“Don’t Leave Our Church Homeless” read the signs distributed during Thursday’s press conference outside New York City Hall. More than 60 churches in New York meet in public schools for their Sunday services. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal this week, the churches learned they will need to find a new location before February 12.
Many of those church leaders, city officials, and concerned citizens met Thursday on the steps of City Hall to hear Council Member Fernando Cabrera introduce legislation seeking to overturn this decision. Some left excited and hopeful after hearing spirited speeches from elected officials, local pastors, and advocate ministries. This legislative push follows nearly 17 years of legal struggle between Bronx Household of Faith and the City of New York, which contends that churches meeting outside school hours inappropriately influence children.
Some of these churches have been meeting in the same public schools for more than 25 years. We’ve been meeting in ours for almost two.
I moved with my family to Manhattan on November 14 to serve as the pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side neighborhood. Less than a month later on December 5, after preaching only two Sundays, I learned that we’re losing our meeting space.
I certainly didn’t expect my first several months or even years as a pastor to be rosy. I just didn’t expect this particular problem. I have read books and articles on conflict, difficult counseling situations, and even leadership challenges. But I can’t say political conflict over our meeting space was high on my “to be prepared for” list.
But after eye-balling our apartment living room, wondering how many people we could fit for a Sunday service, the reality of the situation hit. Immediately I had two concerns:
1. Anyone who has been a part of a church relocation knows that it’s time consuming to look for a new space, negotiate lease terms, plan a budget, and meet to hash everything out. Now consider that more than 60 churches in the city will be searching for the same space in the same condensed time period during Advent.
2. How will our response—positive, negative, or neutral—influence our community and neighbors?
I brought this second question to a prayer meeting on Wednesday with at least 30 fellow evangelical pastors and staff members from different parts of the city. Several pastors were losing their meeting space. We prayed together and encouraged each other to trust God and not to despair. Many pastors shared my concerns, but no one had a clear answer on how we should respond. Most of these pastors decided to plant or revitalize churches in New York in order to preach the gospel and offer faithful witness to God’s saving work in our community. We’re not immediately inclined toward activism and advocacy for the right to peaceably assemble.
Despite some reports of poor school-church relationships, many churches get along well with their school hosts. The pastor who preceded me, along with our congregation, had such a good relationship with our school they sent us an email to express regrets over our impending departure. We pay our rent on time, keep the place clean, and keep the terms of our lease.
Churches have labored years for a good reputation while preaching a faithful and persuasive gospel in a city where only 2 percent of the population attends an evangelical church. We won’t forfeit the gospel, and we don’t want to respond in anger and forfeit our standing in the community, either.
From what we understand, the city’s move to prohibit churches from meeting in public schools is a clear constitutional violation. And, and as the saying goes, what happens in New York City will happen in your hometown five years from now.
Or at least that’s the fear, that New York will set precedent for the rest of the country. So our response must be weighed against potential consequences for churches in Boston, Dallas, Chicago, and anywhere else believers profess Jesus as Lord.
Surely New York’s ban reflects the intolerance of a tolerant society, as D. A. Carson has said somewhere. “It’s ironic,” one Brooklyn city official commented at Thursday’s press conference, “that the Klu Klux Klan can meet freely in public schools, but churches, who were the backbone of the civil rights movement, are not allowed.”
“Some people are afraid of what our children will be pressured into thinking if they see churches meeting in our schools,” another city official said. “My fear is what they will think when they see that anyone can meet in public schools except churches!”
The city’s decision provides further evidence that our pluralistic society seeks to banish religion and truth from the public square to the private sphere. As Leslie Newbigin once observed, this ideal they seek would eliminate all ideals. Any society attempting to explain the world as something without ultimate truths commits itself to a reality without purpose.
So We Pray
Yet this city desperately committing itself to reality without purpose is the city we love. As I left the Wednesday prayer meeting, another pastor welcomed me to the city. He’s been pastoring in New York for years through some tough times. The elementary school where his church meets doubled then tripled their rent within only a few years. And now the church must leave. “You’ll love this city,” he told me with wide eyes and and even wider heart.
The pastors in the prayer meeting love the city, but not because they enjoy a good show, the night life, or the countless restaurants. They love the city because they’ve prayed for it so much that they can’t get it out of their hearts. I want to love the city that way.
And so we pray. We pray that if this law is not overturned, God will provide meeting places for our churches. We pray that pastors will not neglect the task of preaching the gospel and shepherding the flock while looking for locations. We pray that our response to the city’s decision will honor Christ, uphold the gospel, and gain us a hearing from our neighbors. We pray that we will trust the Lord, knowing that he holds the universe together in his hand and no church is removed from a building apart from the Sovereign’s say-so. Will you pray for us, too?