters in the surrounding Southwest Philadelphia community. With many families faced with welfare cuts, unemployment and underemployment, the church also is addressing these needs by providing various social services, according to the senior pastor.

Simmons is quick to point out that former Mayor W. Wilson Goode now serves as the church’s administrative pastor. There are five other pastors who bring their liturgical or administrative gifts to First Baptist. “We are blessed to have the Rev. Dr. Goode handling our finances and taking care of the administration of the church, and we also have other experiences among our executive pastors,” Simmons said.

Since its expansion, the church has been featured on the broadcast airwaves, including TBN specials and on local radio. It has attracted national evangelists, including Jamal Bryant, Dorinda Clark Cole and Clifton Davis.

On a typical Sunday one will not find Simmons wearing a pastoral robe or a tailored suit and tie. He explained that his more casual attire resonates with his young adult congregation. Sometimes he will even include props like a basketball in hand while wearing athletic gear to get a point across.

Recently, congregants came into the church to find their sanctuary converted into a jail. Simmons then emerged wearing the type of attire a Roman prisoner would be dressed in. “On that Sunday, I illustrated what Paul went through by producing a theatrical image. Young people today are very visual, so they can get the message better if they can see it,” Simmons said.

Simmons added that using his vocal prowess has also blessed his church. Since becoming senior pastor more than eight years ago, he has recorded a debut album, “Freedom” on Flow Records. Under the labels started by Juanita Bynum and currently owned by Myron Williams, he has had recordings on the national gospel Billboard charts. His debut single, “Lord, I Thank You” was among the Top 40 and led him to perform at the Crystal Cathedral Church in California and on the Radio One Love Gospel Cruise during the promotional tour.

He regularly performs his recent hit single, “My Heart Belongs to You” on the same stage as many top gospel recording artists. He recently performed at the “Praise in the Park” events. While in Atlanta he performed with Isaac Caree, Jessica Reedy, Darlene McCoy and Earnest Pugh. He also performed on the same stage with Lonnie Hunter and Mary Mary in Raleigh.

“I didn’t start out singing Gospel,” admitted Simmons, who began studying piano and voice at the age of 5 at the Northeast Boys and Girls Club. “I used to be an R&B singer. I had left music for many years. I just recorded my first gospel album in 2011. So, this is really something new for me.

“I am glad to be able to use the gift God gave me. I am a singer, songwriter and musician. Now my album is available on iTunes, as well as at Walmart, Target and Best Buy stores. The church is supportive of me and I encourage them to be creative as well,” Simmons said.

Simmons has strong Philadelphia roots. He was baptized at the Second Baptist Church of Frankford at the age of 8. He was licensed to preach by the Rev.Alyn E. Waller at Enon in 1998. His employment history ranges from being an activities coordinator for Genesis Elder Care and program director for the Manor Health Care’s Alzheimer’s unit to being a social worker for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

He is also continuing his education. He is studying for his doctorate in Biblical counseling at the Trinity Theological Seminary. He previously did graduate studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Philadelphia Biblical University. He has a B.S. in urban ministry leadership and an A.A. in Bible and ministry from Geneva College.

“I didn’t get a new suit for Resurrection Sunday,” Simmons said. “Those who came saw me in a traditional robe that was not new. My challenge for them on Resurrection Sunday was not to buy a new Easter outfit, but to bring someone new to church. Jesus called us to bring our gifts and others to church. That’s why he said he is the resurrection and the life.”

The First Baptist Church of Paschall is at 7100 Woodland Ave., 2240 S. 71st St. An 11 a.m. worship service is held every Sunday.

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