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Part 11: The Making of the Postsecular City. The reasons it happened

The increase goes beyond traditional explanations of church growth like friends bringing friends and relatives to church, a new technique of church planting, or a charismatic evangelist.

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Revelations about NYC faith. Photo edited: A Journey through NYC religions.

After visiting so many new evangelical churches, Tammy Wong’s question is, how did this tremendous change come about? In 1975 there were only ten or so evangelical churches in Manhattan Center City (below 96th Street on the East Side and 125th Street on the West Side) that served English speaking professionals like her. By 2010 there were over 200 evangelical churches in Manhattan Center City and over half of them served urban professionals. Manhattanites have not seen such an increase in evangelical churches for over a century.

The increase goes beyond traditional explanations of church growth like friends bringing friends and relatives to church, a new technique of church planting, or a charismatic evangelist. These factors became important after Manhattanites were already spiritually seeking because their customs and mores were unsettled by the civic disasters of the 1970s-1980s, immigration, migration, and the catastrophe of 9/11.

Tammy experienced first hand the civic catastrophes of the 1970s and 1980s. Her response was to look around for church havens. But these spiritual homes were themselves weakened from decades of decline. A few were trying to rebuild, and several were brand new. These embers were evidence, not particularly noticed at the time (except for a few like local evangelical media maven Joe Battaglia),  that the condition of evangelicalism was beginning to change. The changes mainly came from outsiders to the city and to its centers of power and influence.

New churches like the charismatic One Flock, Manhattan Presbyterian Church, the messianic Jewish Isaiah 53 Fellowship, and The Lamb’s Church all had core leaders who came from outside the city and were marginal to the power structures of both the secular and spiritual realms of Manhattan. New ministries like the college fellowships of Campus Crusade for Christ and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the evangelical Christian communities like Student Christian House and “2G,” Christine Anderson’s New York Arts Group, Jews for Jesus and others were formed in the mid- and late-1970s by young Christians who decided that they hadn’t given up on the city or the four-fold path of Jesus, evangelism, the Bible and the church.

These early initiatives usually didn’t lead to anything greater. Their efforts were more like a tree ring that can be read as evidence of historical processes. In Manhattan the chronic processes of disruption and catastrophe were leading to new modes of spiritual believing and belonging. One common conviction among the young evangelical pioneers was that the city needed a new way of doing faith that would transform the disruptions of immigration, migration and disasters into a blessing.

The city had a fast growth in the number of immigrants coming into the city. From a nadir of just 18% foreign-borns in the city, their presence has doubled. If you also count their native-born children, immigrant families make up over 60% of the city. These immigrants often came as evangelicals or were converted once they were here.

The impact of immigration can be seen in the number of new or renewed churches led by immigrants. In NYC as a whole, over half of the churches and ministries with foreign born leaders were founded since 1987. Many older churches also decided to help the rebuilding of city spirituality by turning over their keys to new immigrants. A majority of the churches with native born leaders were founded before 1963.

According to a survey by A Journey, the largest portion of the foreign-born church leaders (41%) are from the Caribbean and Central America. Quite a few (23%) are from an Asian background, and 17% are from South America. 29% of foreign-born church leaders are at congregations in Manhattan. Foreign-born leaders are also found in many Manhattan Center City churches.

For example, Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s church-planting center was founded by a Brazilian. Also, the young second-generation Asian Americans have contributed a large number of members to Manhattan evangelical churches. They make up at least half of Redeemer’s congregation. First-generation churches have also founded second-generation churches in Manhattan Center City. The immigrant-founded Overseas Chinese Mission started Vision Church, and Korean first generation churches have sponsored the startup of Remnant Church, Compass Fellowship, Crossways IN2 Church, and Joy Community Church.

Migration from other parts of the United States also created a pool of uprooted people in Manhattan looking for stability. Church planters followed the population migration. Leaders like Tim Keller came from the suburbs of Philadelphia after receiving encouragement from a ministry to upwardly mobile New Yorkers.

The recovery and growth of the metropolitan region’s financial and professional sectors has propelled it to the tenth largest Gross Domestic Product in the world, larger than that of India, South Korea, Russia or Brazil. It is by far the largest regional economy in the United States. The improved financial condition of the city has also created a new upwardly mobile class of young workers.

