In 1978 the number of evangelical church plants jumped to three times greater than the average number planted per year for the previous decades. Since then, the number of successful evangelical church plants has averaged 1.7% per year. By 2000 the church planting ratio translated into 80-100 evangelical churches and ministries planted per year.
50% of evangelical churches and ministries in New York City were founded since 1978. The appearance of these churches, like the First Central Baptist Church pictured above (now pastored by Demetrius Carolina), has profoundly changed the religious map of the city. There has hardly been anything like this growth and presence of evangelicals in New York City since the 19th Century.
In the 1980s new church networks and key organizations like Here’s Life Inner City, Concerts of Prayer and others emerged setting the stage for a growth takeoff. Tim Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian in 1989. In the 1980s that church’s growth peaked at a 14-18% yearly growth rate of attenders. Christian Cultural Center in East New York, Brooklyn emerged as the largest church in the city and one of the largest on the East Coast. Brooklyn Tabernacle’s choir produced its first seven Grammy award-winning gospel albums in the 1980s.
The religious context in the late 1970s and 1980s
Among Catholics, the appointment of John Cardinal O’Conner as archbishop of New York in 1984 was also greeted as a sign of hope. Cardinal O’Connor was a vigorous, strong leader who re-established the Catholic church in the public eye and rallied his parishioners to basic Catholic doctrine and practice. He attracted social conservatives to his cause. Richard J. Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor who became famous for advocating a reentry of religion into public life with his 1986 book The Naked Public Square, was deeply attracted to O’Connor’s combination of conservative piety and compassionate social concern. Neuhaus was also a key bridge between Catholics
and Protestant evangelicals.
Upon his death, the New York Times called O'Connor "a familiar and towering presence, a leader whose views and personality were forcefully injected into the great civic debates of his time, a man who considered himself a conciliator, but who never hesitated to be a combatant," and one of the Catholic Church's "most powerful symbols on moral and political issues." Cardinal O'Connor also became close friends with Mayor Koch, and the two of them in 1989 collaborated on a book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, regularly dined together and gave each other moral support during grave illnesses.
Koch reflected on O’Connor’s role in the city, “His legacy for the city is that he as an individual transcended his own religion and became the spiritual leader of the city. I think the most important aspect of the Cardinal's legacy is the love that flows from the entire city to him - and from him to the city. It is unique that he created such an extraordinary - almost physical - bond with everyone in the city....” In 1990, Neuhaus converted into the Catholic Church, and a year later was ordained a priest.
Judaism received numerical reinforcements from a wave of Russian Jews starting in the 1970s. By 1994 the largest group of immigrants to the city were from the Former Soviet Union. By 2000 about 400,000 Russians, mostly Jews, had arrived, making up one quarter of the local Jewish population.
Jewish agencies were optimistic that the new wave would revive Judaism in the city. However because over half of Russian Jews were secular, the agencies were discouraged. Moreover, religious Russian Jews tended to opt for either Jewish or Russian Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Judaism grew in the 1980s also because of a high birth rate and conversions of secular or liberal Jews.
Some secular Jewish intellectuals were also moved to take a second look at the role of religion in life by developments in the Middle East and a disillusionment with some anti-poverty policies. These were often former Trotskyites who became what were called “neo-conservatives.” Although not usually religious themselves, they became allies of conservative religionistas in public debates with secular liberals who were dominant on the intellectual scene. Nathan Glazer, a political scientist who had pessimistically written on the role on religion in NYC two decades before, now suggested that conservative religion might be part of a solution to criminal recidivism. Commentary magazine’s editor Norman Podhoretz shifted from secularism to an openess to the value of conservative religion (without becoming one). Remarking on the changing religious trends within Judaism, Podhoretz observed that he goes to a Conservative synagogue while his son John goes to an Orthodox synagogue. In an interview with Manfred Gerstenfeld, he joked, “Midge Decter, my wife once wrote a book called Liberal Parents, Radical Children. Today, a title for another book might be Conservative Parents, Orthodox Children.
After Mayor Koch’s retirement in 1994, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented a very successful anti-crime program and better management of city programs. His policies were at one with his Catholic school training on the importance of moral order, though he is not a conventional Catholic. His performance during the World Trade Center bombings in 2001 inspired the city. Historian Vincent J. Cannato concluded in September 2006, “He left a city immeasurably better off—safer, more prosperous, more confident—than the one he had inherited eight years earlier…” He also left a city that was religiously revitalizing. Church planting outside of Manhattan accelerated in the 1990s. At one point in the south Bronx—heretofore a graveyard of church planting hopes, one church was established every three weeks (figures based on a study of three community districts: Mott Haven; Longwood; and Hunts Point).
 We obtained these growth rate figures from a Values Research Institute 2007 survey of about 900 church and ministry leaders in the metropolitan area. The sample was taken from the church and ministry list of the New York City Leadership Center, one of the most complete lists available. However, it is by no means complete and does not include churches that disappeared over time. The survey was done in English. If non-English speakers had been included, the annual church and ministry rate would likely be higher. In 2008 and 2009 an additional 120 evangelical foreign-born church and ministry leaders were interviewed in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, French, various African dialects and Russian).