Monday, May 23, 2011

Churching Manhattan

Rome. Istanbul. London.

Even Paris, and maybe Moscow.

But not New York.

Of all the world's great cities, New York has never been known as being particularly religious.

At least, not until the last ten years.

According to a recent study by researcher Bob Smietana, Manhattan alone had 10 evangelical churches in 1975. Today it has more than 200, and 40% of those were launched after 2000.

To the uneducated observer, it looks as though New York City's most exciting borough is experiencing a dazzling wave of discipleship. Except reality, like so many things about New York City, is far more complex, and not as it appears.

In his May 19 article for Christianity Today, Smietana suggests that new urban churches - particularly in New York City - aren't "reaching" the numbers of unchurched people the booming attendance numbers might suggest.

And one of the modern pioneers of church planting in Manhattan agrees.

More than Conversions in the Numbers

First of all, let's get re-acquainted with the political geography of New York City. Most tourists really only spend time on Manhattan Island, and assume that it represents New York City in its entirety. But New York City actually is comprised of five counties in five boroughs, of which Manhattan is only one. However, Manhattan is the most densely-populated and famous of the five boroughs. And during the past decade, in New York City, church planting has been the most prolific in Manhattan.

Which, actually, isn't particularly surprising. It experienced a population boom after 9/11 that has caught everyone off guard. In Manhattan alone, the increase was 93,000 people (depending on the census data, which is in dispute).

If you're keeping score, that's roughly one new church for every 1,162 newcomers to Manhattan in the past decade.

Public schools that once faced closure are now bursting at the seams, and parents in some downtown neighborhoods are demanding new elementary schools be constructed - dilemmas the nation's largest school district hasn't faced in generations.

In addition, new private schools seem to be popping up everywhere, and charging fees upwards of $20,000 per year. Most new construction these days has been for glassy apartment towers where condos cost at least $1 million per bedroom. And the number of whites in Manhattan actually increased during the past decade for the first time since white flight began in the 1950's.

It stands to reason that with these changes, church attendance would increase.  Out of all of these newcomers to the City, at least some of them would want to attend church.  And, as they scouted the country's migration hotspots, church growth specialists would have found it hard to ignore the demographics of New York's new class of newcomers:  generally well-educated, earning high incomes, and relocating from suburban America where the church culture is relatively common.

The Presbyterian Church in America, of which Tim Keller's celebrated Redeemer Presbyterian is a denominational church plant from the 1980's, was actually founded as an outreach to the city's professionals. Subsequently, newer church arrivals to the City have been mainly targeted to, well, the newer churched arrivals.  It's as if Manhattan's large lower-class minority population and small middle-class population didn't merit any sort of focus until all the rich whites started moving in.  The only church I know of that came to Manhattan to reach "the least of these" is Times Square Church, founded by the recently-departed David Wilkerson, who, like Keller, founded his church in the relatively long-ago 1980's.

Another aspect to consider involves the severe culture shock inherent with any move to New York City.  You have to be a little crazy not to find the Big Apple jarring. (You also have to be a little crazy for staying after you've acclimated to the City's demanding personality, but that's another story!) From the crush of humanity to the intensity of mass transit to the incessant noise to the absurdly high prices for everything, New York is an assault on all of your senses.

Which usually means, despite all of those people in such a small area, loneliness runs rampant. I speak from experience when I say that starving for interpersonal interaction quickly becomes part of everyday life.  Turning to church - even if you never attended one before arriving in New York - is an easy way to numb the city's social hostilities.

When Church Growth Can be Oxymoronic

So, who cares if all of these churches have popped up in one of the most hedonistic, materialistic, and carnal places on Earth?  Isn't this a good thing?

Actually, Smietana suspects the explosion of churches in Manhattan owes as much to fickleness as anything else. It's likely the result of an artificial inflation of church attendance numbers by churched people playing musical chairs. Or, should I say, "musical pews."

In other words, even though the raw numbers have increased, the actual number of people attending evangelical churches in New York City isn't as impressive as the data would have us think.

Even Redeemer's Keller is aware of the problem.

He once blogged that "for every one New Yorker/secular person who came to Christ, we saw 2-3 others join who were coming from other churches" inside and outside metropolitan New York. "Without that, we would be a quarter to a third the size we are now."

The significance of the musical pew phenomenon comes when you consider how it disguises the true church growth dynamics in Manhattan since 9/11. Church growth leaders don't appear to have been particularly interested in Manhattan until affluent whites started moving there in droves.

It's no secret that New York City in general, and Manhattan in particular, has been home for years to a significant population of poor blacks and Hispanics. Yet even now, why have most of the church plants been located in whiter, trendy neighborhoods? Granted, some denominations - particularly Pentecostals - have started reaching out to the immigrant communities in the outer boroughs. But these ethnic enclaves, with their cross-cultural challenges, seem to have a harder time competing for ministry resources.

Us Versus Them

To a certain extent, I have little right to question the motives and mechanisms of evangelical organizations who've set their sights on New York City. I haven't even visited my hometown myself in a number of years, and have no plans for moving back. I know how difficult and expensive maintaining a church in New York can be, and on a purely logistical level, I can understand church planters relying on a relatively dependable and affluent white demographic upon which to build new urban ministries.

Yet at some level, I am compelled to speak towards what appears to be a discrepancy between the overt needs of New York City and the highly concentrated efforts of church planters to a specific - albeit influential - subset of the city's population.

On the one hand, evangelizing a group of people known to be nomadic - young white professionals generally consider New York better short-term resume fodder than long-term investment - can benefit the Church Universal as young professionals hear the Gospel in Manhattan and then take their faith to their next job assignment in, say, Los Angeles or Lisbon.

But on the other hand, does this scramble to attract New York's professional class continue to overlook the masses of browner, poorer New Yorkers who still don't fit into the trendy church plants sprouting all over Manhattan Island's hip hotspots?

And when these new congregations of new New Yorkers perform outreach ministries to the City's poor and disadvantaged residents, might they be inadvertently perpetuating stereotypes and further dividing the people of New York into "us" and "them?"

"We" are the new arrivals to the Greatest City in the World, who have the education, jobs, and money to really make a difference for "those" poor blacks and Hispanics mired in generational poverty.

I understand that generally, the small percentage of hardened welfare cases these new churches shower with spurts of attention will never darken an evangelical church's door for worship. But can we forget that many people who aren't white, aren't rich, aren't college-educated, and don't work on Wall Street neither need nor want gratuitous charity?

Native New Yorkers - and most people on welfare in New York City are natives - are a savvy group of people. They can tell when Christians are simply checking off the "service" box, feeling guilty about the way they're earning their wealth, or stoking their own ego with naiive forays into the thrillingly freaky world of deep urban poverty. Even New York's working poor know the difference between genuine affinity and tax deductions.

Legitimate, honest relationships have always worked the best when it comes to outreach of any kind, and while I don't pretend to know the personal motivations of every white Christian in Manhattan, I'm not stupid enough to ignore the part altruism and trendy compassion plays in charity efforts of all sorts. Particularly in a place like New York City, with its incongruously glamorous ghettos. Particularly because I've been guilty of doing that myself.

Not that the Lord can't use all of these hipster church plants for His glory. Or that the spiritual environment of New York City would be good enough without them.

It's just that with so much hollow trendiness already endemic within the towers of Manhattan Island, it would be a shame if evangelical Christianity got lumped into all of the other fads which sweep through its streets.
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