In particular, the financial services sector and related support enterprises have brought a wave of perhaps 250,000 young and young middle aged employees from the rest of the country. In 2009 the New York State Department of Labor says that New York City employed 310,392 workers in financial services, 82% of them in Manhattan. (The borough also employed two-thirds of all workers in the city.)

Some of the migrants came as evangelical Christians; some had stopped attending church; and some were secular. However, the rough financial competition in the city moved quite a few to return to church or to consider an evangelical church for the first time.

In 2007-2009 interviews with over three dozen financial industry executives revealed how they came to faith. Their stories about life in the Manhattan financial world were grim.

Declarations of love or emotional attachment were noticeably absent from their description of New York City. They felt that they were here to make money. One executive described why people come to New York City, and it captures the ambivalence: “People love to come here and figure out ways to make money and then love to come here for our entertainment. They don’t come here for what we manufacture. They don’t come here for really anything else. It might be our freedoms.”

To them New York City represented a war zone from which they were weekend refugees. In response to a question about what to give back to the city, there was not an enthusiastic response. One said he focused more on getting out of New York “because you want to get out of there.”

Financial executives said that working in Manhattan financial services is like “throwing a switch” or “a crossover” to the killing fields, the “empty zone,” “the struggle,” a “dirty” and “tough” place, “deadening,” and “depression.” A hedge fund trader said, “Hunt, kill, eat—that kind of thing.” When executives go out there, “They kind of shift into a mode. You get to the workplace, they kill.” Even before the late 2008 economic disaster, Wall Streeters were in need of emergency spiritual care.

Finally, disaster can bring people together into new ways of believing and belonging.  The World Trade Center attacks had three impacts on evangelical churches in the city. First, the various local evangelical church networks that had been growing up since the late 1970s discovered each other. The catastrophe caused a social networking. And for the first time, many church networks were prepared to work and support each other.

Second, out of state evangelical church leaders discovered that Manhattan (and the city in general) was no longer the kill zone for church planters. They discovered that “Sodom and Gomorrah” actually had a fast growing church population. The large evangelical church-planting organizations decided to commit major financial and personnel resources to Manhattan. This recently culminated in “Movement Day,” a Manhattan conference sponsored by NYC Leadership Center, Redeemer’s Church Planting Center and others that attracted over 800 pastors, church planters and ministry leaders from 34 states and 14 countries.

Third, there was a significant church attendance growth that sustained itself after 9/11. One church tracked this closely and concluded that they received about an 8% growth.

In sum an evangelical church like Redeemer Presbyterian Church is made up of immigrants, migrants and refugees from the city’s disasters.  Over 80% of the attenders of such churches is composed of new immigrants or young sons and daughters of immigrants and migrants from other parts of the U.S. Converts of native New Yorkers make up a smaller but significant number of congregants.

Redeemer itself has played the role of exemplar for evangelicals in Manhattan. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn wrote that a scientific revolution takes place after there is someone who serves as an exemplar of how to solve a particularly difficult and important problem. For evangelicals the difficult and important problem was that it seemed well-nigh impossible to establish a flourishing evangelical church in Manhattan. Many evangelicals had given up to the task. They did not notice that the city was actually becoming more receptive to evangelical faith.

Still, there were some who saw the tough, hurting city as exactly the place where a few words of compassion and heavenly joy were needed. They saw it as a necessity to come to New York just as rescuers brave unknown dangers as they go to the scene of a disaster. Evangelicals have a long history of plunging into the worst situations to rescue the perishing. A century ago one evangelical said that he preferred to be at the gates of hell so that he could snatch people out of danger before they perished. New York City in the 1970s and 1980s certainly resembled the gates of hell. Tim Keller, who had a comfortable life as a seminary professor, decided to plunge into the city by establishing Redeemer in 1989. To many people’s astonishment, he succeeded greatly. He invited others to come join him, and they learned from his example. For some, Redeemer’s success and way of church that was finely tuned to Manhattan’s cultures made it socially acceptable to go to an evangelical church. Redeemer also drew upon the growing reservoir of native New Yorkers who were looking for new spiritual paths out of social disruption. Sometimes, these New Yorkers were “defectors” from the city’s civic and religious power elites and provide tutelage about the ways of the city to younger evangelicals.

