God in Gotham: 16 Christians making a difference in New York City

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New York City is more spiritually active today than in the late 1990s or even 2001 in the wake of 9/11. The cities crop of influential Christian leaders is partially responsible.

New York City is more spiritually active today than in the late 1990s or even in the wake of 9/11. The city’s crop of influential Christian leaders is partially responsible.

In New York City, everything is always changing all time. From the skyline to the weather to transient residents jumping from neighborhood to neighborhood trying to find the right mix of price, size and location, the city is perpetually in flux.

But the Big Apple is experiencing a surprising kind of change—the religious kind—as more Christian communities and leaders are taking root and flourishing there.

New York City is not known as a particularly religious place. Though Gallup reports an above average population of Catholics and Jews, the state of New York is well below average for Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians.

But according to Barna Research’s survey of more that 3,400 residents in the New York media market, New York City is more spiritually active today than in the late 1990s or even 2001 in the wake of 9/11. Barna reports that church attendance is increasing, the number of “unchurched” residents is decreasing, and the number of “born again” Christians is on the rise, surging from 20% in the late 1990s to 32% today.

According to Barna, born again Christians are “individuals who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in the life and who believe they will go to Heaven because they have accepted Christ and been forgiven of their sins.”

Possible explanations for New York’s Christian renaissance are numerous, but the city’s crop of increasingly influential Christian pastors, educators, and thought leaders is partially responsible. Here are at least 16 leaders–in unranked order–who are contributing to the city’s Christian revival:

1/2. Tim and Kathy Keller: As founding pastor of Manhattan-based Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Tim Keller has become a respected Christian voice within New York. But his New York Times bestselling books, including The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, have expanded his influence well outside the borders of the five famous boroughs. In recent years, Tim’s wife, Kathy, has also emerged as an influential voice in her own right, even recently penning a popular book on faith and gender.

3. Sally Lloyd-Jones: Very few children’s book writers have the influence or success that Sally Lloyd Jones does. Her Jesus Storybook Biblefor example, has been a runaway success and a New York Times bestseller. Recently, the book’s publisher, Zondervan, announced that sales had exceeded one million units. With those kinds of sales, it’s hard to deny her impact on Christian families and children in New York City and elsewhere.

4/5. Jim and Carol Cymbala: As pastor of the historic Brooklyn Tabernacle, Jim Cymbala may be best known for the famed 280-voice choir that sings before he preaches each Sunday. But Jim has grown his congregation from 30 weekly attendees to more than 16,000 members. His sermons are downloaded by thousands each week, and he has authored more than a dozen popular books including Fresh Wind, Fresh FireCarol Cymbala, Jim’s wife, directs the Grammy Award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle choir and is author of several books including, He’s Been Faithful.

6. Greg Thornbury: Recently appointed as president of The King’s College, a respected evangelical college located until recently in the Empire State Building, Greg Thornbury is at the helm of a vibrant Christian educational institution in the middle of America’s most influential city. King’s faculty includes a list of rising Christian voices that includes Alissa Wilkinson, who is also chief film critic at Christianity Today, and Anthony Bradley, who is pioneering conversations on evangelicals and race.

7. Jon Tyson: More than a successful pastor, the Australian-born Jon Tyson is a pioneer of new ways to do church. Through his Trinity Grace Church, Tyson has developed a “city parish model” whereby the larger congregation is divided into smaller communities arranged by neighborhood. In short, it is a New York City church that operates like New York City does. As a result, there are now eight growing Trinity Grace campuses stretching from Washington Heights in the north to Park Slope in the South. Pastors across America have pattered their own ministries on Tyson and his idea of “missional tribes.”

8. Michael Luo: There are few jobs with more influencing power than being a staff writer for The New York Times. As an investigative reporter for the iconic news outlet, Michael Luo is shaping the thoughts of masses of Americans every day through his writing and work. Luo is an outspoken Christian whose essay helped fuel a national fascination with NBA star Jeremy Lin.

9/10. Gabe and Rebekah Lyons: Gabe and Rebekah Lyons’ annual Q Gathering attracts hundreds of participants each year and is a virtual “Who’s Who” of Christian educators, thinkers and influencers. But in recent years, the couple has also begun offering a slew of other events in New York City, convening Christians around topics such as vocation, womanhood, and the renewal of America’s cities. Additionally, Gabe has authored the bestselling unChristian and The Next Christians, and Rebekah recently released Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaninga memoir detailing her spiritual journey after moving to New York City.

11. Gabriel Salguero: In addition to being senior pastor of New York’s Lamb’s Church, Gabriel Salguero also serves as president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. He is a powerful leader of the growing community of Hispanic evangelicals in America. Salguero’s work has placed him on the front lines of national discussions on Christians and immigration, education, and poverty.

