Evangelicalism, Large Cities, and the ‘Other’ Christians

Some evangelicals write as if they are the only Christians doing God’s work in the world.

In 2010, journalist Tony Carnes launched a fantastic project covering the various religions in New York City and from his work the most accurate description of New York City is “post-secular.” In fact, one could argue that it is because of New York City’s religious pluralism that newly-arriving evangelicals even have a context in which to thrive. New York City is a very old and diverse city and it would be difficult to argue, if not presumptuous to even suggest, that evangelicalism, which comprises only about 4.2% of the city’s Christian population, is posed to catalyze the next “Great Awakening.”

 

One of the profound realities of theology and ecclesiastical enclaves in which American Christians live is each tribal subculture views the world as if Christianity begins and ends with their tribe. Evangelicals are a great example of this trend. Some evangelicals write as if they are the only Christians doing God’s work in the world.

For example, Joy Allmond recently wrote a perplexing article about New York City asking “Is New York City on the Brink of a Great Awakening?” Allmond, a web writer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, lives in Charlotte, NC, and after reading her article one is left wondering if Ms. Allmond is at all familiar with the religious and Christian landscape of New York City. The narrative she constructs for readers is that change is coming to New York City because evangelicals have arrived. The article begins with a factual impossibility:

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.’

I am not writing as an expert on Christianity in New York City, but there is no way Metaxas “practically” knew the thousands of “born again” believers in the Manhattan, especially among the black churches in Harlem and the Dominican churches in Washington Heights, and so on, in 1993. It is unclear why Allmond would make such a fanciful claim but it speaks to the tribal blind spot that some evangelicals have about their own importance. Allmond mentions several evidences of this hoped-for awakening, including the presence of Socrates In The City, The King’s College (where I’m employed), Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and Brooklyn Tabernacle, to name a few. While these do signal increased institutional movements in recent years among evangelicals, they do not suggest that anything spectacular is happening in America’s largest city. Are evangelicals really that important? Here’s why I say this: there have been Christians in this city faithfully preaching the Truth in word and deed for centuries before any church or institution named in Allmond’s article arrived.

As written, Allmond’s article is naturally offensive to those Christians who have been faithfully laboring in the trenches in this city, Christians who are ignored and marginalized in her piece. What about the gospel-preaching black, Latino/Hispanic, Asian/Asian-American, and immigrant churches in sections of Manhattan like Harlem, Chinatown, and Washington Heights? What about the churches in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island? New York City is not necessarily a secular city and perhaps it would be better to speak about the ways in which evangelicals may be positioning themselves to have a seat at the table with all of the other religious communities that are active in New York. As of 2000 New York City’s religious plurality looked something like this:

New York had 7,550,491 Roman Catholics, representing about 39.8% of the total population. The same year, there were 1,653,870 adherents of Jewish congregations. Membership of leading Protestant denominations in included United Methodists, 403,362; Episcopalians, 201,797; Presbyterians (USA), 162,227; and Evangelical Lutherans, 169,329. About 39.6% of the population were not counted as members of any religious organization.

Because of diversified immigration, New York City has small percentages but significant numbers of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Orthodox Christians. There were about 223,968 members of Muslim congregations. Though exact membership numbers were not available, there were about 121 Buddhist congregations and 83 Hindu congregations statewide. There is also a wide variety of religious-nationalist sects and cults, including the World Community of Islam in the West, also called the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims), the Hare Krishna group, and the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

The questions is, where do evangelicals fit into this landscape? In 2010, journalist Tony Carneslaunched a fantastic project covering the various religions in New York City and from his work the most accurate description of New York City is “post-secular.” In fact, one could argue that it is because of New York City’s religious pluralism that newly-arriving evangelicals even have a context in which to thrive. New York City is a very old and diverse city and it would be difficult to argue, if not presumptuous to even suggest, that evangelicalism, which comprises only about 4.2% of the city’s Christian population, is posed to catalyze the next “Great Awakening.” In fact, because New York City is 56% non-white one might suggest that if a Great Awakening is going to happen in the city it would likely happen among the city’s majority ethnic population–a population that evangelicals tend not to reach very well in the city.

After reading Allmond’s article one might get the sense only evangelical Christians are thriving in the city. But what about the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, traditional Black Church, Latino/Hispanic, and Asian/Asian-American congregations? Many of those churches have been far more active in New York since World War II than evangelicals have been. It seems to be if God was going to ‘awaken’ New York, or any major city west of the Mississippi River, he would do so by using a coalition of Christians across the traditions who are already there to bear witness to work and person of Christ. It seems that this is what Jesus hoped for in his high priestly prayer in John 17:20-23:

“My prayer is not for [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Anthony Bradley is an Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at The King’s College, NYC. This article is taken from the Acton Institute Power blog and is used with permission.