Make Way for the Metro-Evangelical

"You go to the city to reach the culture."

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 18 October 2012.

Downtown Seattle’s Daniels Recital Hall, with its soaring Beaux Arts dome, intricate woodwork and stained glass, is about to become a church again. The developer who saved it from the wrecking ball has signed a long-term lease with Mars Hill Downtown Seattle, a resolutely evangelical congregation that has been worshiping in a former nightclub since its founding in 2008. With 1,500 members, the congregation outgrew its old, less-than-ideal quarters, where for a time the congregants used exotic dancers’ cages as coat racks.

Christians in Seattle aren’t alone in wanting to reclaim the heart of their city as a place for worship. Though the American evangelical movement is often stereotyped as rural and provincial, it has actually had its greatest success in the suburbs and exurbs, where entrepreneurial pastors found cheap land and plentiful parking to build the “megachurches” of the past generation—think Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., seating capacity over 7,000.

But a new generation of church founders believes that city centers will be the beachhead of a new evangelization. While U.S. cities aren’t growing as fast as overseas metropolises like Lagos or Shanghai, their renaissance since the crime-ridden 1970s is one of the cultural headlines of the last generation, and it has been accompanied by burgeoning urban congregations. On a Sunday morning in any American city the signs of change come in literal form: placards on sidewalks and corners announcing church meetings.

The shift from “urban ministry” to “metropolitan ministry” seeks opportunities to connect the up-and-in to the down-and-out.

The growth in city-center churches is in tune with the times, summed up by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s book “The Triumph of the City.” News outlets like National Public Radio have aired numerous stories on the boom in urban studies. And my own employer, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, has embarked on a two-year series of cover stories and documentary films about the urban Christian revival called “This Is Our City.”

New York City pastor and best-selling author Timothy J. Keller helped spearhead the movement more than two decades ago. In 1989, he moved from rural Virginia to Manhattan and founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church. With several thousand in worship every week, Redeemer Presbyterian is perhaps the most celebrated city-center church story of recent years.

“You go to the city to reach the culture,” Mr. Keller tells his congregation. This, he explains, is as old as religion itself, and points to what New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks called “the first urban Christians”—the first-century churches founded in provincial cities all over the Roman world, and very quickly in Rome itself.

From a missionary standpoint, cities have always been centers of cultural activity and potential congregations. Mr. Keller’s followers see the challenge to influence the culture as a neglected calling for evangelical churches that have become too complacent on their suburban campuses. And given the pervasive secularity and competing temptations of a city like New York, if Christians can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

Growing even faster than city-center churches are immigrant churches in places like Los Angeles and Brooklyn that serve new arrivals from all over the world. And urban ministry, targeted at the physical and social needs of residents (housing, recreation space, education and the like) has been an emphasis of U.S. churches—both Protestant and Catholic alike—for generations.

That emphasis continues in the new generation. Redeemer Presbyterian’s nonprofit affiliate, Hope for New York, gave more than $1.1 million in grants to community development, counseling and youth organizations in 2011.

But city-center pastors are starting to pay as much attention to the spiritual needs, and social influence, of residents of penthouses as those in public housing. This shift from “urban ministry” to what some call “metropolitan ministry” seeks opportunities to connect the up-and-in to the down-and-out.

Mars Hill Downtown Seattle, for instance, not only offers a wide range of services to the needy, but its pastor served a term as president of the neighborhood business association.

And like other new arrivals, evangelicals are finding that the city has more to offer than just the advancement of a cause. Jon Tyson, 36, founding pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York, says the culturally strategic nature of New York was “the determining factor” that brought him there in 2005. Now, he says, “We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Our children are thriving here. We love the city.”

As these city-center congregations expand and thrive—from San Francisco to Houston to Manhattan—expect a lot more sidewalk placards to turn into permanent signs at corners like Fifth and Marion, the new home of the Mars Hill Downtown Seattle congregation.