“In New York City, the number one idol is probably money,” TGC council member Stephen Um says. “In Washington D.C. it may be power; in Los Angeles, it may sex; but in Boston, the number one idol is knowledge. We are a modern-day Athens.”
To learn more about doing ministry in Boston, I talked with Um, senior pastor of Citylife Church, adjunct professor of New Testament studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, associate training director for Redeemer City to City, and co-author (with Justin Buzzard) of Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church. What are the challenges of serving in Boston? How is God at work there?
Tell us a little bit about how God called you to serve in Boston. Are you originally from there?
I moved to Boston in 2000 from Scotland, where I was doing my PhD in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews. Before living in Scotland, I had done pastoral work for a number of years around New England and in New York City. I taught at Gordon-Conwell almost full-time while we got ready to launch our church plant, and then after about a year and a half, we launched Citylife Presbyterian Church with about 12 people. We had about 30 the first service. We’ve grown from there, and God has blessed the ministry and been faithful. It’s a PCA church in the Redeemer City to City network. We we are multi-ethnic, multi-site church, with lots of young professionals.
What are some of the greatest challenges to ministry in your area? What particular cultural idols or areas of resistance to the gospel stand out?
Boston is probably the most hyper-mobile city in North America, and maybe in the world. There are around 50 colleges and universities within a 20-mile radius, representing a combined student population of about 300,000. The surplus of academic institutions, combined with the number of highly reputable hospitals, makes it an extremely transient city. Add on the challenge of finding affordable housing in the city, and you have a unique culture. About 70 percent of Boston is single. The median age at our church is 27.
To give you some perspective, from February 2013 to September 2014 our church had about 1,000 visitors. This rapidly changing population means there is a steady stream of people slipping out the back door, moving away. It also presents challenges in terms of church membership and commitment. A lot of people come to do between one and three degrees, so they move with the mindset, “Since I am only going to be here for a few years, I won’t really settle down.” This can contribute to a consumeristic mindset for church, and people can be hesitant about becoming a member at a church if they know they are going to move away. So we place a huge emphasis on church membership and the importance of getting plugged in to a local church even for a relatively short season.
Because of the hyper-mobility, and after that, the secular culture, ministry in Boston generally takes longer and is more expensive. Campus ministries will generally have 20 students rather than 100, and church-planting efforts will generally take twice as long to start seeing fruit. To be effective in ministry here, you need to have a long-term vision, even if you are very gifted.
Alongside this more transient population, there is also a more stable population of indigenous local citizens. This population, often more blue-collar, is really the heart of Boston. Almost all of our mayors have been in this demographic. So in some ways there are at least two different kinds of broad mission fields in the city.
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 sex. But in Boston, the number one cultural idol is knowledge. We are a modern-day Athens.
One of the fruits of the cultural idol of knowledge is the illusion of self-sufficiency. People are striving to be self-sufficient, but the irony is that deep inside they are insecure. There is high pressure and anxiety, depression can be a challenge for many people, and suicide is more common. People here need the gospel!
Where do you see God at work in Boston and throughout New England? What encouraging trends do you see?
There has been great progress here in the gospel. Although many historic churches have lost the gospel, others have retained a rich and vibrant gospel witness. Park Street Church, for instance, has been in the heart of Boston more than 200 years and has a thriving evangelical witness. Also, when people talk about encouraging gospel movements, they tend to think in terms of more visible, large churches, and especially white churches. But I think that is a mistake. There are lots of smaller churches and non-white churches doing powerful work for the gospel.
In the last 15 years, we have also seen a lot of young guys coming and planting churches in the city. Some burn out after a few years because of the challenges, but many of them are making encouraging progress, and as a result there are probably 20 or 25 growing churches in the city, some SBC, some Evangelical Covenant, some PCA, some Acts 29 and Sovereign Grace, and so forth.
Looking forward, my concern is that we penetrate more deeply into the non-churched population, rather than just attract those already interested. I’ve always said that when guys come to do ministry here, I look especially at two issues. Number one: can they actually preach Christ-centered sermons? Some guys are gifted at biblical exposition and public speaking, but their sermons are still not Christ-centered. And number two: Can they speak to skeptics? Some preachers know the gospel but are not culturally agile. In Boston, you need to understand the cultural storyline. If you don’t contextualize the gospel to the secular mindset that characterizes the population here, people won’t even listen. In a sense, all effective preaching here must be apologetic.
Overall, I am encouraged about what God is doing here. If you do the hard work of contextualization, many people are willing to listen. But if you want to do effective ministry here, you need to have the mindset that you will probably have to stay for at least a decade. And you need to realize that growth is probably not going to happen in the way you expect.
Tell us about the New England Regional Chapter of The Gospel Coalition. What resources does it offer? How can pastors and church leaders get connected?
The New England Regional Chapter began in 2011. We had a burden to try to mobilize pastors and churches around the larger gospel movement happening through TGC. In early 2011 I contacted 70 local pastors who would adhere to TGC’s foundation documents, and within 36 hours 60 of the 70 had indicated interest.
In 2012, we had our first regional conference, and we couldn’t fit everyone in the building. It was a dynamic and encouraging conference. We have had a few smaller conferences, and we have next regional conference October 3 and 4. Registration is still open.
How can we be praying for the spread of the gospel in your region?
In his book The Urban Pulpit, Matthew Bowman recounts how different churches in New York City responded differently to cultural shifts in the late 19th century. Some took a more defensive cultural posture and failed to communicate the gospel intelligibly to new demographics (for instance, the migration of poorer Catholics into the city). Others focused so much on social issues that they lost the gospel and accommodated to the values of the surrounding culture. Only a minority sought to maintain both the integrity of the gospel and a robust cultural engagement.
Today in New England and elsewhere we face similar challenges of changing demographics and cultural shifts. We pray that we will avoid the twin dangers of compromise and retreat. My burden for the Boston area specifically is that our churches would be ruthlessly committed to evangelistic worship, but at the same time recognize the importance of integrating faith and work, and the value of social justice and mercy. We want to balance the different ministry fronts in our Theological Vision for Ministry, and contextualize them without losing the historic, orthodox commitment to the gospel, or abandoning the entailments of the gospel for cultural engagement.