In our June 2014 newsletter I traced out the decline of orthodox Protestant Christianity in Manhattan after the middle of the 19th century. When the city became more multi-ethnic and materialistic as well as less middle-class and culturally Christian, the churches found their numbers dwindling. The decline came because most people no longer came in to church to hear the sermons and those who did lacked the vocabulary to grasp the meaning or feel the power of the Word as it was being preached. In response to the crisis, some churches (especially Presbyterians) rejected the authority of the Bible and became social service and educational centers, while others (especially Baptist) took a highly combative stance toward society. While maintaining their high view of the Bible, these conservative churches became mainly Bible teaching centers with emphasis on denouncing the moral evils of the culture. By the middle of the 20th century, evangelical ministries and churches that reached center city Manhattan residents were either very weak or they left the city.
When we began Redeemer in 1989, we had in mind what we had learned from John Stott’s and James Boice’s ministry in central London and downtown Philadelphia respectively. They had combined elements that the churches of NYC had divided — they preached and evangelized for conversion, however they also mobilized for outreach and service to the city. They discovered dozens of ways to serve the practical needs of their neighbors, especially the neediest, and to engage people outside the church’s walls. And yet both Stott and Boice held to a very strong view of the authority of the Bible, as well as a rich, historic evangelical theology. With great intentionality, they avoided both withdrawal or assimilation to the spirit of the age. In a way, both Stott and Boice were forging the kind of church that the ministers of Manhattan in the late 19th century should have created — in the face of the city’s changes — but did not. Redeemer followed in their footsteps and has served as an ice-breaking vessel that has, as it were, opened the shipping lanes for almost 100 new churches in center city NYC over the last twenty years.
Nevertheless, even from our start, we realized that we face things that John Stott and Jim Boice had not. In New York City we live in an urban society that is not merely uninterested in but deeply suspicious of Christianity, whereas forty years ago most people still saw religion as generally something good. Now people lack the basically Christian vocabulary and background beliefs that nearly all residents of the U.S. shared 100 years ago. Not only that, they have a new set of beliefs about identity, society, morality, and history which make Christianity not merely implausible but a threat to the good. How do we communicate and serve people in this situation?
In New York City Redeemer has been a path-breaking ministry and, if God will continue to bless and use us, there still is much more such work to do. We must find ways to preach the ancient message of the gospel in ways that both defy the illusions of the age yet resonate with the good aspirations and hopes of our neighbors.
That means several things. It means to contest the self-narratives of secularity, especially its claim to inclusivity. It means to appeal to people’s deepest intuitions which do not fit the secular view of the world — intuitions about moral truth, human value, and the reality of both love and beauty. It means to expose the secular culture’s idolatry of prosperity and power, even as we humbly admit the church’s own failure to operate on the basis of love and generosity. It means to admit the church’s historic failures to execute on its own Biblical principles — the imago Dei dignity of every human being, love for opponents, universal care for the suffering, and justice for the oppressed — even as it argues that the source of this warranted critique is Christian truth itself. It means to neither dominate nor withdraw from society but to provoke and yet serve. It means learning how to set forth gospel truths in an uncompromising way but also in a manner that directly answers people’s most poignant questions in a disarming and compelling way. It means to offer people a meaning in life that suffering can’t take away, an identity so rooted in God’s love that the world’s pressure is off, and a hope beyond the walls of this world. It means to be doctrinally solid but not sectarian, civically active but not partisan, committed to the arts but not subjectivistic about truth.
The last paragraph describes the kind of church that I think will be fruitful in the coming secular, global city. There’s nothing in that list of qualities that is not inherent in the Biblical doctrine of the church. And forms of the church have emerged in the past that have similarly addressed well their cultural moment. I don’t see any church today fully realizing such an ideal, of course, but this is what Redeemer must aspire to in the immediate future. If we even take some good steps in this direction, we will do much good and will continue to occupy our place in this chapter of the story of Christianity here in this most great and difficult of cities