12. Eric Metaxas: The accomplishments of Eric Metaxas run long. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Amazing Grace and Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, the co-host of “Breakpoint,” a radio commentary that is broadcast on 1,400 stations to an audience of eight million, and was the keynote speaker at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Metaxas is also founder of “Socrates in the City,” an event in which people dialogue on “Life, God, and other small topics.” He’s a respected thinker by any reckoning, and is no small part of the Christian renaissance taking place in New York City.

13. A.R. Bernard: As founder of Brooklyn’s Christian Cultural Center, A.R. Bernard is pastor of the largest church in America’s largest city. He is also the President of the Council of Churches of the City of New York representing 1.5 million Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians. He sits on the NYC Economic Development Corporation Board, served on NYC School Chancellor’s Advisory Cabinet and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2001 Transition Team.

14. Carl Lentz: Details Magazine called Carl Lentz “Jesus Christ’s Superstar”, but the members of his Hillsong Church NYC will tell you there is more to their pastor than hype. He’s a dynamic speaker, a capable leader, and head of one of the most vibrant churches in the Hillsong Church global network. Nearly 6,000 people worship at his church each Sunday at Irving Plaza near Manhattan’s Union Square.

15. Raymond Rivera: In 1992, Raymond Rivera founded the Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC), which started as a division of the Manhattan-based NYC Mission Society, the city’s oldest and largest social service agency. But Rivera was an influential Christian leader long before the launch of LPAC. From 1975 to 1984, he was the National Executive for the Hispanic Council of the Reformed Church in America and served on the Board of Trustees of the New York Theological Seminary. In 2004, he launched the National Urban Ministry Project, an AmeriCorps-based service delivery and capacity building partnership that continues to impact the region.

16. Connaé Raquel Williams: As head of the New York-based United Christian Women, Connaé Raquel Williams leads a network of nearly 10,000 20 to 30-year-old women. As a national Christian leader, she has worked along the likes of T.D. Jakes and Paula White. Her influence is on the rise, particularly among charismatic Christians.

Editor’s Note: The original article contained only 12 names. As additional recommendations were submitted by readers, the list was expanded. The headline was updated to reflect these changes. Clearly, there are many more Christian leaders than those listed here who are making an impact on the city and abroad. You’ll find additional names in the comments, and you may also suggest your own. 

  • Camilo

    No Carl Lentz or Chris Durso?

  • David Jackson

    Very disappointed that Carl Lentz from Hillsong NYC is not on this list. He is tapping into a whole slice of NYC and reaching them so effectively with the Gospel. I am from Maryland but visit NYC frequently and I was at the Hillsong Conference earlier this month. Lentz and the Hillsong Church are making a dramatic difference in the city…and in such a short time! I stand at a distance and marvel at how God is using him in one of the greatest cities in the world.

  • One of the most amazing ministries in New York City, encompassing all five boroughs, is Graffiti Church, led by Taylor Fields, author of Upside Down Leadership

  • Many more than 12 making dynamic differences in NYC. We’re even shutting a major street down in the south Bronx just for prayer. It’s never been done before. http://www.no-stage-no-mic-justhim.com 10/19/13

  • Susan

    Great list. I get excited just reading their names. Awesome people doing amazing works in the greatest city in the world.

  • I would like to mention Nyack College, Christian higher education in Battery Park, NYCity. Nyack College has had an increasing influence on the city for 20 years.

  • Doc Anthony

    I know he doesn’t live in New York, but let’s go ahead and stick Billy Graham’s name in the #1 slot anyway. There’s many good Christian leaders to choose from, but Graham’s pretty much #1 for the 20th, 21st, and 22nd centuries.

  • Happy! to see Gabe Salguero here!! You can include his wife Jeanette too! She’s a powerhouse. I bet none of the others have had dinner with Prince Charles in his private dining room. 😉 Love them!!

  • Grace and the City

    This is such nonsense. What is the point? How is this even helpful?

    Sure its not exhaustive, but what about those like Chris Durso? Or the thousands who are quietly, simply doing the work of the Gospel without praise or recognition?

    Far more interesting to write about 12 individuals we’ve never heard of that are serving the Gospel in the City.

  • James

    Twelve folks can make a big difference. Fact.

  • Steve

    I’m sure that even if your favorite Christian personality didn’t make the top ten list, God knows the work that is being done in His name and will reward accordingly.

