Beating heart in the ‘community’ of Philadelphia

St Thomas's, Philadelphia: Leaders Nick and Marjorie Allan
St Thomas's, Philadelphia: Leaders Nick and Marjorie Allan

One of Sheffield’s most successful churches is celebrating its tenth anniversary of moving into a former industrial complex with the space to accommodate a rapidly-growing congregation.

St Thomas’ bought seven light industrial buildings in Upperthorpe, near Penistone Road, which became known as the Philadelphia Campus, after several years of renting venues in the city centre.

Membership has since grown to 2,000, meeting for worship and prayer six days a week.

At a time when many churches are trying to attract younger members, they continue to flock to this industrial fringe of Sheffield city centre.

“We are amazed at all that has happened here and through this campus over the last ten years and are so thankful for everyone who has played a part in this,” said Marjorie Allan, who leads the church with husband Nick.

“We will celebrate this summer with a big party at the central plaza of the campus – the grassy tree-lined plaza in which a large cross stands – but which was once home to industrial units.

“Plans are already in place to build a permanent prayer and healing centre this summer and we are currently looking at long-term plans for further redevelopment of the site.”

Philadelphia’s roots are a partnership of Anglicans and Baptists which grew throughout the 80s and 90s at St Thomas’ Crookes thanks largely to an influx of young people.

From 1988 to 1995 an offshoot was the Nine O’Clock service, a youth-oriented alternative form of worship, embracing contemporary music and lighting effects. It became an independent church, meeting at Ponds Forge.

However, after complaints began to surface within the group of sexual abuse of women by leader Chris Brain, it was shut down by the Bishop.

It was a distressing chapter for St Thomas’, and new leadership kick-started a rethink of accountability structures and an emphasis on social action and justice.

Numbers continued to grow, with 80% of the congregation meeting in the city centre, at Ponds Forge and in the old Roxy nightclub in Arundel Gate until it failed a fire inspection.

Then ‘missional communities’ saw members split between pubs, garages, schools and front rooms while getting together once a month at Sheffield University’s Octagon Centre.

Led by rector Mike Breen, the church bought the Gilpin Street complex in December 2002, just after the previous owners had moved out.

Operations manager Andrew Buckley said: “The biggest warehouse was full of heavy machinery and overhead cranes. It took two years to raise the finance to clear it, carpet and refit the venue. Today it’s transformed into our main auditorium for services and conferences, holding up to 1,000 people standing.”

More than 40 staff and dozens of volunteers moved into an office block to run the operations.

“The only thing we had to remove quickly was 1970s electronic coloured ‘enter / do not’ lights outside the old managing director’s office. We didn’t feel it quite matched our values of a warm welcome!” said Andrew.

Today hundreds of people from across Sheffield and South Yorkshire meet daily at the campus.

Rock bands and inspirational speakers are part of Sunday services

St Thomas’ Philadelphia - a separate church to St Thomas’ Crookes, but still with close ties - has also become home to the S6 Foodbank and 16 other projects, from hosting recovery and life-skills programmes to the Christians Against Poverty debt advice centre.

Then there are the parent and toddler groups, youth and children’s clubs and groups for international visitors.

Thousands of students of Sheffield and Hallam Universities know the main conference venue as an examination hall!

The church proclaims “a God who is alive and very much at work in our city”.

Nick Allan said: “Our structure is aimed towards community transformation, seeking to build well-functioning communities where people feel safe and there is a sense of hope for the future, and which make a positive contribution to their surroundings.

“Our folk are spread right across the city and frequently gather in groups which act like extended family in cafes, youth clubs, schools etc, some in the most deprived estates of the city.

“Our campus is like a beating heart in the centre of the city, but of course it’s the people who make up the church. For example, we have an extensive network of youth work across the city, many of whom might never have visited our campus at the centre.”