Movement Day calls on Christians to leave the church walls

The good news: more people in church and lower crime rates

New York City, the Big Apple, is ripening with a gospel movement that is accelerating the growth of churches and Christian communities.

In 1989, less than one per cent of New Yorkers living in centre-city Manhattan attended evangelical churches, according to the City to City church planting network.

On a typical New York City day in that same year, there would be reports of nine rapes, five murders, 255 robberies and 194 aggravated assaults.

That’s when well-known pastor and theologian Tim Keller moved to New York City in 1989 to be church planters for what eventually became Redeemer Presbyterian Church, holding a first worship service in April 1989 that only attracted 90 people, many of whom were out-of-town well-wishers, in a space rented from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

It’s also when several hundred pastors started to meet to pray for a gospel movement in the city. Now, the crime rate is down to 1950s levels.

Church attendance in center-city Manhattan has boomed to five per cent of the population, with a significant increase during the past five years, according to Keller, who became the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in June 1991. Keller held this position until July 2017, when he made a well-publicised pivot out of his role as senior pastor of Redeemer – a pivot planned and communicated to the congregation as early as 1998 by way of casting vision for a future where Redeemer would become a family of churches and not one mega church.

In July 2017, Redeemer Presbyterian Church successfully become three independent, collegial congregations, each with its own pastor. Two of those congregations have since launched additional church plants. Keller now works full-time through Redeemer City to City to teach and train the next generation of leaders and pastors who will accelerate a movement of church planting and gospel renewal for the good of global cities.

In previous years, Keller has spoken at Movement Day, which began in 2010 as a one-day conference hosted by the New York City Leadership Center that gathered influential Christian leaders from around the US to educate, inspire and celebrate gospel movements. Not only pastors but business people, politicians, young people, ethnic leaders came and shared stories of what they were doing around the gospel and how they were trying to bring blessing to their city outside of church walls.

The conference was a resounding success. Since its inception, the NYCLC has hosted more than 8000 leaders.

Movement Day has also been successfully replicated elsewhere in the US and South Africa. Gospel movements have also emerged in more than a dozen cities across the globe including Sydney and Perth.

According to the Movement Day team, about 12 million people move into cities every month around the world. In light of such population growth, Movement Day seeks to equip Christians to help bring gospel change to cities.

One of the encouraging stories told at a recent Movement Day gathering of leaders from 160 cities in Washington DC was about Salford, a borough of Greater Manchester in the UK.

“The city was such a mess, they had to do something about it.” – Ian Shelton

Salford has undergone a remarkable transformation. Fifteen years ago, the biggest church in Salford had no more than 100 people, despite the population being about one quarter of a million. Most churches had fewer than 30. Crime was out of control in Salford, unemployment was rife because of the closure of the docklands and educational and health standards were low.

So instead of criticising and competing against each other, the pastors of the city decided to exchange being right for unity: they got together and prayed for a blessing on the city.

“The city was such a mess, they had to do something about it,” says Toowoomba pastor Ian Shelton, the Movement Day (MD) Hub Leader for the Pacific region and chair of the MD Australia committee, who heard the story in Washington.

“There was a lot of wasteland around the dock because the docks closed because the container ships couldn’t get up the canal and all the factories closed. So, a Catholic layman [John Whittaker] bought about a mile of these docks and converted them into an amazing media city.

“There’s one church now has grown to 3000, other churches are over 500, the crime rate has gone right down, unemployment has been dealt with significantly and the city, which had a derelict dock area, has now become one of the four or five major media cities of the world.”

The BBC moved its production centre to MediaCityUK in Salford Quays from 2011.

“They feel like God has come into the scene for them.” – Ian Shelton

Closer to home, an economic miracle is taking place in Whyalla in South Australia, where the steel mills were in danger of closing a few years ago. Now Indian billionaire Sanjeev Gupta is reviving the steelworks this year as part of a $1.3 billion investment in renewable energy projects in the state.

“When it looked like the mills were going to go belly up, all the Christian leaders and the churches there were praying day in and day out and they feel like God has come into the scene for them,” says Shelton.

“As Christians come out of their church walls … lots of things start to change in the city life.” – Ian Shelton

While it is early days for MD in Australia, Shelton says there are many stories across the country where churches have started praying together in community and seeing blessing come into their city.

“One of the things that people are finding is that as Christians come out of their church walls and get into the public square and start praying, then lots of things start to change in the city life, in politics and economics.”

As pastor of Toowoomba City Church since 1974, Shelton has fostered unity among the city’s pastors for 20 years by regularly meeting to pray. But he sees something extra in this global movement.

“In the past it’s been around unity in prayer; now it’s around gospel for the city. So it’s focused more missionally rather than just around the church.”

In 2016, the first Movement Day Global Cities was held in New York with about 3000 people from about 400 cities and 95 nations.

Australia’s first national Movement Day, held in May last year in Sydney, brought together hundreds of Christian leaders from different denominational, ethnic, geographical, and socio-economic sectors around Australia to share stories of what God is doing.

Perth will be holding the first city Movement Day event on May 3-4, while the second national MD will be in Sydney on May 8-9, with speakers from the UK and US as well as Australia.

“The idea is for leaders across the city, not just pastors but from all the spheres, to get together.” – Ian Shelton

“The head of the National Council of Churches, Bishop Philip Huggins, is going to come and he’s inviting heads of churches to come to have a special discussion on grassroots unity in the church, put out an invitation to all the heads of churches of the NCC,” says Shelton.

“We’re also talking to other networks like business networks and inviting them to come as well but also encourage them to support grassroots unity and mission. The idea is for leaders across the city, not just pastors but from all the spheres, to get together and invite people who are active in the gospel base not just traditional evangelism – it could be helping the poor or working with politicians or whatever it is – but to tell their stories and, in telling their stories, cross-pollinating together and then learning how to collaborate and accelerate what God’s doing in your city.

“What’s happening now is, it’s beginning on all the continents, really; probably in the next few years there’ll be hundreds of them, so the idea is a showcase for the gospel in the city for a day or two days –  whatever you want – so it’s an expression of what’s happening locally. It’s not a prescriptive New York thing, but the idea is you share together across all church lines and cultural, gender lines, age lines, what God’s doing.

“Wellington, New Zealand, is going to do a national one. And then many other places are talking about it. Port Moresby is hoping to have one and so it’s kind of growing. Lots of cities are now starting to talk about it because the church needs to unify and to unify around the gospel for good news for our cities.”

Updated to clarify NY church stats.