Common Place   /   March 26, 2014

Faith in the City: Part I, The Evangelicals are Coming!

Andrew Sharp

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

This is the first in a series of posts from different perspectives on the role of religious communities in cities. 

Evangelicals are coming back to the city, both figuratively and literally. The big change, as they are heralding it, is that they are now focusing their energy and new ministries on America’s urban centers. Some have even moved out of the suburbs and into areas of the city where they would not have imagined themselves living just a few years ago. They have come to the city, and people have noticed. A striking example of this occured when the Luis Palau Association began sponsoring a “Season of Service” in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, garnering positive attention from a city famous for its secularism and progressive outlook. As USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker reported, churches were:

fanning out across the Portland area to feed and clothe the homeless, provide free medical and dental services, fix up local public schools, and support their low-income students with supplies, mentoring and other resources. All this with "no strings attached," [as the organizer Kevin] Palau emphasizes, meaning the service comes without the proselytizing that is often associated with Christian missionary outreach.

Krattenmaker’s piece also points out that this led to unusual coalitions, thrusting "the area's evangelicals into partnership with Sam Adams, who [the previous year had become] the first openly gay candidate elected mayor of a major American city.”

The Season of Service (now called CityServe Portland) was so well-received in Portland that the model has been replicated in Anchorage, Houston, Little Rock, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Diego; within several evangelical denominations; and even in the State of New Jersey, where the Christie administration has called on citizens to volunteer “through local groups, houses of worship and civic organizations,” calling it a "season of service."

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

Another signal of the shift toward cities among evangelicals is Movement Day.  Beginning in 2010, this has become an annual "gathering of leaders to catalyze gospel movements in their cities." At the forefront of this effort has been Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a congregation of 5,000 in New York City.  This year's Movement Day will highlight the efforts in Portland; Luis Palau, Kevin Palau (of CityServe Portland), and  Adams will all be plenary speakers.

Season of Service and Movement Day are just a couple among numerous examples that signal a shift, at least among a segment of evangelical Christianity, away from the kind of engagement with society epitomized by the Christian Right and similar movements toward the end of last century through the past decade. The significance of this new urban focus has led some, such as Joy Allmond of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to speak of the next “Great Awakening.” Jay Tolson had previously reported the same term was being used to signify something slightly different by another strand of evangelicals, but either way it seems there is a big change on the horizon that is taking place in cities.  

The evangelicals are coming. Are cities ready?

In Part II of this series, we will talk about some of the responses to this trend and the divergent views about what it may mean for cities.