  • Jim

    Grace and the City — Couldn’t have said it better myself. Personally it’s downright offensive that there were no African Americans included. In the top 12 list of faith and culture writers, clearly the author of this blog would not be mentioned. #Irrelevancy

  • Mary

    Grace and the City said it well. It is grievous to hear of a random (and already well-known – c’mon, if we’re reading this article, most likely we know all of these leaders anyway) group of believers being singled out for recognition and honor. Not only is it unhelpful to single out a random few to recognize out of the many, many faithful here in NYC, but it is an odious echo of the practice of the cult of celebrity in our culture. Do we really want to create Christian celebrities? Ew. That’s kind of an oxymoron.

  • Johannes

    Wow, talk about spoiled for choice! Will New York’s streets be paved with gold soon?

  • Mark Robinson

    “Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community. The desire we so often hear expressed today for ‘episcopal figures,’ ‘priestly men,’ ‘authoritative personalities,’ springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. There is nothing that so sharply contradicts such a desire as the New Testament itself in its description of a bishop (1 Tim 3:1ff). One finds there nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The bishop is the simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire.” – Dietrich Bonhoefer

  • Ed

    No Kirsten Powers??? She’s the one face half the nation sees every night.

  • Out West

    Huge encouragement to hear of the great work being done in NYC. I know of some great campus ministry there too. God’s up to something.

    Big discouragement to see the curmudgeony comments. I don’t believe the intent was to be the “Top” 12 . . . How about we just add to impact by mentioning others in your circles doing good work for the kingdom.

  • Billysees

    ” what about……the thousands who are quietly, simply doing the work of the Gospel without praise or recognition? ”

    Good point to make.

    Is being famous and a book writer really necessary ?

    Aren’t some of these “peddlers of the scriptures for profit” ?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Isn’t she in DC?

  • Josiah

    Max McLean and the Fellowship for the Performing Arts produce quality theatre from a Christian worldview that engages the imaginations of a diverse audience. Screwtape on stage had a great run off Broadway before going on tour and The Great Divorce had a solid developmental run back in September and will be returning later this year. http://screwtapeonstage.com/, http://thegreatdivorceonstage.com/

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  • Jay Blossom

    Emily Scott, pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church — one of the most innovative churches that I know of.

  • Bettie F

    Ronnie Adams, a CBF missionary working in Hell’s Kitchen. He has an aids ministry that is amazing. Ronnie is a very quiet soft spoken man who makes a difference everyday. He is involved in many things to helping other sand sharing Jesus in NYC. Great human being!

  • Yes

  • I just heard about her recently. I’m going to be checking this church out for sure!

  • Erik

    Great discussion starter, Jonathan. After three years in NYC, I am most moved by what moms are doing in the city — who are changing lives and playgrounds and schools and churches by just showing up – as Jon Tyson says, “maybe the Great Commission should be changed from ‘go’ to ‘stay’.” Maybe #17 should just be “Moms” — i can think of 10 off the top of my head who don’t have any title or platform or following but if they left the city it would leave a huge hole in our community.

  • Gordon

    Just noticed that Mayor Bloomberg’s website has a weekly crime report, and the report says “no murders this week.” So, yeah, maybe this spiritual renewal is having an impact.

  • Thierry

    New Life in Elmhurst is prominent in Queens. It’s interesting that some of congregations in Brooklyn associated with Redeemer, such as Resurrection Pres. in Williamsburg and the one (forgot their name) in Park Slope are now in their own network and are now associated with the Evangelical Pres. Church rather than the PCA (which Redeemer is a member of). Don’t forget the work the Lutheran-Church Missouri Synod is doing in northern and central Brooklyn through its leader Dave Benke (sp) in housing, schooling, etc. Tony Carnes’ website, a Walk Through New York Religions, is the best chronicler of the New York Christian renaissance.

  • Eric Shafer

    I would add Pastor Elise Brown and Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd & Broadway – intentionally welcoming to all, many, many young adults and a growing group of young children. Worship in English and Spanish, too.

  • Chris

    Cool list– lot of great things happening for sure-seen and unseen- all part of the same body. I don’t attend Hillsong but you know something is up when a 100 people get baptized on top of the Hotel Gansevort (link below). Startling even. God is showboating and it’s only going to get better as the streams converge.


  • Sandy

    Was he added later? He is on the list at number 14.

  • Sandy

    Have a good friend that used to work there by the name of Lisa. I met Taylor once in NC when he and a group from Graffiti came.

  • Great list.
    I live in Boston. I wonder who would be on your Boston list…

  • Don’t forget about Pastors Dan and Ann Stratton at Faith Exchange Fellowship, http://www.faithexchange.org. They’re doing many wonderful things, including faithful work to help Hurricane Sandy victims.

  • Jacob T

    FYI, Raymond Rivera put a book out just last year called Liberty to the Captives.

  • Sara

    The Catholic Center at NYU run by the Order of Preachers is doing marvelous work.

