On October 6th Tammy Wang attended an evangelical church, New Life Fellowship of Elmhurst Queens, that didn’t exist when she arrived in the city in the Fall of 1975. Furthermore, she hadn’t heard of the church until recently. And yet today this congregation of 1400 regular attenders was inaugurating a leadership succession to the founding leaders Pete and Geri Scazzero. This congregation is one of several thousand such evangelical churches that have grown up since her move to the city.
Scazzero told the congregation that New Life Fellowship’s multi-class, multiracial, international community (37+ nationalities) with its contemplative, emotionally reflective life-style “is a gift of hope to many around the world. Our community offers a glimpse of what is possible by the power of God, and is a taste of heaven itself.”
A New York City church “a taste of heaven itself’? A place that has become an inspiration for churches around the world? What is happening here? What does it mean for the future of the city?
In the last couple of years Scazzero has partnered with the largest church network in the world to spread his church’s message of the contemplative life and emotionally healthy spirituality. In Brooklyn A.R. Bernard’s Christian Cultural Center grew from a storefront into a 31,000 member congregation. Now, Bernard is mentoring pastors in Asia and Africa. From the Bronx Fernando Cabrera and his allies led the fight against the discrimination against churches in the rental of public school space, along the way creating an alliance with the next mayor of the city, Democrat Bill De Blasio. Tim Keller of Manhattan has become one of the most popular preachers in the country and his model of sophisticated, culturally engaged Christianity is an inspiration to thousands of church planters in cities around the world.
In 2010 A Journey through NYC religions published an award-winning twelve part series “The rise of the postsecular city. The Manhattan evangelicals.” The city is no longer the Sodom and Gomorrah, nor even the paradigm of the secular city described by theologian Harvey Cox in 1963. Although not quite a new Jerusalem or new Mecca, New York City has seen more growth of religious congregations than perhaps at any time in the last one hundred years. Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Sufis and other types of religious believers also have established new congregations in unprecedented numbers. New York is the first postsecular city of the postsecular era. Other secular cities in north America and Europe appear to show signs of following New York City into this new era. Perhaps, no other religious group represents this striking change so clearly and emphatically as the evangelical Christians.
In our 2010 series we mentioned that this change in New York City didn’t start in Manhattan but actually started in the boroughs. Tammy (a pseudonym) saw the changes taking place in the wave of new evangelical churches established in Manhattan, but she had little knowledge about what was happening in Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. For a highly trained professional working in the center of the city, she didn’t see that the sources of profound changes in the center usually are outsiders on the periphery of power, status and money. In fact she was a second generation outsider too. Her parents had emigrated from China, worked hard and pushed their kids to fight their way to the top. Only gradually did she realize that many of her co-workers were also outsiders, but had grown up in the boroughs, not another part of the country like her. After noticing the religious changes in Manhattan as exemplified by its 200 evangelical churches, most founded since the 1980s, she was curious to find out what had taken place in the boroughs. She found out that since 1978 the evangelicals had increased their number of churches in the boroughs by several thousand. There were big churches, creative churches, compassionate churches and ministries that she had never heard of.
After 911, evangelicals in the rest of the country who flooded the city with relief volunteers were also surprised, even shocked, at how many like-minded New Yorkers they found. They had pictured the city as “the graveyard of missionaries” and the “Sodom and Gomorrah on the Hudson.” Consequently, national evangelical organizations and mega-churches started to send church planting and evangelistic teams into the city where they found some success. After Hurricane Sandy, evangelical national relief organizations knew who contact in the city in order funnel supplies and volunteers into the recovery efforts. Many New Yorkers like Tammy already had experience in working together in recovery from at least one disaster. The image of NYC among American evangelicals morphed into a hospitable city, and for some, into “a new Jerusalem.” Nationally, New York is becoming as important for evangelicals as was the Bible belt in the Midwest. Among young evangelicals, the city is “hot.”
