New York City is one of my favorite places in the world. The energy never stops. The growth is amazing—the city will add another million residents by 2040. Ten million immigrants came through Ellis Island before it was closed in 1954; today 100 million Americans, nearly one in three of us, trace our descent to one of them. I love visiting the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and Central Park.
Yet the immorality of the city is as obvious as its vitality. When my wife and I came out of a NYC restaurant recently we were confronted by a group of actors in cartoon costumes asking for money; one of them was a woman wearing body paint and nothing else. We had to divert our eyes from men and women in underwear on street corners. We attended the most family-friendly Broadway play we could find, but the obscenities that riddled its dialogue were shocking. The world in all its beauty and tragedy is on display in New York City.
How appropriate, then, that God would consistently birth great spiritual movements in this metropolis.
Awakenings and New York City
The First Great Awakening (began 1734-35) had its beginnings in the prayers and preaching of Theodore Frelinghuysen in nearby New Jersey. Jonathan Edwards, typically considered the great theologian of the Great Awakening, preached in New York City from 1722 to 1723 and then began the pastoral ministry in nearby Massachusetts that helped spark the Awakening. George Whitefield, the great preacher of the Great Awakening, preached often in New York City as part of his evangelistic campaigns throughout New England. On one occasion, more than 8,000 in the city heard him preach (the entire population numbered 8,624 at this point).
The Second Great Awakening (began 1794) resulted from a prayer movement initiated by Isaac Backus, a New England Baptist minister and convert from the First Great Awakening. It touched churches across New York City and New England, leading thousands to faith in Christ and sparking the Modern Missions Movement. Charles Finney, pastor of Chatham Street Chapel in New York City, later became the best-known leader of the revival.
The Third Great Awakening (began 1858) started in Manhattan. A Presbyterian businessman named Jeremiah Lamphier called for a prayer meeting in his church, Old North Dutch Church on Fulton Street (thus the awakening is often called the Fulton Street Revival). Six came to the first noon meeting. The next week there were 14, then 23, then they began meeting daily. The meeting grew into thousands and swept across the country.
People began to be converted, ten thousand a week in New York City alone. Prayer meetings were being held every hour of the day and night in the city. The movement spread across New England and across the frontier. Out of a nation of 30 million, more than a million came to Christ in one year. The movement spread to Scotland, Wales, England, South Africa, South India, and across the world.
The Fourth Great Awakening (1904-5) began in Wales but spread quickly to New York City and across New England and America. The movement touched Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, Australia, Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile as well.
In 1957, on the centennial of the Fulton Street Revival, evangelist Billy Graham came to Madison Square Garden for the New York Crusade. It began on May 15 and continued for an unprecedented 16 weeks. 2,397,400 people attended, and 61,148 made decisions for Christ. Note the historic pattern: every 50 years or so, God seems to do something dramatic in New York City.
Is it happening again?
God’s movement in New York City today
The World Christian Encyclopedia reports that the largest evangelistic advance in Christian history is happening right now around the world. Populations in South Korea and Brazil will soon be one-third to one-half evangelical Christian. More than a million Cubans have come to Christ in the last 10 years. More Muslims have made Christ their Lord in the last 15 years than the preceding 15 centuries, many after seeing dreams and visions of Jesus.
Now we’re beginning to see such a movement in New York City. The Barna Group reports that religious life in the city is growing in remarkable ways. In part the result of 9/11, church attendance has escalated from 31 percent in 2000 to 46 percent today. Bible reading has risen from 29 to 35 percent; adults with an “active faith” have increased from 17 to 24 percent.
Beyond the surveys, there is a clear upsurge of spiritual activity in the larger culture. The president of King’s College in New York City says “there is a very special moment of spiritual renaissance happening in New York City right now.” New York Fellowship began in 1984, uniting businessmen to pray for their city. Concerts of Prayer began in 1988 and has since gathered 2,000 congregations and more than 250,000 believers in times of prayer for awakening in their culture.
The city is now home to some of the most significant congregations in America. Brooklyn Tabernacle is known for its award-winning choir and bestselling author and pastor, but its Tuesday night prayer meeting may be its most significant Kingdom impact. Redeemer Presbyterian Church is led by Tim Keller, considered by many to be a modern-day C. S. Lewis. Journey, Trinity Grace, and Hillsong NYC are just some of the more recent churches that have seen remarkable growth and cultural impact. Ministries like Q Ideas, founded by Gabe Lyons, are helping Christians connect with their culture more effectively than ever. Studies indicate that the evangelical population on Manhattan has tripled over the last 20 years.
Movement Day is one strategy for encouraging this move of God’s Spirit. It was my privilege to attend the fifth annual Movement Day on October 23, 2014. I joined leaders from 360 cities and five continents in a day of worship, intercession, and encouragement.
The day before, the Ten City Covenant Meeting celebrated what God is doing in cities from Atlanta to Seattle. The day after, the Global Marketplace Leader Summit gathered 140 marketplace leaders for interaction with peers from across the U.S. and Canada. The common denominator in every meeting I attended was urgency and enthusiasm. We all believe God is at work in New York City and in our culture, and want to join him while we can.
Joining the movement of God
Mac Pier is founder and CEO of the New York City Leadership Center, the catalytic organization behind Movement Day and its related events. In his Consequential Leadership, Dr. Pier articulates this worldview:
- Cities shape culture.
- Gospel movements change cities.
- Catalytic leaders launch movements.
- Mentors and catalytic events shape leaders.
As the Spirit leads more and more Christians to birth events and mentoring relationships that shape leaders, these leaders will continue to launch gospel movements that change their cities and thus their culture.
All that God has done, he can still do. And what he has done before in New York City, he seems to be doing again.
For 13 years, bestselling author Eric Metaxas has convened Socrates in the City, leading thousands of New Yorkers to discuss “the bigger questions in life.” Twenty years ago, he knew nearly every born again believer in Manhattan. “It was like a spiritual ghost town,” he recalls.
“Now, there are so many churches in town, I don’t know the names of all of them. I know that the Lord is in all of this,” he says. “I am convinced we are on the verge of some kind of faith renaissance in New York City that will blow a lot of minds.” He adds, “If we could see change in places like New York and Los Angeles, we could see changes across the whole country.”
Is this God’s heart for our culture? Is it yours?