If It Can Make It There…

Several years ago, Christianity Today columnist Tim Stafford chided evangelical Christianity “which thrives in Houston but can’t get to first base in Manhattan.” That might no longer be the case. A new survey indicates the gospel has made impressive gains in New York City. If it can make it there, can it make it anywhere?

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” is a familiar line from a song that was unfamiliar when it debuted in Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film, New York, New York. A year later, Frank Sinatra popularized it in performances at Radio City Music Hall. The point is simple. If you can make it in a key city such as New York, you make it anywhere. The reverse of the point is not true, however. You can make it in a lot of cities but not necessarily make it in New York.

This is essentially the point Tim Stafford made in 1996, when he said Pat Robertson is a metaphor for what’s wrong with evangelical Christianity. Robertson, he wrote, is a “picture of evangelicalism, its strengths and weaknesses.” He’d made it in Virginia Beach, but “doesn’t get much respect” elsewhere and “has all but bypassed the establishment, appealing to the common man and building new institutions from scratch.” Robertson “is relegated to a broadcast ghetto he can’t break out of,” Stafford remarked. “So is evangelicalism, which thrives in Houston but can’t get to first base in Manhattan.”1

Stafford made a good point since the Early Church grew by targeting key cities. In his book Cities of God, historian Rodney Stark writes, “Early Christianity was primarily an urban movement. The original meaning of the word pagan (paganus) was “rural person,” or more colloquially “country hick.” It came to have religious meaning because after Christianity had triumphed in the cities, most of the rural people remained unconverted.”2 By the third century, the Christian population of the Roman Empire had grown very large. As Lucian the Martyr put it early in the fourth century, “[A]lmost the greater part of the world is now committed to this truth, even whole cities.” The thinking was, if the gospel can make it there, in Rome, it can make it anywhere.

Targeting urban elites is also how the Enlightenment succeeded. In Philipp Blom’s A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment, he tells the story of the Enlightenment’s movers and shakers, highlighting how they focused on key cities. One mover was Denis Diderot who wrote revealing letters to his rumored lover Louise-Henriette Volland for almost thirty years, detailing the Enlightenment’s tactics. In one note, penned in 1759, Diderot remarked how his atheism was not for the faint-hearted. That’s why the Enlightenment did well in the cities, he said. The “naturally superstitious,” Diderot believed, “needed their fetishes” and lived in the suburbs. “The people there are too stupid, too miserable, and too busy.”3

Don’t overlook the Enlightenment’s shrewd strategy because of Diderot’s arrogance. Targeting key cities is the same strategy adopted by the Clapham Sect in the same era. This group was part of a movement that started in key cities in the early 1700s and influenced many leaders, including banker John Thornton. Thornton was “said to be the richest man in England,” writes Stephen Tomkins in his book, The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain. British evangelicals targeted influential urban elites like Thornton, promoting “two great outward channels, saving souls and social action.”

This was the movement William Wilberforce joined after coming to faith in 1785. The Clapham evangelicals recognized that “if they were going to evangelize the Church of England and Christianize the nation, they were going to have to woo the ruling classes,” Tomkins writes. The thinking was, if the gospel can make it in London, it can make it anywhere. The Clapham Sect set out to influence elites by reforming institutions (such as banking) and appealing “to the conscience and responsibility of the upper classes.” Forty years later, it left a legacy abolishing slavery and reforming banking as well as child labor laws. Some have said the Age of Wilberforce ushered in the Victorian Age, when faith played a vital part in matters of public life.

This commitment to key cities continues to be pursued in more recent evangelical faith communities. In early 1989, a group of 15 people began meeting weekly in an Upper East Side apartment to pray about planting a new church in the heart of Manhattan for professional New Yorkers. Tim Keller joined the group later that year as the first pastor of the fledgling Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Since then, Redeemer has planted hundreds of churches, in the city as well as in key cities throughout the world.

Redeemer’s work might contribute to recent trends observed by the Barna Group. Based on analysis of research conducted over the last 14 years by Barna, a research organization, residents of the New York City media market are more spiritually active today than they were in the late 1990s. Reported weekly church attendance, for instance, bottomed out in 1999 and 2000 (31 percent) but has since grown to represent 46 percent of the market’s residents. Furthermore, the percentage of residents of the New York area who are unchurched—defined as those who have not attended a worship service in the last six months—declined from 42 percent to 34 percent. To grasp how significant this is, David Kinnaman, president of Barna reports, “during the same period of time in the nation’s population, church attendance has declined and there has been a corresponding increase in the percentage of unchurched adults.” 6

Tim Stafford called it correctly in 1996 when he said evangelical Christianity couldn’t get to first base in Manhattan. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Redeemer New York City continues the tradition of the Clapham Sect and 18th century evangelicals. If these churches can make it there, it’s more likely the faith can make it anywhere.

