The Church is Bigger Than We Can See
A few years ago, two Christian leaders from the Americas travelled to New York City, galvanizing civic leadership, drawing public attention, and gathering scores of the faithful.
The first was Luis Palau, a global evangelical evangelist. For twelve months, Palau and his team held events around the city, drawing together scores of churches, especially Spanish‐speaking evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The vision was not a crusade but a festival of "good news for the city." To close Palau's "festival" in the city, thousands filled Central Park, hearing a message of evangelistic hope and praising God.
Even if we believe in the visible church, something in our theology does not make it easy for us to see and appreciate what God is doing outside our experience of church.
The second visitor was a bishop from the slums of Buenos Aires, or as he is now more widely known, Pope Francis. When Pope Francis came to New York, he focused on what he saw as the heart of the city—the immigrant communities and parishes. And he closed his time in the city with a service at Madison Square Garden, delivering a homily on Christ's love for the city.
Paired together, the visits of Luis Palau and Pope Francis open us to see something of what God is doing in the city, of Christ's presence in Latino Catholic parishes filled with newer New Yorkers, and in corner storefronts bursting forth in Pentecostal song and praise to God.
One of the gifts of the city is that, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, it gives us an opportunity to see what God is doing in the world through diverse forms and expression of church. Through global immigration and the growth of the gospel in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Christian faith increasingly represents a far greater presence in New York and other cities. Whether Toronto or Grand Rapids, London or Los Angeles, there is more than perhaps we expect to see.
But why is it that we are so often unable to see how God is alive in our city? It is understandable that because we are finite human beings, we can't know all that is going on around us. Where we live, work, socialize, go to school, and worship can limit our view. Perhaps even if we believe in the visible church, something in our theology does not make it easy for us to see and appreciate what God is doing outside our local congregations. Or it could be that our tacit sociologies—the implicit links we make in our thinking between religion, church, and society—constrain the importance we ascribe to churches across a diversity of neighbourhoods.
In Acts 18, the apostle Paul faced a similar problem in Corinth. Discouraged in his ministry, he could only see what was directly in front of him, within the immediate range of his ministry. But God reminded him that God has many more people in the city that even Paul did not know about. The church is bigger than Paul could see; but once he saw its breadth, God would use this vision to transform his ministry.
A Moveable Feast
About a decade ago, the remarkable documentary photographer Camilo José Vergara published How the Other Half Worships. Through his work in cities like Philadelphia, New York, Gary, Detroit, and Los Angeles, he came to see the richness, complexity, public life, and lived theology of churches on the urban margins. It took Vergara years of work and attentiveness to the urban landscape, but How the Other Half Worships is a profound meditation on what it means to walk with God in the city.
How can we come to see what God sees in our city? How can we see the ways that the body of Christ in all its diversity walks with God?
Breaking through to a new way of seeing requires the Holy Spirit, but the voice of God also comes through the practices, habits, and patterns of ministry. At City Seminary of New York, one way we have been able to learn to see the new ecclesial reality of our city is through a practice called "pray and break bread," or PBB.
Involving our whole bodies and all of our senses, PBB is an intentional way we move about the city and come to understand and grow in God's call to our community. The common elements of each PBB—meeting together in a community or neighbourhood, researching background information about the area, listening to people from the neighbourhood share about where they work or live, reading Scripture together, walking in small groups and praying as we go, and then gathering at the end for a shared local meal— have been transformational. They have not only led us to inhabit and engage the city as Christians in ways we could have never anticipated but also to see the church in a concrete and diverse reality.
Though PBB, we are able experience the richness of Christ's body and to see where God is already present. Whatever style we use to pray, whether silent, conversational, or vocally charismatic, the important thing is that we are physically out there in the community— present to the neighbourhood and people—in order to pray concretely for what God is doing and what God will do to bring shalom to this community and city.
I (Maria) grew up attending Oversea Chinese Mission (OCM), an immigrant Chinese church founded in the 1960s in Manhattan's Chinatown. When I first arrived in the United States from the United Kingdom in the early 1980s as a five‐year‐old, my parents decided that we would make the weekly one‐hour commute from Long Island to OCM. They brought with them their faith from Hong Kong, and ministry from London, reaching out with cassette tapes and radio broadcasts to garment factory, restaurant workers, and the elderly, who could not attend church on Sundays.
My parents were part of a generation of missional Christians from East and Southeast Asia who were connected to their countries of origin, New York City, and overseas Chinese communities around the world. While they are now back in Asia continuing their ministry through radio and Internet broadcast, their peers here continue their work, attending to the newer influx of Asian immigrants from other parts of China, and wrestle with the questions of raising up the next generation of leaders.
Similarly, in other communities such as those of Eddie and Esmeralda in the Bronx, who have started a house fellowship, ways of doing church are evolving as generations engage in trying to understand spiritual formation and ministry for today. With a great heart for Christ, they do so in church, work, and everyday life, especially meeting young people where they are. It's part of the everyday way they live their faith.
For me (Mark), as I wrote in Word Made Global, I began to learn about the church in the city in 1998 through African immigration to the city, beginning with the strong presence of Senegalese in our Harlem neighbourhood. I soon learned about other dimensions of recent immigration, churches with ties to Africa present across not only Manhattan but also the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens.
The crucial component for my learning was the years I spent worshipping in churches with names like the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Christ Apostolic W.O.S.E.M., and Church of Lord Aladura. Though these years in new African churches in the city, I learned about Christianity afresh in all of its riches and many gifts. From mission and church planting, to prayer and fasting, to a vision of Christ and humanity, I was deeply changed. I was also able to see their impact on neighbourhoods across more than one generation.
God Belongs In My City
In all these experiences and stories we have shared, by being close to the ground of church life in the city, we are continually learning about the city, its dynamism, messiness, and complexity, which turn out to be keys to Christian discipleship and growth.
Returning to the story of Luis Palau and Pope Francis that we began with, we are reminded of another witness to Christian faith in the city.
Not many people know the name of the Irish priest Father Duffy, but millions of people pass by him every day. Ignored or not, he stands tall, day after day, through sun and rain, wind and snow, Bible in hand and braced by a Celtic cross, watching over a triangle of blocks in Times Square.
Actually, he is a larger‐than‐life statue of Father Duffy, a New York priest and military chaplain who died in 1932. He looks out over Times Square from the block where tickets for Broadway shows can be purchased.
We were reminded of Fr. Duffy's role on a recent day in October. Nearly a thousand Pentecostal youth and youth ministers from hundreds of Latino and black churches nestled in the neighbourhoods of New York have come to gather around him.
Most are wearing T‐shirts and hoodies that proclaim "God Belongs in My City," and they have walked across the city to get here. But they have not just been walking or longboarding across the streets of Manhattan to get here, but also praying, singing, blowing trumpets, laughing, texting, tweeting, and posting photos on Instagram and Facebook. It is a day of festive, joyful life.
Having now filled the blocks around Father Duffy to the brim, the young people of God Belongs in My City kneel down, lift their arms to God, and pray for New York's schools and students, mayor and police, the city's safety, and for the flourishing of all areas of life.
And then with cheers and shouts for the Lord, they disperse to the subways and buses of the city. They are not tourists, and they are not leaving the city. It is their city, and God is part of their neighbourhood. And they are the future of the city—its teachers, social workers, police, educators, accountants, bankers, pastors, youth workers, and public leaders.
At the crossroads of the world—young Pentecostal believers who sing and pray in Spanish next to a seasoned Irish priest. A most interesting future God has in store for the city!