The smell. That’s what everyone in New York City remembers from that horrible day 10 years ago. “There was a strange smell hanging in the air, which was some strange putrid burnt chemical smell,” one resident remembers. “The air felt thick and unclean to breathe. The smell lasted for weeks.” Those in New York during the September 11 attacks all have vivid memories of watching the smoke-spewing towers, fleeing the chaos in Lower Manhattan, or fearing for friends and family who worked in the business district. But everyone I talked to remembers the smell.
“I remember the smoke from downtown, visible everywhere for days,” recalls Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. “And the stench, the unique smell that also lasted for days. You could smell it everywhere. No one asked what the smell came from. We didn’t want to know.”
We all watched live as the towers burned, forcing men and women to jump hundreds of feet to their death. We shuddered as people covered in ash walked north through Manhattan and home across bridges. Even as the tragedy unfolded in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., the world focused on New York. For days afterward we held our breath: Another attack was coming. And soon, we assumed.
We Do Not Grieve As Those Who Have No Hope
The following Sunday, September 16, churches overflowed with distraught visitors. At Redeemer, the ordinary attendance of 2,800 ballooned to 5,400. Keller opened his sermon with a reference to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, where Paul tells us to grieve but not like those without hope. And then he continued by citing John 11:20-53, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
“The morning service that Sunday was so full that Tim said, ‘Come back and we’ll do another service right after this one,’” one Redeemer member remembers. “Just like that Redeemer grew another service.”
Churches everywhere in the city saw new faces on September 16. Lots of them. One report shows that 40 percent of the evangelical churches in New York as of December 2010 started since 2000. Only an estimated 3 percent of New York’s residents attend an evangelical church. Still, that figure has tripled since 1990. During one two-month period in the fall of 2009 one new evangelical church opened its doors every Sunday. The aftermath of 9/11 was a growth spurt for evangelicals in America’s largest city.
“For the following year, ministry was just intense—-every meeting and service had more emotion and tears in it than usual,” Keller says. “A good number of people started coming to Redeemer after 9/11 and found Christ. Evangelism was fruitful.”
Evangelicals in New York remain a small but strong minority. You’ll find the in store-front churches but also in the city’s government, law firms, businesses, publishing houses, and theater companies. One decade after 9/11, the city has a different posture toward Christianity. But there is more to this story than thousands of skeptics shaken with fear responding in faith to the gospel. Much like the Roman roads prepared the way for Christianity to spread in its early days, so also New York’s Christians have seen the hand of providence in the years before 9/11.
Providence and Planning: 1965 to 2000
Urban religion sociologist Tony Carnes, in his book New York Glory: Religions in the City points to a fairly sobering 1975 New York Times article by Kenneth A. Briggs, who summarized the religious life of the city:
Religious leaders widely believe that since 1965, their institutions have lost both visibility and impact on public decisions. Fewer people now attend worship, and religious spokesmen say they have lost leverage with public officials and income has generally gone down.
White Protestants . . . have by and large withered into insignificance as a religious political force.
As New York streets began to be more and more dangerous after World War II, evangelicals joined the flight from the urban neighborhoods to the suburbs. Carnes, quoting the Rev. Dr. Bryant Kirkland, pastor of the historic Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Lower Manhattan, reported, “The city has largely abandoned religion.” Indeed, it is no coincidence the city abandoned religion as evangelicals abandoned the city.
“Among the reasons that religious leaders cited for their institutional decline were demographic changes, liberal theology, lack of cooperation between churches, organizational sclerosis, and loss of relevance to the baby boomer culture,” Carnes explains.
However, several developments stemmed and eventually turned the tide. According to Notre Dame historian Mark Noll, one of these developments was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which allowed for an extraordinary amount of immigrants. Much to the nation’s surprise, many of these immigrants were Christians—-evangelicals, even—-from Latin America, Korea, Nigeria, China, Eastern Europe, Ghana, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
At the same time, powerful voices emerged in the 1980s to give Christianity a public presence. Former Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus, along with fellow conservative Roman Catholic Cardinal O’Connor, carved out space for faith in public life. Neuhaus, in his 1984 book The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, observed how secularists in New York were beginning to feel claustrophobic with the rising influence of conservative Christians in the city.
Evangelicals were also encouraged to return and put down roots as a result of mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s effective anti-crime and city-management programs of the 1990s. Reduced crime meant church planters could plausibly ask their young converts to stay in the city as they grew older, married, and raised children. Even the south Bronx—-long known as a graveyard for church planters—-saw one church established every three weeks during one period in the 1990s, according to Carnes. Yet one day of terror threatened to undo all this progress.
The City That Stayed
Even for survivors of 9/11, the aftermath appeared foreboding. Surely the city would be targeted again. New York might become a fortress, “forever patrolled by soldiers and submarines,” N. R. Kleinfield wrote in The New York Times. But the expected fortress never developed. The city eventually picked up somewhere near where it left off, forever missing the two front teeth of its imposing skyline. New York’s famously hardened residents resolved to stay.
So did evangelicals, often despite the urging of friends and family members. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, they did not flee to the supposedly safer suburbs. “With God there is hope,” Keller explains. “Your own fate ceases to be the reason for your courage.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, networks of pastors and ministries formed. They thrived in the marketplace of ideas. So when disaster struck the city, these Christians were prepared to give a reason for their hope. It’s a hope that makes sense of the reality of suffering. As Keller explained to his weeping congregation on September 16, 2001:
We don’t know the reason that God allows evil and suffering to continue. But we know what the reason isn’t. We know what the reason can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he doesn’t care.
Because he got involved with his Son. Christianity alone tells us that God lost his Son in an “unjust attack.”
Five years later, on September 11, 2006, Tim Keller would be asked to preach at St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan for an ecumenical prayer remembrance service for family members of victims of the September 11 attacks. President Bush attended with his wife, Laura. Keller ended his sermon by sharing the secret that allows Christians to grieve but not as those without hope:
In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up thinking everything is lost, and upon discovering instead that all his friends were around him, he cries out, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer is yes. And the answer of the Bible is yes. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue.