A couple Sundays ago, I announced to my congregation that we would be moving from where we currently meet---a New York City public school---to our new meeting space. We aren't moving because we've outgrown the space where we meet, but because the city has ruled that churches can no longer meet in public schools. We will need to be out February 19.
Many of you have been praying for the many New York churches who heard back in December that they will need to find a new place to congregate. This has been a difficult challenge for many churches, since space is an expensive and limited commodity in this bustling city that needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So What Are Churches Doing Now?
Our church is one of more than 60 affected by this decision, which has provoked discussion about cultural definitions of worship and church-state relations. Churches, civic leaders, and legislators have pushed back at the local and state level. There have been demonstrations on the steps of City Hall, peaceful displays of disobedience, and "pray-in's." Pastors and city councilmen have been arrested for protesting, and Mayor Bloomberg's annual prayer breakfast was an awkward one, to say the least. Tim Keller has written in opposition to the city's decision.
Hopeful legislation has been proposed in the New York State Senate intended to overturn the city's ruling. It's likely the New York State Assembly will soon follow suit by considering a similar bill. However, none of these decisions will be made before February 19. In fact, it's likely that nothing will be decided even in the next several months. Moreover, there is much pressure from outlets such as The New York Times for Governor Cuomo to veto such legislation, even if it passes.
Despite these challenges, many churches in the city that own space have flexed their hospitality muscles. Many churches that met Sunday mornings in public schools are now making plans to meet Sunday evenings so they can share these buildings.
Congregations such as First Baptist Church, which meets in the Upper West of Manhattan, are adapting not just for charity but also for the sake of the gospel. Pastor Matthew Hoskinson has planned to forfeit their Sunday school hour at 9:30 a.m. to allow for a congregation to meet during that time, even as he has arranged for another congregation to meet Saturday nights, and still another Sunday evenings.
Our own congregation has benefited from First Baptist's hospitality and pastor Hoskinson's leadership. Starting February 19, we plan to meet on Sunday evenings at First Baptist Church. This effort to welcome churches takes more time and manpower than what you might first assume.
Other churches in our position are benefiting from the hospitality of congregations who have the blessing of their own meeting space in a city built for commerce, not churches.
As churches race for space and labor for their constitutional rights, we have at least two strategic opportunities to adjust our expectations for what a worship gathering looks like.
First, there is a unusual unity that comes from sharing space among evangelical churches. Many evangelical pastors meet for prayer and planning service projects. These are hugely strategic and a blessing. But there is something different that happens when you have to figure out how two (or three) churches are going share space. We have been blessed by First Baptist as they help us cope during this season of shared space. They don't just want us to manage---they want to help other churches flourish.
Second, many churches now planning for evening services have already found this is a more strategic time for many New Yorkers to meet. Few skeptics in this city wake up Sunday morning eager to check out a church service. And on the Upper West Side, where our congregation meets, many family sporting events have been planned for Sunday morning. So we've grown excited about planning for these new opportunities for outreach on Sunday evenings.
We trust that the Lord is sovereign in all these things. This is certainly a challenging time for many churches in New York. But we have every reason to rejoice, as we hear of new, faithful, gospel-proclaiming church planters coming all the time and evangelical churches that continue to grow and multiply around the city.
John Starke is lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.