Cresheim Valley Vision

August 23, 2011

 In July 2006, Rev. Dr. John Leonard, associate professor of practical theology at Westminster, started Cresheim Valley Church (CVC) in the Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia.  The church plant was part of the broader mission of Tenth Presbyterian Church to plant churches throughout the city of Philadelphia and beyond.

“I had been teaching the young married class at Tenth [Presbyterian Church],” says Dr. Leonard, “and several of the couples moved into the Mt Airy/Chestnut Hill area. These couples, and a few other families in our part of town, talked to me about starting a church. Since I was finishing up my PhD, it seemed like an appropriate time to start a church.”

CVC, which currently rents  the chapel at Chestnut Hill Academy, originally started with 40 people and has grown over the past four years to an average weekly attendance of 150. The church has incorporated Dr. Leonard’s distinct vision for evangelism in the community which equips people through vital worship and community groups while allowing room for CVC members to practice their faith in their homes and workplaces.

“The most effective way to bring people to Christ is in a community where people are living out the truths of the gospel so that they not only hear it but that they see it and experience it,” he says. “That’s why our church mission is ‘celebrating grace and engaging life.’”

This community based approach to evangelism was formed in Dr. Leonard through a wide range of ministry experiences. From his time as student supply at a small church in Mississippi, to evangelizing on the streets of Northern New Jersey or Brazil, to sharing the gospel with Muslims in France, he has learned what ministry is.

“Preachers must not only exegete the Scriptures, they must exegete people and the current culture as well.” He says, “You have to be out and with people enough, you have to understand what people are thinking about and what’s on their heart so you can apply God’s truth to their lives. This way we speak into their lives and people know that you know them and understand them.” 

As an example of the results of this type of evangelism, Dr. Leonard speaks of a Hindu woman in his church who recently gave her life to Christ. She had been attending Tenth Presbyterian with her Baptist husband, and the couple became part of CVC at its outset. To hear her testimony click here.

“Our belief is that the Church should have low walls, so that people feel very free to come and rub shoulders with us for an extended length of time,” he says. “So, for example, this young lady who was culturally a Hindu felt at home and felt welcome for four years, and was never directly challenged.  But she was always challenged by the gospel, and she felt that she was loved and cared for.  Our goal is that people don’t know where our church begins and where it ends, they just know that they are involved with this community that is living and preaching the gospel and challenging people with the teachings of Christ.

“It’s very evangelistic, but not in the normal sense. Our approach is to get people to come to church and become part of the community, then they will see that they need to become a follower of Christ.”

With a more traditional service, which includes the singing of hymns, CVC has appealed to those from Anglican and Episcopalian backgrounds. (Dr Leonard notes that the preaching is more than a homily; it is still "edgy and confronting.") However, the business structure of the church is fairly non-traditional. There are no full-time employees of the church, so it operates on around  $200,000 a year while giving away $30,000 to mission work.  

“Some people say that we need to hire someone full-time, to give it continuity, we need an office (the office is my cell phone), and we need a part-time administrator.  So what do we do?” he asks. “Do we keep doing it the way we’ve done it before, in a very non-traditional way, which is very low expense and, I believe, high impact?  Or, do we shift into being what people expect in a church?” 

Part of the way CVC makes up for this lack of full-time employees is by taking on Westminster students as interns. Dr. Leonard is grateful for their service to the ministry. 

“The students have been able to be fully involved,” he says. “They preach, they carry on ministry in the church and do what pastors normally do, because there’s nobody to do it full-time.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Why should we surrender to the expectation of what people think church is, at the expense of what church should be?’  By doing what we’re doing now, we’re able to throw off a lot of resources into the ministry and into people’s lives, rather than to create and maintain an organization that may not be any more effective at doing what we do.  We have students who come through, and we get involved with them in sending them out and supporting them.  The question is, do we want to change that model for a more traditional church model? I’m not so convinced it’s a good idea.” 

Please continue to pray for the Cresheim Valley Church as they seek the Lord’s will, and as they “celebrate grace and engage life.”

In addition to his role as pastor of CVC and professor of practical theology at Westminster, Dr. Leonard teaches twice a year for Mission to the World, as well as various other teaching opportunities.  Recently, he was in North Africa teaching pastors on evangelism and apologetics in a Muslim context. You can listen to his talk on Evangelism on the WTS webpage: Pastoring People to Christ. Dr Leonard is writing a book on Evangelism; you can look for it in 2012.