The astonishing fact of our time is that the majority of the world’s six billion people now live and work in sizeable cities. Moreover, we live at the time of the greatest migration in human history. The southern hemisphere is moving north, East is coming West, and everyone is coming to New York! I remember well the day several years ago when, sitting in Manhattan, I read a New York Times report that 133 nations had been found living together in one Queens zip code. – Ray Bakke1
Of the more than eight million people who speak more than 170 languages and hail from more than one hundred countries, New Yorkers can be divided roughly into three types: native New Yorkers give the region its solidity; commuters give New York its velocity; and immigrants give New York its dreams. This two-part article will document the partial realization of the 4,000-year-old dream given to Abraham on a starry night in the Middle East—that all the nations would be blessed. All the nations now reside in the neighborhoods of Greater New York.
God promised to bless the nations through Abraham and, as Abraham’s spiritual descendants, God is blessing the nations through modern-day believers. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 uses what I believe are the two most important words in the Bible uttered by God—“I will”:
I will make your name great. (v. 1)
I will give you a land. (v. 2)
I will bless all the peoples of the earth through you. (v. 3)
Modern-day New York City is at an historical crossroads between God’s promise to Abraham and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan: the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21. The final metaphor used in the Bible to describe God’s people is a city—we all have an urban future.
For those of us who are serious about biblical and world history, we need to seriously ponder the extraordinary facts about Greater New York at the dawn of the twenty-first century. New York City:
- is the largest Jewish city in the world
- is one of the largest Muslim cities outside the Muslim world
- contains one of the communities (Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn) with the highest density of Africans of any community in the world
- contains the largest enclave of immigrants in the Western world in Chinatown (Manhattan and Flushing, Queens)
- is nearly as large as Chicago and Los Angeles combined
- is (Metropolitian New York, that is) larger than Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boston, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Miami, and Las Vegas combined
- is one of the most international cities in human history when considering population and density
- has one of the most international churches in human history; representatives from every continent on earth worship in its borders
The events of 11 September 2001 (9/11) drew New York City into even sharper focus. In his book Perspectives on the World Christian Movement,2 Ralph Winter suggests that every four hundred years there is a global shaping event that radically changes the trajectory of the Church. Beginning with the crucifixion (A.D. 33), followed by the invasion of the Barbarians and the burning of Rome (A.D. 410), the invasion of the Vikings and capturing Dublin (A.D. 834), the Crusades (A.D. 1095–1291), and the missionary work of Hudson Taylor to the Inland of China (1853) and William Carey to the Indian coast (1793), each 400-year epoch represents the geographic progression of the gospel.
Winter surmises that with the exception of the Crusades, God took what was meant for evil and turned it into good by growing the Church during each 400-year period.
On 9/11, under the azure blue sky, nineteen terrorists forever changed the way we think about our city, our nation, and the world. The extremist Muslim leadership that sent them on their mission understood something that few leaders, churches, agencies, and denominations have understood—New York City represents a spiritual battleground on a global and cosmic scale.
Could 9/11 be that 400-year turning point?
The Strategic Nature of New York City
A 1999 PBS documentary on New York City described it as the most influential city in human history. Saskia Sassen of Princeton asks her readers to imagine a gigantic three-legged stool, a colossus of New York, London, and Tokyo, which controls huge and growing proportions of the world’s resources. Of the three, Sassen states that New York is the leading global city on the planet.
Like Tokyo and London, New York is a financial capital; like Toronto it is an international capital; like Washington, D.C., it is a power capital; like Paris it is a cultural capital; and like Los Angeles it is a media capital. Yet no other city in human history has been all of these things simultaneously. Five of the six most powerful media outlets in the world are in Midtown Manhattan: NBC, CBS, ABC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
In a 14-year period, the number of unchurched people in the United States has doubled, according to Jim Mellado, president of the Willow Creek Association. The spiritual and cultural influence of the Church will largely hinge on our abilities to lead, unite, pray, think, and reach out in contextually sensitive ways. There has never been a more opportune or sober moment to become countercultural in our thinking. Through our discipleship, we must work to reverse the culture’s values that led so many in the past half century to leave places of influence in exchange for a big backyard and a luxury car in the garage.
The New Urban Pentecost: Twenty Years of Praying
“They were all together in one place.” – Acts 2:1
My wife Marya and I were lying in bed one November evening in 1988 when we heard what sounded like a firecracker in our Flushing, Queens, neighborhood. When our housemate Maureen came home, she told us a murder had just occurred. A Chinese couple was showing their son his wedding gift (a condominium on a nearby street) when the mother was shot and killed after a bungled, drug-related robbery attempt.
Ten days after the murder, Marya drove home from her night shift at the hospital, and as she pulled into the driveway, her eyes met the eyes of a man who fit the description of the murderer. During that same time we received the news that Marya was pregnant with our third child; we already had a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. This question gnawed at us: Do we want to raise our children in this environment?
We had moved to New York City from South Dakota in 1984 to work with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Our original plan was to be in New York for two years and then return to India. We had spent the summer of 1983 in Bihar, India, with Operation Mobilization, and lived for ten weeks in a state the size of Nebraska but with a population of 100 million. In much of Bihar the ratio of Muslims and Hindus to Christians is 100,000 to 1.
Every Friday in India we prayed three to nine hours. This life-changing experience converted me to the priority of extended united prayer. In 1984, we sold our possessions and moved to New York City; Marya was pregnant and we had secured only temporary housing. Our initial plan was to stay in New York City until 1986, but it soon became obvious to us living in Flushing, Queens, that God had brought the whole world to New York City and, in particular, our neighborhood. It was no longer necessary to travel to distant parts of the world to minister among other nationalities.
