How does New York City set the culture for the rest of the country and the world? In the ’90s I heard New Yorkers discussing and expressing their views on gender and sexuality in ways that are now, many years later, mainstream on a national level. The city is a pacesetter for the culture, whether we like it or not. Some might think therefore that Christians should stay away from cities, but when you look at Scripture, you can’t deny that Jesus went from city to city in his ministry, or that Paul was willing to argue with the cultural intelligentsia in city centers such as Athens and Ephesus. In fact, I went back to Acts 17 over and over while I was in NYC to learn how to interact faithfully with center-city people.
How can Christians influence New York City for good? I started wondering, “What if there could be a movement of the gospel in one of the most religiously hostile and influential cities in America?” That was a goal. And it has been partially realized. A great number of people who became Christians here are now serving as salt and light in all sorts of places you’d never expect to find Christians.
At the time were there other contemporary pastors who preached about loving and investing in the city? Well, we have to start by pointing out that this question is something of a white-centric question. Or at least it’s the kind of question an upper-middle-class professional would ask. Because black, brown, and Asian churches never left the city. When white evangelicalism grew so much from 1965-1995, it was shaped by this “white flight” mentality and so had a very anti-urban bias to it.
However, during my five years teaching practical theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia alongside Harvie Conn and Manny Ortiz, I was exposed to a host of thoughtful, dynamic, and theologically informed African American, Hispanic, and Asian pastors and their ministries. They had thriving ministries at a time when U.S. inner cities were in terrible shape. But there they were. When Kathy and I announced we were moving to New York City, a number of people told us we were sinning against our children by taking them to the city, that they would lose their faith—and maybe their lives. (The opposite was true.) But the white evangelical view of the big cities as complete “spiritual wastelands” was wrong. So yes, in the 1980s, there were not many white and middle-class pastors talking about loving and investing in the city.
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