Every church planter has a story and mine started in 2004, when I was managing a coffee shop in Grand Rapids. One of my regulars was a friend who had recently returned to Michigan after an 18-month stint in New York City. I had only visited New York once and enjoyed listening to his stories.
Two themes emerged: loneliness and economic disparity. In fact, I remember him saying that his experience of New York was a city of “8 million lonely people.” He found that competition and the fast pace of life made it more difficult to connect with God and others than anywhere else he’d lived. He also spoke of the incredible wealth disparity in Manhattan, in which you find so many rich people rubbing shoulders with the very poor.
I was captivated by these conversations and began to pray about one day serving Christ there, although church planting was not yet on my radar. As I continued to pray and dream, I began to see myself at the jazz clubs and museums of New York. I began to see myself training for marathons in Central Park. I began to see myself sharing the gospel with New Yorkers.
Later that year, I met my wife Lily. In God’s providence, she had many family connections in New York. An aunt and uncle have lived on West 83rd Street since 1968. She has nine cousins who live in Brooklyn or Manhattan. God used these family relationships to open doors for us in New York and to teach us much about the culture and context from the very beginning. I took these and many other answers to prayer as signs that he was calling us to this great city.
To the Penthouse and the Flophouse
As I began learning the culture of my new neighborhood I noticed that, despite the Bowery's beautiful past, it is a neighborhood that's "already, but not yet." With its rich history, the Bowery needs Jesus. The gospel has something to say to both the penthouse and the flophouse in our neighborhood.
Serving our neighbors in both word and deed has required recalibration. What I see in Jesus and other biblical figures, especially in Acts, is the power of curiosity. Jesus asked questions. He often responded to a question with a question of his own. Whether it was Nicodemus at night, the woman at the well, or countless other interactions, Jesus shares the gospel with us—not with intimidating declarations, but with gentle, probing questions.
Many times I'm tempted to know all the right answers and to back my neighbors into an intellectual corner. But in the neighborhoods that surround the Bowery, we find great diversity. Even though we’ve seen many people come to faith, I am only beginning to learn these cultures and see patterns in the spiritual questions people are asking. I've found that the Holy Spirit provokes curiosity in my neighbors when I approach them with respect and love. And as we break bread—and naan and chips and spring rolls—together, relationships are formed between those who know Christ and those who don't yet. To me, this is central to truly experiencing community in New York.
As we continue on the journey of understanding our neighborhood and culture, and learning how to best share the gospel with our neighbors, we can be apologetic for our evangelistic missteps and for giving Jesus a bad name. But we should be unapologetic about the transforming truth of the gospel.
Through our daily journey of serving and loving the longtime residents of the Bowery, we are reminded that God is calling a people to dwell in the city for the city. Instead of taking from the city and moving on when it no longer satisfies, we dwell, we persevere, we abide because God has called us here. We are dwelling in Christ for the city.