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Part 6: The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals’ comeback in 1978

In 1978 the number of evangelical church plants jumped to three times greater than the average number planted per year for the previous decades.

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Founded in 1978 by 7 people, First Central Baptist Church of Staten Island now has 500. Photo by A Journey through NYC religions.

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.[1] 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

Neuhaus talks NYC faith with evangelicals Glen Kleinknecht of Here's Life Inner City (l), David Ramos (b), Jack Roberts of Hope Christian Center & Household of Faith, Bronx (far r). Photo by A Journey through NYC religions.

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).

[1] 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).


Next: Op-Ed: Defeating the “Elijah Complex” in 1978. A Retrospective by Joe Battaglia of Renaissance Communications

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  • Thanks for your post.

  • I have noticed the change in the city but never put all my observations together. Thanks for this series.

  • Spectacular series. Thanks.

  • Look forward to reading all your series! thanks!

  • Revealing series and very cool blog

  • Big job! We will try!

  • I look forward to your articles on evangelicals in the whole city, not just Manhattan. Thanks!

  • Keep journeying!

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  • Thanks John for filling in some of the history of Chicago. Quite a challenge!

    The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was a tragedy that reflected a racist lawlessness in the South. His death's impact in the north included a contribution to a general sense of lawlessness and racial antagonism. City and church leaders dealt with this challenge in different ways in different cities.

    Today, the antagonisms are muted, though not completely absent. Younger African American leaders like President Obama are part of a post-civil rights generation. This generation feels that they are ready to lead not just African Americans but the whole community. It will be interesting to see what lessons young African American leaders learn from the President's political difficulties.

    In the churches African American leaders have taken up roles as leaders of the whole church also because of their competence and ability to contribute to a better functioning of the church body.

    The story of how young African, Asian, Hispanic and White American Christians are the new mix of leadership in the evangelical churches is unfolding right now.

  • Nice site, nice and easy on the eyes and great content too.

  • Going back through your current series tonight, a couple additional thoughts.

    1] After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago became a catastrophe as well. I don't know how New York City and Chicago compare in that regard. It would be interesting to track a comparison of a number of major cities hard hit with catastrophe after King's murder - Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York - from destruction to renewal.

    2] Social justice ministries led religious renewal in Chicago in the past 40 years. One major leader was Ray Bakke, author of the book, A Theology as Big as the City - SCUPE, Seminary Consortium for Pastoral Education was one of the organizations he helped to found, as a means for promoting social justice ministry here -

    These are only a couple leads on a history that needs to be recorded and posted online, like the work you are doing. We need a bigger history, identifying many more of the folks who helped start new work, lay foundations, etc.

    No one I know of has published a history like what you are doing, linking religious renewal across the spectrum of religion, politics, and culture, and linking the various strategies of social justice, church planting, et al.

    Another issue I would like to get at is the whole idea of "post-secular". Rodney Stark has been beating this drum for some time, very convincingly IMHO, though mainly on a general level. What we need are detailed case studies. You are doing that now for NYC. In short, the evidence for "post-secular" is clear from your reports, and interestingly, your evidence cooroborates one of his main ideas - religious entrepreneurs are crucial for religious renewal. NYC is a perfect case study in this very phenomena.

    Chicago and other cities would be additional case studies - in some cases, strong, smart, wise, effective entrepreneurs, in others not so.

    3] Church planting is the new game in this town, much newer than NYC.

    Main pt - it would help immensely to better know the history of religious renewal in Chicago - people, organizations, ideas, et al. Feel free to take a sabbatical in Chicago and help get "A Journey thru Chicago Religions" started. ;-}

  • Thank you Peter. Thank you for your recollection and reflection. What we love about NY is how people like yourself invest their hearts in our people.

  • I love this site and what you're doing for New York. As a native NYer, I remember the graffitti-covered canvas of New York, and I agree that the spiritual forces of renewal have gone unnoticed. Giuliani was indeed a very positive force, but as I was working at the time for an NGO downtown, I saw him take dollars away from families on welfare to put more cops on the street. (Of course, both are needs!)

    It's been wonderful to see the changes in the spiritual landscape particularly in churchplanting; may they continue!

  • Though church planting is going on here in Chicago, organizations to push it are only a recent phenomenon.

    Chicago does not seem to have anyone of the recognition of Father Richard J. Neuhaus to enliven the religious scene.

