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Nurturing the City of God: A Vision for Urban Ministry

For more information about Redeemer Presbyterian Church, visit www.redeemer.com.

Seek the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
—Jeremiah 29:7

Redeemer Presbyterian Church and its daughter churches are, for me, a compelling incarnation of the gospel in the midst of one of the greatest mission fields on the planet. These churches are remarkably humble about what God is doing through them—nurturing the city of God within the earthly city. They would also be the first to point out the shortcomings, challenges, and problems these congregations face. I offer this brief glimpse into their unique ministry with love and admiration for these witnesses to Jesus Christ and the work they are called to accomplish for him.

It was a bright morning in May on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A young man dressed in business casual attire stepped to a microphone in the front of the James Chapel at Union Seminary and offered a simple, heartfelt invitation to worship. The 140-plus people gathered there, many of them from different races and cultures, most of them under the age of forty, responded enthusiastically. A young woman played a chorale-based prelude on the resident Holtkamp organ. The opening hymn and the early part of the liturgy were also led from that instrument. The acoustic praise team inspired the congregation to join in worship songs from the Vineyard, Sovereign Grace Music, and the pen of Mark Altrogge. A classical guitarist played Vivaldi at the offering. Preaching was unflinchingly biblical, irresistibly relevant, and unmistakably Reformed. The community of faith called Emmanuel Presbyterian Church lived up to its name—God with us. The spirited welcome and joy in that room was contagious. For reasons specific to that day, communion was not part of the service, although the congregation is committed to weekly celebration of the sacrament. A mission-support lunch followed in the seminary commons—brown bag meals and baked goods for sale, all benefiting the missional work of this three-year-old congregation.

Upper East Side

Across town, fifty blocks south and forty-five minutes later, over 2,000 people packed the seats and aisles of the auditorium at Hunter College as the church called Redeemer Presbyterian gathered on the Upper East Side. The large vestibules were chaotic—people looking for and finding their friends and acquaintances; a cacophony of greetings, laughter, and welcome with the music of Handel (organ and trumpet) enticing people deeper into the building. This combination of classical instruments led several richly interpretive settings of classic Christian hymns before the service was finished. Like the people of Emmanuel, the Redeemer congregation was predominantly young urban professionals—a tapestry of races and cultures. But the ethos of worship was radically different. James Chapel was intimate—almost quaint. The cavernous Art Deco interior at Hunter nurtured awareness of transcendence. This was a major Christian event. People were there to hear the Word and to consider the Christian worldview. Relevant, unavoidable, biblical preaching was the clear focus of the service. After the service, worshipers flooded to an adjoining building to have a cup of coffee, engage in a talk-back session, browse the portable bookstore, place an order with the tape ministry, collect their children from nurture classes, or take part in a discipleship group themselves.

In that same auditorium six hours later, the usual evening service was supplanted by a quarterly “Open Forum,” providing a venue for sharing the gospel through artistic expression and a thoughtful, low-key presentation designed for “your most skeptical friends and neighbors.” The topic that evening was “Courage: The Impossible Dream?” The list of notables from the world of the musical theater included Ken Prymus, the artist who holds the record for the longest-running featured performance in a single role in a Broadway production. An open-mic question-and-answer session followed the presentation.

Distinctively “West Side”

Meanwhile, in yet another part of town, an evening service was drawing worshipers into the rented sanctuary of the First Baptist Church at Broadway and 79th. The jazz combo leading that service was solid, energetic, and exciting. The old “preaching palace,” more reminiscent of an off-Broadway theater than a Christian sanctuary, overflowed with different types of people—equally young and diverse, but distinctively “West Side.” Their appearance and demeanor fit well with the interactive feel of the service and the driving jazz. A quotation from John Donne set the tone for worship.

Well-crafted new settings of classic Christian texts, most of them composed and published through the Redeemer network, were masterfully interwoven with the music of Andy Park, James Ward, and Twila Paris. Communion was celebrated—celebration being the operative word. The sacrament was given the high honor and generous hospitality of a festive family meal. Prayers designed for people who chose not to commune were available in the printed order of service. Fellowship followed in the church’s social hall, where the portraits of deceased Baptist clergy stared down on this enigmatic mix of people drawn into a gospel-centered community in the midst of the city in the best tradition of the Reformed faith.

Redefining “Church” in the City

What do these four gatherings have in common? They are all part of the fabric of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA)—a church, no, a movement, that began in Manhattan in the late 1980s and is permanently redefining what it means to be “church” in the city.

Redeemer’s core values (see box) are helping it and its daughter congregations to be

  • a congregation not only for themselves but also for friends who do not believe at this point in their lives.
  • a ministry not only for themselves but also for the peace and benefit of the entire city. The goal of ministry is not just to create a good church but to build a great city.
  • not only a single congregation but also a movement of the gospel that serves existing churches and plants new ones across the entire metro area.

Redeemer now offers worship on Sunday mornings and evenings on both sides of Central Park. Emmanuel is one of thirteen churches Redeemer planted in the metro area between 1994 and 2000. In 2002 alone, fourteen additional new churches were planted, half of those in partnership with other denominations.

Seeing the church—and the movement—that defines Redeemer today, it’s difficult to remember a decade ago when a fledgling Presbyterian congregation gathered in off hours at the Church of the Advent Hope and All Souls’ Unitarian. Redeemer has always rented space. Most of its offspring do as well—unless, as in the case of the congregation planted in Harlem, the refurbishing of a building enhances on-site mission and the renewal of a neighborhood. In most settings where these congregations gather, including Hunter College, armies of volunteers arrive early and stay late to transform “secular” space into a setting for Christian worship, fellowship, and spiritual growth.

For many people, the concept, let alone the reality, of a church like Redeemer is as difficult to comprehend as New York City itself. So much goes into these congregations—small fellowship groups in neighborhoods, mid-sized events to bring larger groups of people face to face, ministries of mercy connecting volunteers with faith-based organizations throughout the city, professional affinity groups, and outreach into the arts communities all play a significant role in nurturing a radically transformed community of faith that exists to embrace and transform their city. But worship is central to it all.

Redeemer must be experienced to be appreciated. The best way to appreciate their ministry is to participate in their worship and fellowship, as I have done over the past thirteen years, whenever I am in the city.

 

Excerpt
Redeemer’s Core Values
  • The centrality of the gospel to direct every aspect of our church’s life.
  • An outward face of evangelism in every facet of our church’s ministry.
  • A love for and positive view of the city.
  • The commitment to be part of a movement, not just a single congregation.
  • A commitment to changed lives completely shaped by the gospel.
  • Community life, which is the main practical vehicle the gospel uses to change lives.
  • Church planting in every neighborhood and people group in the city.
  • Deeds of service and justice that embody the gospel of the kingdom.

What I’ve Learned from Redeemer
  • The church must go where the people are—meeting the culture with the gospel—not waiting for the people to find the church and the culture to define the gospel.
  • Worship (and worship music) style is irrelevant. Content and quality count.
  • A congregation can function without trappings of traditional structure. It cannot thrive without a solid infrastructure of prayer, proclamation, and personal commitment.
  • The gospel has power to transform any culture and any people if it is shared boldly and directly and incarnated through acts of service