The biblical journey begins in the garden, moves to the city of Jerusalem, spreads from city to city, and culminates in the vision of the Holy City shining with the glory of God. Despite our common North American vision of God’s restoring our souls “in green pastures . . . beside still waters,” the glimpse we’re given in Revelation 21 and 22 of the climax of history, when we see that the ultimate fruit of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and return is a city! This is paradise restored. God’s future world is urban, with all its multi-ethnic diversity, population density, and cultural richness, but purged of all the flaws of today’s cities, due to human sinfulness.
At Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, led by Dr. Timothy Keller, we believe that the city—in particular, this city—is the most strategic place for Christians to be. The early church increased in influence and relevance because it was urban. The rise of Christianity in the first three centuries after Christ has been attributed to the commitment of Christians to the needs of the sick and the poor in the cities of the Roman Empire. But over the past several generations, the North American church has largely abandoned its cities, even nurturing an anti-city value system, fleeing the ungodly, corrupting influences of our cities today.
The prophet Hananiah felt the same way. When King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah in 586 B.C. and took the people of the northern kingdom of Israel captive, Hananiah tried to persuade the Israelites to remain outside the pagan city of Babylon in their own enclave. But God spoke to his people through Jeremiah and gave them the opposite mandate: to move into the city of Babylon and “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters . . . seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV).
Nevertheless, God wanted them to maintain their righteousness as God’s people, and to live distinctively according to God’s law. And that is what happened. The same would be true for today’s Christians in New York City. We are called to seek the peace and prosperity of the city and yet remain true to our identity as sons and daughters of Christ. We’re to be in the city and “for” the city, but not “of” the city.
New York City matters. Christians need to be here for the city’s sake, for the sake of our broader culture, and for the sake of the Church. Christians matter to New York City.
Most of the Christians at Redeemer would readily say that they did not come to NYC with this mission in mind. Some grew up here in immigrant neighborhoods and were eager to move to the suburbs when they got on their feet financially. Many came to further their careers on Wall Street, Broadway, and the other first-class institutions of learning, healthcare, and the arts. Some just came to “play” after college for a few years prior to settling down with a family “back home.” However, we believe that God is challenging those of us in our church community to rethink our priorities and develop a personal understanding of how our being in NYC matters to God.
A city of 8 million people, up 10% between the 1990 and 2000 census, NYC is the most densely populated in the country. Manhattan has 60,000 residents per square mile (compared to Atlanta at 3000 and Philadelphia at 13,000), and it is estimated that number quadruples to 200,000 per square mile on a typical workday.
NYC is also one of the least Protestant cities in the country. The leading Protestant church of the city is generally considered the Episcopal Church (Anglican), yet it now has a combined Sunday attendance of fewer than 25,000 people—0.03% out of a city of 8 million. A mid-1980s survey of New Yorkers indicated that no more than 500,000 people (approximately 7%) identified themselves as Protestant churchgoers. To the average Manhattanite, Protestant Christianity is invisible.
Does it matter? In Heaven Is Not My Home, Paul Marshall argues:
(A)s a rule of thumb, we will usually find what a culture values most highly by observing what is housed in the buildings that lie at the heart of its cities? (Cities) make a bold statement about what we believe is important in life, what our idols are, even if we are not aware of them.
A closer look at the actual use of real estate in NYC would be illuminating. Limited by water on all sides, our real estate is constantly re-purposed, reflecting our changing values. The icons of financial might sit at the top of our tallest skyscrapers. Our commercial waterfronts are being transformed into parks and residential villages. And our historic churches are rebuilt as condominiums. The buildings themselves are cultural symbols.
And the work that goes on inside them has cultural influence around the globe. Our buildings house The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They house Broadway plays, art galleries, and advertising agencies. They house forty-two of the Fortune 500 corporate headquarters. And they house several of the nation’s leading colleges and universities. The leaders of commerce and culture who operate out of these buildings make global impact as they outsource manufacturing to Bulgaria, invest in the burgeoning Chinese consumer market, and convince the American public of our need for their products. How we wish that more of these leaders had an understanding of God’s plan for the world, His gospel of grace and justice, and our opportunity to bring hope in His name!
Furthermore, millions of the next wave of immigrants—Latin American and Asian—come to New York for a generation before moving out into mainstream American society. (According to the 2000 census, 16% of the city residents were born abroad). Some younger immigrants come with a Christian faith that is displaced by the values of American culture when that faith is unsupported. Many others could be receptive during that time of transition, but are unreached.
The City: Christianity’s Strategic Centre
In Two Cities, Two Loves, James Boice suggests that if a mere ten percent of Christians resident in the United States moved into the largest cities and lived lives of love, truth, and servant hood, the culture would fundamentally change. What does it mean to live in the city as Christians and unite in efforts to transform the city? Redeemer Church is currently composed of 4500 people. Most came to The City or were living in The City for their own personal reasons—fame and fortune, education, adventure, and convenience. Hearts are changing, however, and people are choosing to stay or to re-establish their motives for being here. This fall, our entire church engaged in a Vision Campaign together to develop a common vision for how God can use us as individuals and in community to serve The City. We seek to serve in the following five areas:
- Serving the Poor. We know that God calls us to serve the poor. Through a non-profit called Hope for New York, Redeemer volunteers seek to serve the poor in tutoring programs, medical services, homeless shelters, and in justice ministries. We have helped establish New Song Community Church, a holistic community-based church in Harlem, committed to improving the education, housing, and spiritual lives of that neighborhood;
- Planting New Churches. Redeemer’s Church Planting Center is planting both denominational churches in new neighborhoods in The City and partnering with other denominations to plant churches. In particular, we are committed to leadership training and financial support for churches in various immigrant communities. Our research indicates that the average new congregation gains 60% to 80% of its new members from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshipping body, compared to more established congregations which tend to draw people transferring from other churches;
- Renewing the Culture of the City. The mission of Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work is to renew the culture through the gospel-centered, professional endeavors of our doctors, lawyers, advertisers, artists, educators, business, and media people. With mutual inspiration and accountability, our congregation is seeking to use their gifts in their places of work witnesses to the hope of the gospel;
- Modelling Christian Community. While our Christian community is relatively undeveloped compared to the more established Jewish, Hispanic, and gay communities in The City, we know that it is our relationships with each other as we live lives informed and fed by the grace and love of Christ that will most make impact on those around us. Through neighborhood Fellowship Groups, worshipping God together, and in groups that serve the City together, we hope to provide a picture of the hope that Christ provides; and
- Culturally Sensitive Worship Services. Redeemer holds four worship services each Sunday, and estimates that there are 100 to 200 people a week who are curious about or exploring Christianity. Dr. Tim Keller’s preaching seeks to address their questions and misgivings and our services seek to glorify God with beautiful music. At an Advent Service this Christmas, members of our congregation, born in thirty different countries, read scripture in their native tongues.
While this is far more a vision for “seeking the peace and prosperity of the city” than it is a reality, we see God at work in and through the church community. Our cities need far more Christians to appreciate the impact they could have by living and serving in cities. In Seek the Welfare of the City, Bruce Winter offers these words:
To stand in the “true grace of God” demanded a deep commitment to the welfare of the city within the framework of a living eschatological hope. That enabled the Christian to place personal concerns second to the needs of others in the city. This firm hope of an ultimate secure inheritance meant their present or impending suffering would be no ultimate catastrophe for them. The setting of one’s hope on the grace to be revealed at the revelation of Jesus Christ provided the perspective for fulfilling the Christian mandate to seek the welfare of the earthly city and not personal aggrandizement.