I’m in New York City speaking at a conference on how to mobilize a movement of gospel ministry across the city. The audience is full of church planters, clergy, and denominational leaders, all trying to figure out what Christian mission could look like today.
The challenges for the church here are significant. The conditions prevalent in New York City create an interesting crucible in which to do mission.
I agree that Christians ought to be present and engaged in every type of context. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year. So it makes sense that Christians should be moving to cities in the same proportions as the people they want to reach.
More than that, the social conditions experienced by New Yorkers are really very similar to those present in other cities, only writ large. As cities grow, and the world become increasingly urbanized, looking to what the churches in cities like New York are doing becomes important for church leaders everywhere.
As the song goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
So, what are those conditions?
New Yorkers are phenomenally transient. No one stays there very long. In fact, most churches can expect to lose a third of their members every year. One church planter said she needed to grow her church every year by more than a third, just to stay viable. This will effect how churches see themselves as both discipling and sending communities into the future.
New Yorkers work all the time. The city is expensive, housing isn’t cheap. To keep their heads above water they need to work long hours or even take more than one job. If the church focuses all its efforts on Sunday programs it will miss the myriad ways its people can serve God in their workplaces. Discipleship must be about equipping people to see their mission in every aspect of life. That will require the church to not only develop a theology of work and faith, but to develop strategies for coaching professional people to look at their work through the lens of the gospel. Every church needs to think about how to foster a spirituality that works from Monday to Saturday, not just on Sunday. This is work that very few churches have even begun to explore.
One church leader said that while the church growth movement taught him that focusing on homogeneity will grow churches, the city taught him the beauty of diversity. It’s impossible to live in New York and not see both the desirability and the challenges of diversity. While we all desire diversity, homogeneity is quicker and neater. Church leaders everywhere need to learn to be patient, to commit to the long, slow work of incarnating the gospel within a multicultural society and celebrating diversity and difference.
Those at the margins can’t just be the targets of Christian ministry. The church of privilege needs to learn what the church at the margins can bring to it. One of the participants at the conference, a man from the Dominican Republic, pointed out that in order to contextualise theology in the “hood” he was required to adapt white people’s theology. He might have been talking about writers like me. But his cry, “We want to contextualise the gospel, not whiteness” rang devastatingly true. Aiming at diversity without being willing to hear the voices of non-white people, especially in the work of self- theologizing, is stupid.
Sure New York is the center of the arts and entertainment industries. It is known for being a mecca to cultural creatives and the urban elite. But we ignore this community at our peril. One church planter told me about her daughter and her friends, all of whom are engaged in issues like global justice, sex trafficking, gun control, the Me Too movement, and Black Lives Matter. We’re busy counting the number of people who turned up on Sunday while they’re dreaming of a world without poverty or racism or bigotry. And they’re using all their creativity and energy to develop innovative solutions to the world’s intractable problems.
The conference I’m speaking at is a partnership with a movement called City to City, the church planting arm of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Redeemer’s pastor emeritus, Tim Keller says faith is alive and well in New York.
And not just the squishy liberal kind either.
“The first thing I’ve noticed is that in almost 30 years, the numbers of conservative Protestant churches across the five boroughs has increased greatly,” Keller says, “In light of the decline of religion among millennials across the country, it’s worth noting that much of this growth has been among young adults.”
What’s happening here is your future, even if you don’t live in Gotham City. Wake up and recognize the old, tired ways of doing and being church are changing. Cities like New York don’t have all the answers, but they’re being forced to confront the questions more quickly than the rest of us.