20 years ago, Eric Metaxas knew practically every born again believer in Manhattan.
“It was like a spiritual ghost town,” the cultural commentator, thought leader and author recalled.
Yet, over the recent decades—particularly this last one—New York has seen a surge in evangelicalism. Some cultural experts believe the Big Apple to be on the brink of another ‘Great Awakening.’
Gregory Thornbury, president of The King’s College—the only free-standing Christian institution of higher learning in New York City—compares this rise in Christianity to the the great Wall Street revival of 1857.
“I would say there is a very special moment of spiritual renaissance happening in New York City right now,” he said.
The Roots of the Renaissance
While it may seem to onlookers that the spiritual renaissance in New York City has just started, it has roots that reach several decades deep.
In 1969, shortly before the Cymbalas came to lead The Brooklyn Tabernacle, B.J. and Sheila Weber sensed a need in the city for evangelical, like-minded businessmen to come together for encouragement and growth. So, they founded New York Fellowship. Incorporated in 1984, New York Fellowship grew beyond the meeting of businessmen and extended its reach into the city. Chaplaincy to New York City’s professional sports teams began, along with ministry to the homeless and inner city youth.
New York also had other evangelical pioneers like the late David Wilkerson, whose heart was pierced for the gang members and drug addicts of New York. He moved there in the 60’s and began Teen Challenge, a ministry that is still considered successful today.
These ministries, and others, gained momentum and flourished over the next two decades.
As the 80’s came to a close, a man considered by many to be one of the most influential pastors of our time answered a call to New York City to start a church: Tim Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian, hailed as one of the most vital congregations in New York City.
By that time, the abortion rate in New York City had skyrocketed. Through the planting of Redeemer, a need for a crisis pregnancy center was identified. Subsequently, Midtown Pregnancy Support Center was founded. Other Redeemer members saw the need for a classical Christian school in New York City. So, the Geneva School was formed. That brought families into the city that wanted their children to attend that school.
As the year 2000 neared, New Yorkers saw more than the turn of a new century; they found ways to intellectually examine faith.
The King’s College opened its doors in a 34,000 square foot space the Empire State Building—after a short period of closure—in 1999 (the school is now located in the financial district). This placed the next generation of Christian thinkers in the hub of New York—and American—culture. Because of the placement of The King’s College, hundreds of young people are flooding the churches in the Big Apple.
In 2000, Metaxas started Socrates In the City, a monthly forum that facilitates discussion around “the bigger questions in life.” This event has seen growth over the 13 years in existence, and consistently attracts what Metaxas calls “The cultural elite.” Topics covered at these forums include: the existence of evil, the implications of science in faith, and the role of suffering.
In 2001, New Yorkers saw the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. “These events focused hearts on New York City,” said Metaxas. “This caused a lot of people to move to the city and start churches and other ministries.”
A post-September 11 New York City would see the emergence of many new churches, such as Journey in 2002, Trinity Grace in 2006, and Hillsong NYC in 2011—representing a wide variety of theological and worship styles. More parachurch organizations, like Q, have popped up. Founded by Gabe Lyons in 2007, Q exists to help church and cultural leaders engage the Gospel in public life.
“Now, there are so many churches in town, I don’t know the names of all of them. I know that the Lord is in all of this,” said Metaxas. “I am convinced we are on the verge of some kind of faith renaissance in New York City that will blow a lot of minds.”
The Gospel and Secularism in NYC
Thornbury believes that even amid the influx of different churches and ministries, the Church in New York City shows solidarity.
“Benjamin Franklin said at the second continental congress, ‘We must all hang together, or we must all hang separately.’ This can be applied to Christian solidarity,” said Thornbury. “This is what I think is happening now, among Christians in New York City. There’s this sense that we are all in this together.”
In a world where Christian sects are often divided, even in the modern American evangelical church, Thornbury and Metaxas agree that Christians in New York have no choice but to be unified in the secular setting.
“Being a Christian in New York City is tougher than being a Christian in most other cities in the U.S.,” explained Metaxas, of the social implications of discipleship. “It costs us more here, and so we dispense of the nonessentials (denominational traditions, religious language, etc.). “
Thornbury sees the challenge as an advantage: “Because we live in a more secular culture than most of the country, being a Christian ups the ante a bit for us. I think what a lot of people would perceive to be a downside of doing ministry in New York City is actually a positive.”
Evangelizing New York: Lessons From the Early Church
Perhaps it is easy to forget that the early church took root in a primarily secular culture. That is where Thornbury sees some parallels between the current day Church in New York City and the early Church, citing that Paul and the other apostles spent a majority of their time investing in the metropolitan areas.
“Colossae was a small, insignificant city. Paul wrote them a letter, but he never visited them. He spent his time in the leading centers: Ephesus and Corinth. And, he had an agenda to go to other big cities, like Rome and Jerusalem,” he explained.
“So, I think it is the playbook of the New Testament to focus on metropolitan areas, but I do think it is important to ‘stay in your lane’ and continue to be faithful where they are.”
The Rules of Engagement
To be an effective promoter of the gospel, Metaxas believes that cultural engagement is crucial—especially in New York City. Socrates In the City is one way he is working to achieve that.
“We, as Christians, need to earn intellectual respectability so that we can have a seat at the table during crucial conversations. At Socrates In the City, we’re not pushing anything, we are just there to talk about the big questions,” he explained.
“Jesus is truth, so we talk about truth. We’re just trusting that this will lead people to Him—whether it is a leap at the time, or a millimeter at a time. Most of the people who attend Socrates In the city—the cultural elites—are one of the unreached people groups.”
Thornbury believes that New York Christians should take their cultural engagement cues from Daniel. But, this will require a measure of grace, he said.
“Daniel was given a position of influence because of his overall posture toward the king. He was not seen as antagonistic toward his government, even though he may have disagreed with much of the king’s policy,” Thornbury explained. “He was was faithful, but he was also positive, upbeat and engaged.”
What’s Next for NYC?
While much has been accomplished spiritually in New York City, there is still much to be done. Even still, patience and prayer are required, according to Metaxas:
“New Yorkers have to see things from a long term point of view. This ‘renaissance’ isn’t happening overnight, so we have to continue to prepare the ground for friendship evangelism. And friendships take time.”
Since New York City is a center of influence in terms of media and entertainment, Metaxas also asserts that a spiritual change inside of New York would have a ripple effect outside of New York: “If we could see changes in places like New York and Los Angeles, we could see changes across the whole country.”
As someone shaping the next generation of believers, Thornbury is eager to see young Christians continuing the work in New York City: “I see the Church in New York City becoming a prophetic witness that seeks the welfare of the community. I also envision more young believers relocating here, doing a work in the city, and having a heart for metropolis.”
He continued, “Historians will be able to tell us a generation from now whether or not—technically speaking—this era in New York City fits what missiologists and sociologists would call a ‘revival.’ But, it’s clear that God is on the move here.”
Joy Allmond is a web writer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and a freelance writer. She lives in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband, two teenage stepsons and two dogs. Follow her on Twitter @joyallmond.
Publication date: November 19, 2013