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1 Tim Stafford, “Robertson R Us: Part 2” Christianity Today, August 1, 1996.
2 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p. 2.
3 Letter from Diderot to Volland, 1759, in Diderot, Oeuvres, vol. 5, Correpondence, 180.
4 Stephen Tomkins, The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain (Oxford: Lion, 2010), p. 53.
5 Tomkins, Clapham Sect, p. 61.
6 Barna Study Explores Faith in New York Since 9-11

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14 Comments

  1. Mike,

    Great piece! One of the drawbacks to hanging onto a narrative that is completely disconnected from observed reality in most urban settings. We talked about this at The Well (Brussles, Belgium) this Sunday. You can’t just walk up to someone here at work and deliver a Pat Robertson style evangelical, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” You would be considered certifiably insane!

    Can you give us the link to the survey you allude to in the first paragraph?

  2. Mike,

    Your essay raised a question: Is the important factor being active in large cities, or is the crucial factor the fact that cultural gatekeepers happen to live in cities like New York? In other words, is it the geography or the demographics? If it’s the latter, the best approach would be to focus on the “upstream” people (as you have often discussed) rather than on this location or that location. For example, San Jose, CA is relatively suburban having less than 900,000 people. Yet more than 1/3 of all venture capital in the U.S. comes from suburban Silicon Valley. Other relatively small cities in the U.S., such as San Antonio, TX, are also becoming centers for innovative cultural gatekeepers. In Brazil, many of the most influential people are trying to get away from the big, suffocating cities like São Paulo. In the “flat world” of the Internet age, movers and shakers can live anywhere. Although I’m thankful for Redeemer’s great work in NYC, is increased church attendance translating into cultural transformation?

  3. Glenn:

    It appears to be demographics and geography – both – according to researchers such as Richard Florida. Like birds of a feather, innovators and cultural gatekeepers tend to fly together. It is true that in the Internet age they can move anywhere. But to make things happen – to be “shakers” – it is most beneficial when they network, and that requires some geographical proximity.

    As to your last question, increased attendance does not necessarily translate into cultural transformation, but it can be indicative of is – if better benchmarks are also being measured.

  4. I think we can add history to geography and demographics for hypothesizing the root cause of the increase in NYC spirituality. The psyche of NYC has been profoundly impacted by 9/11/01. This may partially account for the uptick in church attendance. It would be interesting to see how growth in evangelicism in NYC compares to growth in other forms of Christianity (Catholicism?) and even non-Christian religions over the last decade.

  5. Thanks to so many for contributing to this conversation. Greg, your assertion that 9/11 played a role is not however supported by Barna’s research, as well as other surveys.

  6. Mike,
    How does the New Testament show that the apostles and early disciples actually “targeted” cities? It seems that Paul targeted Jews first and then Gentiles.

  7. Tim,

    Good question. Again, if you want a thorough answer, grab a few quick reads such as Meek’s “The Urban Christians,” Peter Brown’s “Rise of Western Christendom” and Rodney Stark’s “Cities of God.”

  8. Mike,
    You make some great strides to establish your point. The next question to follow up is “Does Jesus “work” on Wall Street?” The questions remains to many as to the functional effectiveness of Godly principles. Dr. Tom Nelson has a new book ,”Work Matters”, which touches on this. I have been exposed to it’s content to a certain degree and it is well done. I have seen your winsome work in the past and appreciate it. I believe you could frame a point of view that would help us condense an “approach strategy” to get into a relationship with others and know their “business” to be able to apply the Biblical goal in the world to the business goals,or reference works that can do so.
    Respectfully,
    Walt

  9. Walt:

    If by asking “Does Jesus ‘work’ on Wall Street,” you mean does the Christian faith define reality in such a way that Wall Street institutions would flourish by taking its definition seriously, the answer is an unequivocal yes. As to the latter part of your reply, I have contended in these columns that the modern, Western church’s “approach strategy” is almost entirely flawed.

    For starters, there is nothing in scripture about “applying” biblical truths. For more on our misguided ideas about “application,” see my May 5, 2010 column titled, “Killer Apps.” The church can’t be taken seriously if its definitions of such things as “application” are in fact erroneous.

    There are of course additional issues that thwart our influence. But an “approach strategy” is – as you rightly infer – pretty fundamental.

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