After thirty-five years of fast growth, the evangelical movement in New York City is maturing, and it is time to connect the dots between the city’s evangelicals of the past, those of the present and their future successors. Until September 11, 2001, the evangelicals in the city were focused upon starting their churches and didn’t feel much kinship or know about evangelicals in previous decades. In 2001 they simultaneously discovered each other and were recognized nationally as an important body of evangelicals. Among its leaders, the evangelicals of New York City became a self-conscious group, The New York City Evangelicals.
In fact New York City has been Jesus’ kind of town for a long time. A more accurate long-term archetype for a New Yorker may be Jacob Riis, the legendary journalist, photographer and social reformer who lived in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
Riis was a desperately poor immigrant who converted to evangelical Christianity at the altar of Eighteenth Street Methodist Church in Brooklyn in 1874. With a new convert’s eagerness to throw himself into a life as a pastor, Riis was instead reinvigorated back into journalism by the evangelist Rev. Ichabod Simmons. “No, no Jacob, …not that.,” the pastor told the young Riis. “We have preachers enough. What the world needs needs is a consecrated pens.” This injunction led Riis into his battle against the conditions in the slums as a matter of people’s souls. Linking arms with Orthodox Jews, Catholics and humanists, Riis became the leading journalist for reform in New York City. He surely would have appreciated the New York Times recent publication of a deeply-moving portrayal of a homeless family by Andrea Elliott. Just as Riis had done, the reporter noted how chaotic poverty impacts the soul. Elliott wrote that the young girl Dasani, “the invisible child” featured in the articles, no longer had enough trust to rely on God:
“She has lost the simplest things that for other children are givens: the freedom of riding a bicycle, the safety of a bathroom not shared with strangers, the ease of being in school without stigma. And from all of these losses has come the departure of faith itself.
God “is somewhere around,” she says. “We just can’t find him.”
To trust is to be caught off guard.”
Elliott’s article highlighted some of the new challenges in the city: an ugly division between the rich and the rest; an increase in homelessness; and poorly functioning bureaucracies.
Although the “founders” of the contemporary NYC evangelical surge in the city are spreading the lessons of their experiences around the globe, are they bequeathing a lasting legacy? As they transition out of the organizations which they founded, will this represent the crest of their influence, or will the next generation do better?
Will evangelicals be able to help the city to meet new challenges? Immigration, a large source of new congregants, is leveling off. More immigrants from Africa, China, Mexico, Muslim and European countries are arriving. The number of migrants from the rest of the United States is increasing at a faster rate than that for immigrants as a whole. Are the churches prepared to accommodate the changing make-up of the city?
Church-going teens are naturally questioning the faith that they received from their parents. Will they make it their own or move towards a different faith or non-faith? Gay Christians like Jeff Chu are asking, “Does Jesus really love me?” Women want an enlarged role in the church while men want appreciation of manly virtues. How will the churches strike these bargains?
Looming like a skyscraper over all the problems is the rising tide of inequality. The city is expensive and gentrification is drying up the availability of cheap space for community groups like storefront churches. The middle class has left New York in droves while the gap between the rich and the poor and working classes is growing. The trickle down economy hasn’t worked well for the less wealthy.
Too many Manhattan evangelical church leaders were notably silent in criticizing the shady Wall Street practices leading up to the 2008 economic meltdown. Perhaps, Manhattan evangelical churches should have raised funds to bail out poor people who were losing their homes because of the banking real estate scams. On the other hand, Wall Street Christians feel caught between the rock and the hard place: speak up and get fired; be silent and ruin one’s conscience.
What would Jesus do on Wall Street?
