How Evangelicals are Retaking Secular Boston

Bible study at a conference for Evangelical Covenant Church, a network of 800 churches. (Cathy Stanley-Erickson)
Bible study at a conference for Evangelical Covenant Church, a network of 800 churches. (Cathy Stanley-Erickson)

“Church planting” uses public schools to reduce rent and retake secular Boston

The business of evangelism is old, but its methods are constantly changing. In recent years, evangelism in America has undergone a little-noticed but profound change in its organization, tactics, and culture. There is no better illustration of the new way of doing business than the appearance of evangelical activists in Boston, of all places.

Boston isn’t a likely candidate for missionary activity, but evangelicals have long dreamed of capturing the birthplace of the American Revolution. Only in the past few years have they found an efficient means to launch their long hoped-for revival.

They call it “church planting.” Missionary preachers create and house new congregations, often in inexpensive or state-subsidized locales. Sometimes the church planters establish their own worship services at existing yet underused church buildings. Other times, they rent out or borrow space in community centers, movie theaters, hotels, and other facilities. One relatively new tool of the church planting strategy is the public school system. In public schools across the country, the new evangelists have discovered facilities that can be made available to churches at relatively low or no cost—except, presumably, to local taxpayers. In some places, including New York City, the churches have not paid any rent at all.

Church planting is happening across the country, and it is organized on a national scale. Its presence in Boston is evidence of its efficiency even in the toughest markets. It has been enabled by pivotal shifts in the interpretation of constitutional law. And it is driven by a subtle yet profound transformation in evangelical culture in America—a transformation in both the religion itself and in its organizations forms.

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There is of course nothing new about evangelists arriving in Boston in hopes of sparking a religious revival. In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, too, arrived with high hopes of saving the city from its freethinking ways. With its reputation for progressive thought, its very large Irish Catholic population, its long history of liberal forms of Christianity such as the United Church of Christ and Universalist Unitarianism, and its distinctly secular intellectual culture, Boston has always presented a challenge for gospel ministers. The city has ranked as one of the least “Bible-minded” in America according to The American Bible Society and Barna Group, and it is among the bottom ten in a Gallup poll about the religiosity of urban populations. But there is a new edge to the evangelical attitude toward the city. Boston isn’t just a tough ground to hoe; to some, it’s enemy territory.

At a Sunday service in February 2015, evangelical celebrity Lou Engle, whose international ministry planted the Justice House of Prayer in Cambridge, took to the podium, exhorting his followers to use the scriptures as a “battering ram.” “Boston is the Jericho of America,” he said. “When intellectualism falls out of Boston, the whole nation will be swept into revival,” he added enthusiastically.

Even pastors who are more measured with their words may describe the city as if it were an alien place. In September 2012, just prior to moving to Boston to plant a church, Pastor Al Abdulla of the California-based Reality Church noted Boston’s “massive cultural influence” and its reputation as “the cradle of Modern America,” before taking a disapproving tone. “But today only two percent of the area attends an evangelical church,” he stated. “Statistically speaking, there’re more Christians per capita in India than there are in Boston.”

Decrying Boston as a “haven for Unitarianism, the birthplace of Christian Science, and Transcendentalism,” Abdulla quoted President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler:

New England is losing the remnants of its Christian memory. We need a new generation of Christians who will bring Gospel anew to New England. New England was the cradle of Colonial America. Is it now the cradle of America’s secular future? . . . We’re praying for another great awakening in the New England area, for a new fire to sweep through.

The symbolic importance of Boston cannot be overstated. In October 2014, the evangelical organization The Gospel Coalition held a Boston conference to bring together evangelical leaders from around the country. In an interview released before the conference, “Seeking Gospel Renewal in Boston and Beyond: Regional Report from New England,”one pastor of a local church plant explained:

In terms of cultural idols, people who come to Boston are often driven with high aspirations . . . They don’t come to an elite school or hospital to be mediocre. With this drive for high achievement comes a strong emphasis on knowledge and intelligence. In New York City, the number one cultural idol may be money. In Washington D.C., it may be power, and in Los Angeles, it may be sex. But in Boston, the number one cultural idol is knowledge. We are a modern-day Athens.

This militant tone reflects a shift in the stance of the leadership of the evangelical movement. While embracing many of the tools of modernity such as social media, rock bands, and hip graphics, they have become more aggressive in their outreach, taking hard-right positions on culture-war issues such as same-sex marriage, reproductive freedom, and prayer in public schools.

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SOURCE: Boston Review
Katherine Stewart

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