The civic and political disasters and the eucatastrophes (“good catastrophes,” a term coined by JRR Tolkein) of immigration, migration and competitive capitalism created great challenges to the continuity of New York City as a great city. In the 1970s and 1980s many people took one of the logical options in the face of a social cataclysm—they fled. A lot of evangelicals also fled with them. But those who stayed in the city and the urban pioneers like Tammy Wong decided to rebuild the city. They opted not to rebuild the old ways of doing things. Politically, the rebuilders mainly chose a conservatism that had learned to embrace the city as its own or a chastened liberalism that was sometimes called neo-conservatism. The spiritual rebuilding also took a more conservative path. The ranks of evangelicals, conservative and charismatic Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and Orthodox Jews grew in the city. Our reckless ways that had brought the city down on our heads have given way to a social and spiritual re-edification.

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Next: Part 12: The Making of the Postsecular City. The global impact

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8 Responses to “Part 11: The Making of the Postsecular City. The reasons it happened” Leave a reply ›

  • First-class reporting.

  • To Y. Wright:

    Your city? I thought Manhattan was everyone's city. I must have been mistaken. And be careful about throwing around the word partisan when making statements (or veiled threats?) like "we atheists outnumber you believers here."

    Your words, "believers are welcome as neighbors, but they will not control the politics of this city the way they have ruined so much else in the world, from the American south to Afghanistan," are quite insulting to me, as I am a religious person who lives in the American South.

  • Thanks for your comments. Your challenges to a postsecular understanding of our city are welcomed. We certainly need to think this idea through in the presence of critics.

    Here are a few thoughts written down today. But we certainly will not stop reflecting on your challenges.

    Do you really think "religious" equates with being "right-wing," particularly in NYC?

    Do atheists outnumber religious believers here in NYC? We don't know of any evidence that atheists exists in such high numbers in NYC. Every survey of New Yorkers indicate that the vast majority have some sort of religious identification, beliefs and practices. One could argue that the intensity of identification, beliefs and practices has declined and that this amounts to secularization. When the intensity of identification, beliefs and practices increases, then this would be desecularization. We think history is not deterministic, people are not automatons of money, and athiests sometimes become believers and believers sometimes become athiests.

    We think that we are in one of those periods that there is still a lot of secularism and a markedly increased religious presence. You predict that the secularist trend will outlast the religious trend. We will see.

  • Postsecular this and postsecular that. You are kidding. NYC has always had thriving immigrant communities with strong religious institutions. And in every single instance as the community has moved up the social ladder, the churches have declined. Ten thousand storefront immigrant churches doesn't make NYC post-secular. Nothing comes "after" secular unless you are an evangelical partisan.

    Proof is in the pudding: just show me one conservative religious right wing leader at the state or national level (or the city government level for that matter). who has been elected by majority vote in NYC.

    We atheists outnumber you believers here. And we outvote you believers here. This is our city. Believers are welcome as neighbors, but they will not control the politics of this city the way they have ruined so much else in the world, from the American south to Afghanistan.

    Reason will triumph in New York. People come here to get rich, not get saved.

  • Thanks much for the recollection.

    I wonder how many other students decided to go somewhere else because of the weakness of Manhattan's religious offerings in the 1970s through the late 1980s. Wouldn't our competitive advantage in some areas be dulled? Wouldn't the city media and educational establishments have big areas of ignorance about what was happening in the rest of the world, our country and even in our own city?

    And now, what are the positive implications for more diverse religious offerings and opportunities for personal experiences with them?

  • ...and there is always prayer. In 1987, I was accepted to Columbia Business School and ready to start in September. However, I was a fairly new Christian and the church I attended in Maryland was concerned because of the lack of reformed, evangelical churches in NYC at the time. The church pastor asked me to defer the acceptance. As it turns out Columbia does not defer and I would just give up the acceptance--tough when the market was near it's peak and many people applying to business school. I did end up deferring, and spent time studying the Bible and attended a local seminary.

    The following year, I re-applied to Columbia and got in to start in Sept 1988. My pastor was still concerned since he still did not know of a good reformed, evangelical church in Manhattan. But I went to NYC. The first few months I spent church hopping. As it turns out I tried out a Hungarian presbyterian church. The regular minister was away and Tim Keller was speaking and making a proposal to start a church in NYC. It was several months later before the church was actually formed, which would become Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

    Not that I felt so special knowing that God formed a great church just for me! But God can do extraordinary things. I was later to find out that my pastor in Maryland was a camp counselor in which Tim Keller was one of the campers, so the world is a really small place!--by the way it satisfied the pastor knowing that I was attendance at Tim Keller's church.

    From that point I saw a proliferation of many great churches.

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