Antioch Christian Fellowship began as a Bible study in the pastor's home, some seventeen years ago. On a wintry Thursday night, with only three people and his wife, the pastor led this small group in prayer as they asked for God's guidance. Then as they looked at each other and smiled, the pastor took a deep breath, opened to the book of Romans, and began teaching verse-by-verse.
The pastor's home quickly became a spiritual hospital, and it wasn't long before there was hardly any sitting room. Saints were getting equipped, souls were getting saved, and the entire room was falling more in love with Jesus as both Lord and Friend. The pastor’s brand new green rug in the living room had become thoroughly stained from all the traffic, but nobody
Attracting people from all walks of life, the Lord had made this a special place, indeed. Homeless people and drug addicts alike were embraced with open arms, not feeling the least bit self-conscious. An ex-prostitute with AIDS was proud to stand and share her testimony with no condemnation. Even Muslims came through, curious to see all that was happening. Jesus Christ the King was happening; and it was marvelous in our sight. And though every Thursday was different, every Thursday was also predictable: love and hugs, praying, intensely studying God's Word, and everyone eating together afterwards. Yes, “this cloud about the size of a man's hand” (I Kings 18:44), was growing; but none of us could've guessed all that God had in store!
After some months, the Bible study moved locations to the neighborhood thrift store—The Second Mile Center. Old and a tad bit shabby, this location would be just the right place. The thrift store had a big open space on the second floor, where you had to climb a hefty flight of steps to reach, and we called it our very own "Upper Room”— just like where Jesus had The Last Supper with His disciples.
So we continued gathering every Thursday night; and just as the "crowd" had initially come so quickly back in the living room days, suddenly— because of people relocating to different cities and such— the crowd went, just like that. In fact, one Thursday evening, only two people came out! However, we just took it as an opportunity to spend the time praying for the community. Most of all, we also understood that God was testing our faithfulness, while teaching us a priceless lesson:
In a day where so many ministries end up coveting large crowds for the wrong reasons, were we content with whatever God wanted to do with this Bible study—enjoying Jesus alone, regardless?
So we continued meeting, and we continued to grow— but the Lord was always leading us to be more concerned with quality over quantity. However, the desire to see University City and West Philly impacted by the gospel was intensifying in our hearts as God began burdening us to start sharing on the streets.
So after the pastor and his cousin (a professional iron welder) quickly put together a home-made fish fryer—made from scrap metal and an old mattress frame—“Antioch," as we now called ourselves (from our study of Acts 11), started “putting legs” on our faith and hitting the streets. On any given Saturday, we could be found on the corner of 45th and Baltimore Avenue—frying fish and giving out delicious sandwiches and iced tea, all for free. And as lines of people always extended down the block, people were speechless! "Why are you guys doing this? Nobody does anything for FREE like this!” Cars and trolleys alike slowed to a standstill, as everyone paused to read the large piece of plywood where we had spray-painted: “Free Fish Fry For The King.” And whenever someone wanted prayer, we’d put down our cooking utensils and pray with them right on the spot.
God continued to bless, and Antioch was soon hosting large-scale carnivals in local parks, even free basketball tournaments for local youth and young adults. Then, West Philadelphia High School granted the pastor permission to start hosting the basketball tournaments in their gymnasium, and amazingly, "The Backboard Explosion,” quickly became one of the biggest annual, one-day basketball tournaments in Philadelphia— attracting NCAA players and NBA prospects, AND1 referees, the smoothest of local playground legends, drug dealers and fans from every section of the city. With “John 3:16” stitched onto every custom-made jersey we gave to the players, this was like nothing folks had seen—as even the local police attested, because to their utter surprise we never had a single fight.
This was also around when God confirmed that it was time for us to start holding Sunday services. God continued to bless, and within a year's time, there were over a hundred people attending, from the colleges to the housing projects. We just kept prayer, love, and God’s Word at the center of everything. More so, after reading, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, Jim Cymbala’s story about founding the renowned Brooklyn Tabernacle Church, Pastor Aaron decided to put prayer at the forefront even more— believing that the same miracles Brooklyn Tabernacle had experienced in their earlier days were still available today. And sure enough, Antioch began receiving miracles of grace that sent shockwaves everywhere.
It all began when Antioch felt the need to leave the thrift store and purchase a property instead of merely renting. But at the same time, Antioch had zero money in savings, because whenever there was money, it was always given away to the poor or used for our annual gospel outreaches in the city. So Pastor Aaron met with some bankers, who told him that Antioch would need to come up with $300, 000 in order to buy (finance) the $1.2M building the church was desiring. With deep conviction, Pastor Aaron came back and told the church that he was not going to disclose the amount of money that was needed, nor was there going to be any fundraising or pressuring anyone to give:
“If God is truly guiding on this one, then God will do all the providing, and our job is to simply continue praying and surrendering to Him.”
