An Englishman in New York image

An Englishman in New York

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I've just got back from speaking at the Rooted conference in New York City. Alongside the things I was expecting to enjoy - singing Stuart Townend songs in an Episcopal church, listening to some super communicators, being part of an event with a real passion for the gospel - there were one or two surprises. One was the number of youth leaders who were eager to talk to me about being charismatic; given that it was a fairly conservative conference, the number of people in their twenties who wanted to discuss the theology and practice of being a charismatic Christian, since they didn't have many people in their locality to discuss it with, was quite exciting. Another was the interaction I was able to have with pastors from New York City, including John Starke, David Plant, Bijan Mirtolooi, Dimas Salaberrios and Peter Ong; mixing with these guys, and in several cases receiving hospitality and encouragement from them, was a huge privilege. Beyond that, here were ten things that struck me about my time in New York.

1. Half and half is such a brilliant idea. Why don’t we have it here?

2. I was simply staggered when I heard a New York pastor, who lives in the Upper East Side, explain the expense of living in the city by telling me he pays $4000 per month in rent for a two bedroom apartment, in which he and his wife live with their four children. I knew cities were expensive, but I had no way of computing a number like that, nor how churches could raise sufficient income to pay pastors enough to live on.

3. One of the pastors at Redeemer Presbyterian Church was interviewed on his/their ways of doing youth ministry. His first comment was that, because it is hard to believe in New York City - only around 3% of Manhattan is made up of evangelical Christians, although it is closer to 8-9% in the other boroughs - they affirm doubt. They acknowledge the force of objections to Christianity, and encourage people simply for being in the city and remaining Christian, because they recognise how hard it is. The thing that struck me on this point was that evangelical Christianity is probably no harder in Manhattan than it is in the UK, yet our attitude - mine, at least - is not sufficiently coloured by the difficulty of faith, and the consequent affirmation of doubt. For Redeemer, acknowledging doubt, both within Christians (of Scripture) and unbelievers (of their atheism or whatever), forms a central part of their approach.

4. Collin Hansen looks surprisingly like Sean Astin, and John Starke looks ten years younger than he is.

5. Diversity in New York is noticeably different to diversity in London. There are churches in London which are recognised as enormously diverse, and yet only really have black and white people. In New York, while the African American community is obviously large, there is also a very large Asian American population (which means, in American terminology, Chinese, Korean and Japanese rather than Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi), as well as large numbers of Jews and Italian Americans, among others. That makes representing diversity in church leadership arguably even more challenging than it is here (and the event I was speaking at did this well, as the list of names above shows, with speakers from African, Asian, European and white American backgrounds).

6. In New York terms, parts of Brooklyn (most notably Williamsburg) are regarded as more hip and fashionable than Manhattan; I had read this in the travel guides and heard it from locals, and it was borne out by the claim of one coffee shop owner in Williamsburg that everyone on his street charged more than their partner shops in Manhattan. Yet to me, Williamsburg was just a smaller and less interesting version of the Brighton lanes. (Maybe that’s the real reason why the Newfrontiers church plant in the city, starting next year, is no longer going to be in Williamsburg.) In other words: Sussex is cooler than New York City. You heard it here first.

7. There are actually very few large churches in Manhattan. I asked John Starke, who leads Apostles Church (which is now just under 1000 people across four congregations), how many churches were bigger than theirs, and he said that although the outer boroughs had a few larger churches (like Jim Cymbala’s Brooklyn Tabernacle), there was very little of scale in Manhattan. Jon Tyson’s Trinity Grace gather around 2000, and there’s Redeemer, the Times Square church (of Cross and the Switchblade fame) and Hillsong, but that’s it for churches 1000+. As he concluded, he remarked that for Manhattan to have the same percentage of evangelicals as the other boroughs, it would need another 400 new churches. Gulp.

8. On a related point, although the Christian world has mostly heard of Tim Keller and Redeemer, they are tiny in the city. (One of their assistant pastors said that Dimas Salaberrios, an Ethiopian pastor from the Bronx who spoke at the conference, is more well known in the city itself than Keller, even though most Christians outside the city have never heard of him.) A church of six thousand in eight million is a drop in the ocean. But another pastor mentioned the disproportionate influence they have had, simply by demystifying and detoxifying the city for evangelicals. “If they weren’t there, we could never do what we’re doing,” he said. That, for them, must be extremely rewarding, and bears out Keller’s point in Center Church that their goal is to create a gospel movement, not just a church.

9. This isn’t really a New York thing, but anyway: while I was there, I had a fascinating discussion with a prominent evangelical writer. He said, slightly cynically but I suspect accurately: if you’re wondering why American Christianity is so polarised, and cannot figure out why so much online ink is spilled attacking other believers, then follow the money trail. In the UK, nobody makes any money from attacking other groups of Christians, because there isn’t a large enough market for it. In the US, however, plenty of blog advertising revenue, conference keynote invitations and book deals can flow from being the go-to person for attacking a particular view, whereas speaking with nuance on a variety of topics doesn’t generate much income. Let the reader understand.

10. Overall, New York seems both incredibly exciting and incredibly difficult as a place to live, and to plant and lead churches. The energy, creativity and diversity of the city are unparalleled, but the city is less Christian than the rest of the nation (in contrast to London, which is more Christian than the rest of the UK), and the pressures on price and space are even more intense in Manhattan than they are in other global cities. The fact that Manhattan is a separate island makes a big difference here: in London, you can lead a church in the West End, live in Brixton and have your offices in Fulham – and some previous contributors to this blog do – but in New York the equivalent is virtually impossible, because it would mean living, working and leading on three different islands. I’ve just mentioned the six-person family in a two-bedroom flat, and church premises are just as extortionate: many churches share their buildings with (at least) one other congregation, and the one recent building purchase I heard about cost $50 million. (By way of comparison, Kings Church London just opened their newly refurbished building in Lee, which used to be a school, and it cost them around £6 million.) All of which makes church planting here spiritually demanding, financially challenging and emotionally draining, but also exhilarating and rewarding.

And if that all sounds like your cup of tea (or cawfee), and you’re linked in with Newfrontiers (or you’d like to be), then maybe get in touch with Seth Hoffman, who is leading the plant into Brooklyn in 2015. Their current website is here.

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