New York City has long been considered the apple of America’s eye, and a Big Apple at that. With its imposing skyline, so long dominated by the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, it sometimes seemed to be a city that could force its economic will on the machinations of the entire world. Then came September 11, 2001.
For 102 minutes, the nation’s collective eyes watched and heart beat as New York City suffered a dagger to its heart that was felt from coast to coast and around the world. In the midst of the death and destruction followers of Christ were asking the question, “Can fruit of the gospel be grown from rubble?”
Even though the specific data is mixed, the answer, it seems, is “yes.”
I looked at several data sources in the most recent edition of Ligonier’s Table Talk magazine. For example, Barna Research found increases in several important spiritual markers between the years 2000 and 2010. The percentage of people who self-identified as “born again” rose from 21 percent to 32 percent, while the percentage of people who attended church “in the past week” rose from 31 percent to 46 percent. Along with that good news, however, is the bad news that only 1% of “born again” respondents qualified as evangelical using Barna’s nine-point test.1 At best we might say there are many new believers who need to be discipled.
Other data points to a resurgence in church planting since September 2011, with as many as 200 being reported in Manhattan Center City alone. The Values Research Institute (www.nycreligion.info) cites an increase of 80 churches there after 2000, noting a two-month stretch in 2009 when at least one Manhattan church was planted each Sunday.
It is important also to recognize that fruit of the gospel in NYC did not just begin after 9/11. One researcher notes that 42 percent of evangelical churches in the city’s outer boroughs were founded between 1978 and 1999.
Southern Baptists’ presence in New York began (in an organized fashion) in the mid-1950s after a few transplanted Southern Baptists began to settle across the region and it continues today. We know that reaching New York City with the gospel will take some different methods and strategies than Southern Baptists have typically used on their home turf (the southwest and the deep south).
Recently, I was interviewed for a syndicated story that dealt with Southern Baptists and church planting in New York City. You can read the story here if it was not in your local paper, but you probably know the professor who is quoted but not named.
The old SBC planting joke goes like this: “How do you start a new Southern Baptist church in a big city up north? Easy. You go into local grocery stores and introduce yourself to all of the people who buy grits.” Yet, that was supposed to be a joke– at least it was when legendary Southwestern missions professor Cal Guy first told it to me about 15 years ago.
If we are to reach NYC and, I might add, the other major cities of the U.S., we must adopt the mindset of Cal Guy. He believed that international missionaries were too “westernized, institutionalized, building-ized and subsidized” in their approach to missions.
In the case of big U.S. cities, we might substitute “regionalized” for “westernized.” Cal Guy knew the purpose of the gospel was not to convert the lost to the American civil religion, but to Jesus Christ. Any such mission efforts would require missionaries to de-code their host culture, finding culturally appropriate ways to present the gospel. Instead of bringing new converts out to more traditional churches, they should be sent back to their own people with the gospel.
In his day, Guy’s approach was novel compared to the missiology that was prevalent. Thankfully, his ideas have not only gained traction in recent years, but have become the dominant way of thinking about missions. I am thankful for his influence on the SBC (and on me).
New York remains a harvest field, a gathering point for millions who do not know Christ. It is my earnest hope and prayer that thousands of God’s people will leave the comforts of home to take the gospel into areas like New York where the impact of the gospel as not been as prevalent and the fields remain white to harvest.
Today, the North American Mission Board is launching its first Send North America city emphasis-Send North America: New York City. Send North America is NAMB’s strategy to mobilize churches and individuals for evangelistic church planting in 27 cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. I hope you’ll get involved in the work here. There is a role for every SBC church of every size under NAMB’s Send North America effort. The first step for any church to get involved in planting churches is to go to www.namb.net and click on “mobilize me.”
1- http://www.ligonier.org/blog/columns-tabletalk-magazine-september-2011/, Digital edition, pg. 21, 22.
2- ibid, pg. 20.