A posh gathering of evangelicals in Manhattan hosted distant also-run mayoral candidate Republican Joe Lhota while some Manhattan evangelicals, claiming that they know what is best for the city, are trumpeting an elitist strategy as the way of Christ. Culture creation is recast as “trickle down culture” molding the lower classes into forms acceptable to elite interests. In fact the elite leaders were a couple of steps behind Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio in helping their poorer brethren. The right to worship leaders claimed that until publicly challenged, some leaders of the richer, larger Manhattan churches didn’t express public support for the poor churches in their battle to be able to rent space in public schools like every other community group. Instead, De Blasio was at the head of the poor churches’ marches. Consequently, most of the evangelical voters by and large rejected the elitism of the Bloomberg years by giving a lopsided vote in favor of De Blasio.
The coming years will see a debate: should the governing notion of the church be “Elites for Christ” or “For the people, by the people and of the people”? Shall it be a reign of “the common good” decided upon by the richly successful and elite professionals? Will the elite Christians try to outlaw unions as they once did in Great Britain? Or will a reign of “the democratic good” be decided by the majority which must involve the voices and decisions of the middle & working classes and the poor? Should leadership training programs hold up business and professional elites as the appropriate models? Or should new programs follow the leadership examples of the working class Baptist and Methodist preachers who helped to organize the British labor union movement? Or will the churches find a way to work together on an equitable basis for the betterment of the city? Can the evangelicals overcome the culture war mentality that has inflicted itself on so many of its leaders?
To assess the current state of evangelicals in New York City we have interviewed everyone from Billy Graham to a homeless evangelical under the pier in Coney Island. We have sat in Bible studies and fellowships in the most diverse settings, from the leather bound chairs in elegant boardrooms of Wall Street to the dirt floor of a Hispanic church without a roof in the Bronx. This has resulted in thousands of interviews. We have traveled all 59 community districts and 5,000 miles of the city streets to map every manifestation of the evangelicals, surveying and interviewing their local leaders and members and photographing their sites. At each location we are digging down into their historical and demographic dimensions. At the beginning of our conversations we ask four questions of each leader about the significance of his or her church or ministry for the city:
1. what is distinctive about your ministry; why do people come to this church or ministry?
2. what is the impact of your ministry on your neighborhood or network of people?;
3. what is a specific example of this impact in the last couple of weeks?; and
4. if you were mayor of New York City, how would you change the city?
We have also let a large statistical survey of today’s evangelical leaders to drive further questioning and reporting.
Since 1978, the evangelicals have grown rapidly in the city, although they still haven’t convinced many New Yorkers of their message. However, it is still a pretty young movement. Most of their churches were founded after 1980.
The churches grew through immigration, migration of young professionals from the rest of the country, and conversions of native New Yorkers. Protestant evangelicals number between 1.2 – 1.8 million people while Catholics who have similar beliefs to the evangelical Protestants and who often go back and forth between Protestant and Catholic congregations number about 800,000 – 1 million. Judaic, Muslim and Buddhist groups have also adapted evangelical values and strategies to their own work in the city. However, this series of articles will focus on the Protestant evangelicals.
The largest church in the New York City is an evangelical church growing out of the Pentecostal faith, the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn which has grown to 31, 000 members since 1979. The evangelical church with the largest attendance in Manhattan is Redeemer Presbyterian Church which has grown to about 5,500 attenders each Sunday since its founding in 1989. Evangelical church founding reached a white hot intensity after 1995. In the south Bronx in a one year span in the late 1990s one new church was opened every three weeks. Today, the evangelicals are still growing in numbers while their institution building has picked up. Evangelicals have also been developing their alliances with Roman Catholic, Christian Orthodox and Judaic leaders in the city.
Tammy doesn’t really know much about the churches outside of Manhattan. In the coming articles we invite you to take a journey with Tammy and us through the evangelicals of New York City.
Read part 2 of series Jesus the New Yorker : "Jesus the New York Jew"
Sidebar to part 2: Searching for the Messiah in New York City
Read part 3 of series Jesus the New Yorker: "Jesus the New York Networker"
Read part 4 of series Jesus the New Yorker: "Young Jesus the New Yorker & the future of the city"