    Cardinal George and before him Cardinal Bernardin did an effective job of helping Catholics to hold their own and maybe stabilize the religious scene.

    Bill Hybels is changing the scene in the suburbs, but some see him as only having marginal impact in the city at this point.

    Father Pfleger at St Sabina and Wayne Gordon at Lawndale church and clinic, combined with the hq for Christian Community Dev Assoc there,are having an impact because of their emphasis on social justice.

    Several black churches have become mega phenomena. I am not able to assess their effect, since real change for the better in many inner city black neighborhoods is lagging.

    Roman Catholics also are working with the Lumen Christi Institute to have more intellectual impact.

  • We love our NYC drinking water!

    The religious changes in NYC didn't happen over night. We are only giving a little bit of the history and will continue to do so.

    Today, it is so hard to imagine how badly the city was suffering in the 1970s. Parts of the city looked liked Dresden after the bombing. The city couldn't sell its bonds. Crime seemed to happen on every block on every day. Pastors in parts of the city kept shotguns under their pulpits to defend the offering.

    The spiritual change in NYC is an unrecognized part of the political and social rehabilitation of the city. The political, social and spiritual changes complemented each other. A deep tradition of compassion for the needy and suffering was revived in the nick of time. In our 12 part series we are just filling in some small pieces of the puzzle as far as the evangelical Christians are concerned.

    Thank you for giving us some comments on Chicago!

  • Whew ! Amazing ! A ministry to the business and professional world that could form the core of a new church !!

    Do you guys have something in the water out there?? There is simply nothing comparable in Chicago where I live and work.

    Can you tell a little of this story?? Some body, or some bodies simply must have had a huge vision for ministry to the real worlds of the city for a long time. I can't imagine this happening overnight, and there is no sign that anything like this could happen anytime soon in Chicago.

    Some good work is being done on social justice, but little more.

    ps. Eric Metaxes has done his "Socrates in the City" a couple times here.

  • Good observations and question. We don't have the final word on what is going on, so we really appreciate other people's take.

    Prominent figures are important. Most recently, Tim Keller is the most important, as far as church planting goes. Redeemer seems to be a key example that encourages others to try things. The influence of the example goes far beyond the evangelicals. Other religious leaders have visited Redeemer to see what would be relevant for their own work.

    We also shouldn't forget that the change in the presence of evangelicals started in the late 1970s. People like Joe Battaglia (in media), Joe Mattera, Bob & Paul Johansson, A R Bernard and many others were laying the groundwork in the outer boroughs. Some of the change was almost invisible: 7 people starting a church in Staten Island; or 5 people starting what eventually became Christian Cultural Center in Greenpoint/Williamsburg; and so forth.

    Is catastrophe, in our specific meaning, an insufficient explanation? Social catastrophes seem to be a necessary condition. They explain quite a bit of the phenomenon. Immigrants, children of immigrants and migrants are the majority at Redeemer and many other Manhattan churches.

    But as you say, catastrophe by itself is not enough. The other two elements are effective message and compassion bearers, lead by prominent or effective figures; and social networks that bring people to church. In Redeemer's case it was the Business and Professional Outreach of Campus Crusade for Christ, which brought the initial core of Redeemer together.

    Hope this rather sketchy reply makes sense.

  • In light of your newest report on post-secular NYC, it seems to me that catastrophe is not enough to explain all the church planting in so many neighborhoods of NYC.

    How much of this is fueled as well by prominent "figures" - eg., Neuhaus, O'Connor, maybe even Fujimura - making religion credible again? By other "things"??

  • The right metaphor is not "starvation" but "catastrophe." Migration, immigration and personal disruptions are catastrophes in the sense of disruption to habits, customs and mindsets. Spiritual starvation rarely drives people to spiritual food. It is only when their life is disrupted, either by movement to another place or some other way.

    In Europe the religious growth is fueled by catastrophe, in our specific meaning of the word: immigrants who feel alienated; and Europeans who either react or are inspired by the social catastrophe.

    In US it is a commonplace among churches that you need to reach newcomers to a city or town within 2 years before they make their decision of where to call their church home. After that, there is very little change.

  • Would you call this a "religious revival"?

    Or is the growth of churches in postsecular NYC [your term] simply a response to weariness among people starved for serious religiuous alternatives?

    And, if this is a case of religiously starved people, why has nothing like this started happening in Europe?

  • you are at the top of the list of engagements this morning. Thanks for your very impt work.

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