When Tim Tebow was traded from the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets, media reports focused on two issues: first, how would the trade affect starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez? And second, how would the unapologetically evangelical Tebow do in New York City? More than one Christian writer has even referred to my hometown as “Babylon.”
Now, if all you have to go on are television and movies, then I can see why you might think that New York is particularly hostile to Christians and Christianity. Apart from weddings, I can’t recall any fictional New Yorkers attending church services.
The key is “fictional.” The reality is increasingly different.
New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin’s faith did not prove to be an obstacle to “Linsanity.” In fact, the New York Times ran two articles on urban Asian-American evangelicals. New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey has just published an autobiography titled Wherever I May Wind Up, in which he describes how his Christian faith helped him to overcome a very troubled past. So Tim Tebow is only the latest in a series of high-profile Christian athletes in New York.
Of course it goes far beyond athletes. An unintended consequence of globalization and migration to New York from other parts of the country is that the newcomers have brought their faith with them. The past few decades have seen the establishment of vibrant churches such as Times Square Church, Redeemer Presbyterian, Trinity Grace, and many others.
On any given Sunday, countless New Yorkers gather across the city mostly in auditoriums — this is New York, after all — to worship together. People meet in Bible studies and prayer groups throughout the city during the week.
It’s all part of a mission to what I call the “next unreached people group”: cultural elites and those who aspire to be cultural elites. I know “cultural elite” is a pejorative term in many Christian circles — justifiably so at times. But this group exists and reaching out to them is an important part of shaping culture. And reaching them requires going to the places they live: cities like New York.
In doing so, today’s Christians are emulating the early church. Christianity began life as an urban religion. From Jerusalem it spread to the great cities of the Roman world: Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Athens and, of course, Rome itself.
Then, as now, the great cities set the example that the rest of the empire followed. In fact, our word “civilization” comes from the Latin word for “city dweller.” Maps of Christianity’s spread in the first three centuries shows it going from city to city throughout the Mediterranean.
What’s more, the Roman Empire was urbanized to a degree that Europe wouldn’t see again until the 19th century. If you wanted to turn the world upside down, great cities were the place to be.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Outside of the United States, the explosion of Christianity is an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon. What’s happening in New York is just part of a larger global trend.
But there’s more going on New York than just people attending church on Sundays: Christian ideas are getting a hearing, too. That’s the subject of tomorrow’s broadcast.
Publication date: May 2, 2012