Interrupting Drug Deals, Canceling the Music—One Church’s Radical Approach to Worship

By Stan Friedman

PITTSBURGH, PA (September 18, 2013) — The members of Keystone Covenant Church who attend the Sunday morning service don’t mind that two-thirds of the congregation doesn’t show up for worship.

“We’re pretty chill here on Sundays because we’re so busy during the rest of the week,” says Smith, who is dressed in jeans and wearing a red, yellow, and green rasta skull cap prior to the service.

That “busy” includes filling the church basement, sanctuary, and upper rooms with hundreds of children and teenagers rehearsing instruments, learning and choreographing dance, writing and recording hip-hop lyrics, laying down beats, and developing music production skills.

The activity is all part of the church’s Center of Life ministry, which has multiple recreational and educational outreaches around the neighborhood that also include a basketball program and a tutoring program that mandates that parents of the students be involved. Other recreational activities are available as well. Downstairs, youth take turns playing games such as Ping-Pong. “I like it because it’s a game where they have to face each other,” Smith says as he walks past two teens engaged in a match while others wait their turn.

On Sundays, many of this church of roughly 100 people are out ministering to people in the neighborhood, caring for elderly in their homes, or visiting inmates in jail. “I got the idea from All Saints Church in Belfast, Ireland,” says Smith. “You could not be a member unless you declared a ministry.”

The congregation has held unusual services as well, such as the worship service on a street corner in their Hazelwood neighborhood where drug deals flourished. “We had discovered that Sunday mornings was one of the busiest times of the week for selling drugs,” Smith says. “At 11 a.m., cars were lined up around the street to buy drugs.”

So Keystone held their service out on the corner and interrupted the transactions. “I’m telling you there were cars backed up all the way down Second Avenue,” he says. “Nice cars. Big cars, Bentleys!” He laughs—something he does a lot. “I’m thinking, you’re doing some business!”

But they paid attention to the service. “So when I’m done, I took my hat off and said, ‘We need to take an offering.’ The drug dealers took their hats off and went around and took an offering for us. They’d go up to people on their porches who just poured money into these hats.”

He adds, “But there was a greater message too. A couple of them came up to us afterward and said they wanted to talk. They told us it wasn’t that they wanted to sell drugs and those things, but they did it because that’s what they felt they needed to do to support their families.”

Hazelwood once thrived as a blue-collar section of 30,000, many of its residents employed at the steel mills. When the industry collapsed, so did Hazelwood. More than 75 percent of the people moved away.

In 1980, the Keystone Church of God in Christ moved to its current location from another part of the city. It purchased a building that had housed a Hungarian Lutheran church, which had served Eastern European members of the community since 1925 until it closed in the 1970s.

The sanctuary still retains the building’s beautiful stained glass. The large chandelier that hangs in the sanctuary was donated by a riverboat captain from one of the vessels that traveled up the rivers that snake through Pittsburgh.

Smith’s father, Virlie, pastored the congregation until his death in the late 1990s. Tim became the congregation’s pastor in 2000.

Although he respected his father’s leadership, Smith began making numerous changes, which included starting Center of Life and recasting the worship service.

One Sunday in black history month the service opened with a woman teaching the 30 or so attendees how to open and use a checking account. Her lesson was coupled with Smith sharing a story about the city’s first African American banker, Robert Lavelle, who was known not only for his financial acumen but also for his commitment to the community and his Christian faith.

An article in the Beaver County Times described Lavelle as “a banker who reverses the cardinal rule of banking: loan at the highest rate possible with the lowest risk. He sits in clients’ kitchens and laughs and weeps and prays with them. He confronts them when they are delinquent but he never gives up on them.”

Smith says it is important for the congregation know the people of their community who have made a difference and not just hear about icons such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Smith doesn’t preach with a dramatic flair. Like the rest of the service, his sermons are low-key but direct and hold the congregants’ attention.

Smith also changed the service, so that musical instruments are used only once a month—a seeming contradiction for a church whose ministry has produced award-winning musicians and for Smith, who is musically talented himself. On the Sunday during which the banking presentation was given, the only song sung during the entire morning was an a cappella version of the Doxology.

“People didn’t like it at first,” Smith says. “But at the end of the month we’ll do music, and we’ll have a great musical service.”

“I think we’d have a packed church if we had a choir and all that, but I think it would just be a show to most people,” Smith says. “As much as you’re looking to me for music, I’m looking for you to be with me out on the street reaching people.”

“It has always been about being the church, not having the church,” Smith says. “It’s never been about putting on a production. I know how to do that. I’m a PK.”

“God is not coming back for a church filled with people. He’s coming back for people filled with God,” he adds.

Smith says he isn’t criticizing churches that incorporate music every Sunday. “There are people who can do that well, but I can’t.” He understands that others would disagree with his decision to encourage outreach over congregational worship, advocating that Sunday is the day for the faithful to gather together.

“I could be wrong,” says Smith. “I’m certainly open to criticism.”

But as for now, on Sunday mornings most of the congregation will keep taking it to the street.

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2 Comments

  1. I love the idea of taking the gospel to the street.

    This bold approach goes where there are truly needed souls..
    The saving grace of the gospel can melt any hardened heart.

    The light of the gospel is being held as a beacon in that community.

    May God continue to abundantly bless Pastor Smith in this noble endeavor.

    Anthony Bruno

  2. What an excellent ministry. I love the concept of membership being connected to a ministry and moving out of the church to reach and be a significant resource to the neighborhood. Keep up the good work Pastor Smith and Keystone Covenant!

    With the Blessing and Grace of God
    Chris

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