Well, it wasn't too long after this, that a “random” person showed up at Antioch. This person shared how they had been traveling across the country, looking for the right church to make their special donation. The person also shared how they got immediate confirmation that Antioch was indeed the very place God was leading them. Mind you, this person was completely unaware of our looking for a building, and completely unaware of our financial needs. Well after requesting to remain anonymous, this young traveler then disclosed to Pastor Aaron that the amount they were donating to Antioch was $300,000—the exact amount we needed to buy our dream building!!! So with that, Antioch purchased the 12,000 sq. ft. building at 4721 Chestnut Street, the very place we are today, almost ten years later.
But the miracles of grace hardly stopped there. Antioch began doing missions across the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska to Haiti to Canada. And after years of blessed city-wide outreach, and being contacted by churches asking for tips on how to conduct the same in their neighborhoods, Antioch had set a model for other Philadelphia churches (and church-plants) in innovative urban outreach with our gospel “carnivals”—complete with a large stage and concert, free haircuts, free rides and petting zoos for kids, a free flea-market with new and gently-used clothing for those in need, and of course, hundreds of pounds of fresh fish for our famous fried-fish sandwiches. In fact, to this day, Antioch is still commonly referred to as “the fish-fry church.”
More so, after years of commitment to the local colleges as well, four years ago, Antioch decided to take our college outreach to the next level by bringing world-renowned Christian apologist, Dr. Ravi Zacharias (rzim.org), to The University of Pennsylvania. As atheists and humanists came out in full force, not only was the Ravi event an enlightening experience for believers, seekers, and skeptics alike, but it also became one of Ravi’s most viewed events in all of his 30 years ministry, receiving over 600, 000 YouTube views (YouTube Ravi: “Why Are You So Afraid of Subjective Moral Reasoning?”).
Then, in 2016, Antioch prayerfully decided to obey God in putting together one of the largest evangelistic events done by a Philadelphia local church. Antioch assembled a team of committed believers—some from different local churches and denominations—and brought Dr. Ravi Zacharias back to Philadelphia one more time. Only this time, the venue was the renowned 11,000-seat arena, Temple University’s, Liacouras Center. Trusting God, Antioch and team led a fundraising campaign where they raised over $90,000 in a mere 3 months, just so the event could be free for thousands of folks, and nobody would be financially hindered from coming. And with thousands of people in attendance from all walks of life, along with over 12 different universities represented, Ravi delivered the spellbinding lecture, “Does Truth Matter?”
All of this being said, all we can do at Antioch is give all the credit (glory) to God, while marveling at how He takes broken people and uses us beyond what we could ever imagine. And time would fail to talk about our second year of conducting our 2,500 sq. ft. Antioch Urban Garden, where we teach at-risk youth, from the infamous Westpark housing projects, gardening, nutrition, food justice, and even entrepreneurship as they sell the produce at our youth-directed Antioch farmer’s markets.
Antioch is a picture of God’s grace towards undeserving people; because none of us deserves to be a part of His “glory story,” which He can do with or without us, just the same. To this day, we remain an intimate family of believers who simply enjoy seeking Him and His Word together, loving one another, excited to meet new people, and always praying and looking for ways to show Philadelphia that Jesus is real, and that God is love. And as our multi-ethnic congregation continues to celebrate our diversity [in our unity], we also take pleasure in displaying a sweet glimpse of what Heaven will look like: people of all races, ethnicities, and tongues, praising the same Savior and Redeemer—with one voice, and with one heart.
Why the name "Antioch"?
Located in ancient Syria, Antioch was a flourishing city of the 1st Century. At the time, it was the 3rd largest city in the world. With a booming economy, it was dubbed “Antioch the Beautiful” and was one of the few cities to have elegant street lights illuminating its magnificent buildings. As a major trade city, it drew people of all classes and sorts from every land— from the intellectual elite, to the crazed criminals. So as beautiful as it was, it was also one of the most profane cities of the Greeks and Romans.
The Antiochians were know for using their wit to coin lasting nicknames. In fact, they were the ones who first began calling the followers of Jesus, "Christians" (Acts 11:26). And as Paul began preaching the word of God in this spiritually dark city, "a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21) Revival had come, a church was born, and Antioch became the missionary headquarters for Paul as he ventured into the rest of the world.
Today, we at Antioch Christian Fellowship find ourselves in University City/West Philadelphia—a place so strikingly similar to the ancient city of Antioch. Like ancient Antioch, University City is one of the most magnificent sections of the city; and like ancient Antioch, University City also draws people from all over the world, and is the place that births ground-breaking inventions while hosting hosting some of the most heinous crimes. It is in this “Modern Antioch,” that we labor to follow Paul’s example in our obedience to The Great Commission.