We have lived for twenty years in a neighborhood with one hundred language groups. For a season, people spoke seven languages on our side of the street alone—Russian, Greek, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Afghani, and English. Our neighborhood is also one of, if not the most, religiously plural neighborhoods in the world.
When we take a right out of our front door and travel west on Beech Avenue, within four blocks we pass a house mosque (people primarily from India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), a Russian Orthodox Church, a traditional Buddhist temple, and a Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Confucian temple. Further down on Parsons Boulevard is Church of St. Mary’s Nativity (Roman Catholic). When we walk from Parsons Boulevard to Bowne Street on Ash Street, we pass the Korean American Presbyterian Church, one of the largest Korean churches in North America and one of three hundred Korean churches in northern Queens.
Traveling south on Bowne Street, we pass a Jewish center. Then we pass the Boon Chinese Church—the largest Chinese church on the East Coast of the United States. On the next block is the first Hindu temple in North America, serving the twenty thousand Hindus in the area. A number of apartments have been built around the temple to form a tightly knit Hindu community in the neighborhood.
Two blocks over, near the intersection of Kissena Boulevard and Geranium Avenue, a mosque that cost $3.2 million to build and was funded by two hundred families stands tall. The story of the mosque’s construction was written up in the New York Times architectural review. A few blocks away, the Freedman’s Synagogue stands on the corner of Sanford Avenue and Kissena.
Interestingly, above the doorframe of the synagogue is the verse from Isaiah 56:7: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.” As one can see, within a half-mile radius of our home, every major world religion is represented.
Our home church in New York City, First Baptist Church of Flushing, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2007. It is a multi-congregational model with five services—in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish on Sunday. It has an ESL (English as a Second Language) and community program reaching out to the immigrants who call the Flushing neighborhood home.
A History and Theology of Urban Prayer
The New Testament is essentially the story of two cities. It is the story of Jesus going to die in Jerusalem, the religious capital of the world. It is also the story of Paul going to die in Rome, the political capital of the world. The city-centric nature of these men’s missions is not accidental. Jerusalem has dominated the urban landscape of the Bible and the modern day since David captured the city in 2 Samuel 5. For three thousand years Jerusalem has been and remains the religious capital of the world. Psalm 48:2 describes Jerusalem as “the joy of the whole earth,” “the city of the Great King.” Isaiah 62:6–7 commands God’s people to give God no rest until he makes Jerusalem a praise in the whole earth.
In the opening chapter of Acts, Jesus issues only one command in verses 1–14. The command is simply to wait. As the disciples were waiting, they were praying, repenting, and reconciling with one another. Simultaneously, God was bringing the fifteen nations into Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. That is the biblical and historical pattern—God’s people pray in unity and God choreographs the nations into the neighborhoods.
As the Book of Acts provides the model of urban prayer, Isaiah provides the content of our prayer. In his final section (chaps. 55–66), Isaiah paints a picture of Jesus as the anointed conqueror. He provides the following snapshots that profoundly resonate with the realities of our urban populations: build houses of prayer, rebuild broken city walls, bring good news to the poor, and give God no rest—pray continually.
Reconciliation. In Isaiah 56, scripture commands us to make God’s house a “house of prayer for all nations.” It speaks to the power and urgent necessity of reconciliation. Most of the churches in our urban centers are tribal—either by ethnicity, economic class, or denomination. Jesus quotes this passage in John 2 when he cleanses the temple of the money lenders.
The greatest barrier to spiritual impact is the enormous trust deficit between diverse Christian groups. We can only love those we know. We can only know those we trust. Here in our region, we have learned to spell love—time. There is nothing more powerful to build trust than simply to travel and spend time with people on their turf.
Reformation. Isaiah 58 commands us to rebuild the broken walls of our cities, to declare a true fast of justice. Our cities are broken in so many dimensions that we are in desperate need of reformation of society. We live in this city with the greatest disparity between rich and poor, and as the rich get richer, the poor become even more marginalized. Over 700,000 public school students perform below grade level in math and reading—we need to pray and act. Seventy percent of children of prisoners will end up in prison unless there is some type of intervention—we need to pray and act.
Reached. Isaiah 61 commands us to bring good news to the poor. This was Jesus’ inaugural address. It speaks of the need to proclaim the gospel so that it is accessible to the poorest of the poor as well as to the rich. Living in the most religiously plural city in the world, we need to pray desperately for people to be reached with the gospel.
We are not only religiously plural, but we also live in one of the most densely populated places on earth. Over twenty-one million people, representing one out of every three hundred people on the planet, live within fifty miles of Times Square. During the workweek there are 250,000 people per square mile working in Midtown Manhattan.
Revival. Isaiah 62 commands us to give God no rest. Many churches across our region have embraced this vision of revival, of an awakening to Christ in all his glory through relentless, aggressive, unrelenting prayer. Korean churches are praying at 6:00 a.m. daily. Midweek prayer services number in the hundreds of thousands across the nation. Observing the Church at prayer in New York City is like having a front-row seat to Revelation 5, where people will gather from every nation and tongue. The modern-day Church of New York City is the closest approximation to this Revelation 5 reality in human history.
1. Pier, Mac. 2002. The Power of a City at Prayer: What Happens When Churches Unite for Renewal. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press.
2. 1999. Pasadena, California, USA: William Carey Library.