True Gospel Tabernacle Family Church has an identity all its own. Maybe it’s because the senior pastor, Bishop Ernest McNear, will often play spiritual songs on his saxophone on Palm Sunday. Or, the congregation often teams up with the nonprofit group Philadelphia FIGHT and joins forces with Church of God in Christ International members to educate the Delaware Valley about HIV and AIDS.
Yet McNear describes his church as “a service mentoring network that is on the cutting edge of evangelical ministries.” That may sound like a mouthful for this South Philadelphia native reared in North Philadelphia, who earned his master of divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Yet it is the best way McNear can describes the congregation he has led for the past 28 years.
“We take worship to an emphatic level,” said McNear, who earned his doctor of ministry degree from Regent University in Virginia Beach. “They call me God’s Gospel saxophonist and we have God’s Gospel Choir here. We just have a wonderful time being filled with the spirit. So there’s a lot of preaching the Word and playing uplifting gospel music in here each and every Sunday.”
On a typical Sunday one will find about 200 consistent members filling the pews, though as in most churches there are more on their official rolls. The last count was about 600. Yet one will find that those in attendance range from young families with infants and toddlers, a strong showing of adolescents and young adults, those who are in the prime of life, and the mainstay population of senior citizens.
For the past two years an Indonesian congregation has been holding Sunday morning worship services in the church’s fellowship hall. This is held simultaneously with the church’s own 11 a.m. Sunday worship service.
“We consider that part of our foreign missions right here in this city, in South Philadelphia,” McNear said. “Here in South Philadelphia we have many from all parts of Asia. Many do speak to the spirit and are biblically Gospel Christ believers. With the Indonesian congregation, sometimes we have a joint service, which is always something we look forward to because it’s great.”
McNear also brings another global dimension to the church at 16th and Mifflin streets. He spent early March leading the Philadelphia jurisdictions of the Church of God in Christ International on a mission trip to West Africa. There he met with other COGIC International congregations, which are a different denomination from the COGIC. This is something he usually does every March and September.
The church, similar to its West African counterparts, has more than just a house of worship on its campus. Nestled in the working-class South Philadelphia community of row houses, True Gospel operates its own educational center, led by the church’s first lady, evangelist Barbara McNear. This is located at 763 S. 17th St., across the street from the historic Marian Anderson Center.
“Our school goes from infancy to 8th grade,” McNear said. “It is fully certified by the state. It supports the talents and learning needs of our students. We have a day care and a summer program in there.”
Sometimes Ernest McNear shares his own spiritual journey with the youngsters at his church campus. He was called to the pulpit when he was 14-wwwwyears-old, he said. Yet he resisted the calling in favor of a musical career. After graduating from Simon Gratz High School he went on to study music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied for two years.
Then his life took a turn for the worse. Like the prodigal son, he lived life in the fast lane. He fell victim to street drugs. As he still felt his calling, one day, at rock bottom, he had an epiphany. “I don’t say I was saved, because I was actually rescued because my life changed due to the prayers of my mother,” he said.
He then earned his bachelor of science degree from Geneva College at the Center for Urban Theological Studies. He is also chief adjutant at for the COGIC National Orchestra, district overseer of the denomination’s Tri-State District, and serves as district overseer of Cape Coast Central District Ghana COFIC International, which is composed of 65 churches.
“I would not recommend anyone getting into drugs, because it was a detrimental experience,” McNear said. “God does work together everything for good. I think God used that part of my life so that I could be more compassionate. When I tell the children that the streets are destructive, I know. I can have that genuinely authoritative voice with compassion to help God’s people.”
Yet youngsters are not the only ones that True Life is educating. The church has what the senior pastor calls “a strong re-entry ministry” for former inmates. Through its Kingdom Care Re-Entry Network it provides a full range of services from education to post-employment placement counseling for more than 150. “We follow our brothers and sisters for a full year after they’ve been placed in a job, so that sets us apart from the traditional prison ministries,” he said.
One of the first graduates of this ministry was John Scarborough. “Everything happens for a reason,” Scarborough said. “I had to get better at decision-making. That’s one thing the program helped me to do.”
McNear says his wife of 35 years, Beverly, is one of his strongest assets. Together they started the church in 1985 and their relationship is a true partnership, he said.
“She’s very visible here,” the senior pastor said. “Beverly runs the school, handles the women’s department, and is a preacher and teacher. She does everything that her ministry calls her to do. We have been blessed with a son who is 35 and a daughter who is 23, and we have give grandchildren.”
His son, Minister Vance McNear, is a certified special education teacher for the School District of Philadelphia. He is director of the True Gospel Tabernacle Learning Center after-school program. He also heads the youth ministry at the church.
Looking to the future, True Life is setting itself as “the prophetic voice” in the African-American community, according to McNear. “We are speaking the truth to power, because we know that our community needs that word. We want people to change their lives. My mantra is that we don’t just want to preach the Gospel, but we want to live the Gospel. Here at True Gospel Tabernacle Baptist Church
we are doing this,” he said.