  • Brian Hall

    John Wagner from Young Life is missing. He moved here from Washington DC about 3-4 years ago & has turned around a city that was barely on Young Life’s radar & has already added dozens of staff & brought in a ton of money & new support. He has a bold vision to add even more youth workers to the city reaching every segment of the population by 2016. He & his wife Gae are amazing visionaries who took a huge leap of faith by moving here to give their lives to the people of NYC.

  • Brian Hall

    I wasn’t finished with my comments… Here they are in their entirety… John Wagner from Young Life is missing. He moved here from Washington DC about 3-4 years ago & has turned around a city that was barely on Young Life’s radar & has already added dozens of staff & brought in a ton of money & new support. He has a bold vision to add 500 youth workers to the city reaching every segment of the population by 2016. He & his wife Gae are amazing visionaries who took a huge leap of faith by moving here to give their lives to the people of NYC. I thank God for their faithfulness. Check out this video… http://vimeo.com/m/25043633

  • Mary

    Mark Robinson, thank you so much for taking the time to give a quote that was so thoroughly apt. Exactly what I meant to say.

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  • Mona C

    Somebody needs to check out Kyle and Amy Peirson and what they are doing in Harlem. At Team Pierson this couple is amazing and working wonders.

  • Earold Gunter

    Although I’m sure the list contains the names of people who are doing some good things for others, the data doesn’t support the hypothesis proposed by the author.

    Other “Possible explanations ” could be the data is simply bunk.

    As they saying goes, “The devil is in the details”.

    This report is drawn from a data set that is so insufficient in sample size of the representative population that it is utterly impossible to draw any conclusions from it.
    “This report is drawn from 3,406 interviews conducted in the New York City media market. These telephone interviews were conducted every year in a random, representative fashion from 1997 through 2010. In all of the surveys conducted since 2008, the sample universe included a sub-sample of people drawn from cell-phone households. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.”
    As of July 2012 New York City had a population of 8,336,697, probably a few hundred thousand less from 1997 to 2010, or a probable representative sample size of less than 0.05% of the population.

    Also, the firm doing the survey is a for-profit company, which, although they claim to be non-partisan, admit they “facilitate” a religious agenda.
    “Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.”

    Although the article appeals to those who are already predisposed to want to believe this is actually happening, the article itself, because of the survey it uses, lacks any credibility for those who look for factual support for it.

    Consider living life and loving people, without needing to believe in the promise of a carrot, or the threat of a stick.
    Good Day!

  • Hello and thanks for the article. I’m glad you expanded the number of influential Christian leaders in NYC from the original list. There are many more of course as most of the Christian strength of NYC is not in Manhattan but the other 4 boroughs, especially in the hispanic pentecostal churches. I am president of Christian Union and our primary focus is Christian leadership development on Ivy League schools, but we have begun a few programs among young professionals in NYC so I’ve gotten to know a number of the remarkable people on your list.

    I would encourage you to take a closer look at the Barna study that you cited, because I believe the data shows the opposite of what you may be concluding. The study came out 2 years ago and I’ve seen a number of people misinterpret it. True, there are more going to churches than before and more identifying as born again believers, but take a look at the most important measure of Christian life in the study: the “9 point evangelical” indicator. As the paragraph explains, this measures whether respondents affirm a set of 9 standard Christian doctrines and no where asks the respondent to identify themselves per se as “evangelical”. As you can see from the chart, that number has declined from around 4% of the population to about 1% over the course of the study. Stunning, isn’t it? I would argue that the nine-point indicator is a better measure of Christian commitment than the number self-identifying as born-again or the number attending churches. After all, if more are sitting in the pews, but fewer of those people actually believe Christian doctrines, it doesn’t seem reasonable to conclude that Christian renaissance is occurring. Rather, it looks like there has been a four-fold drop in Christian committment over the years, despite the wonderful efforts of all of us in Christian leadership in the city. I wish it weren’t the case!

    God bless,
    Matt Bennett

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  • Jay Tee

    “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

    What an encouraging article, and how exciting to hear a little of all these ministries. I hadn’t heard of Sally Lloyd-Jones (and Jago), previously, so I just looked online, and I love her work! Praise the Lord! Such uplifting, truthful, insightful and creative ways to introduce the love of God, through her interpretation of his word, to children (and adults). I will be buying her books for all my nieces, children, and friends children, from now on!

    All the 16 people mentioned in this article are truly living out this quote, from God’s word. They’ve all made huge personal sacrifices, for their faith, and their beliefs, and their ministries are testament to this. May God abundantly bless them, and all the thousands of people who are touched and affected, and encouraged by their charisma and courage to tirelessly put themselves out there preaching the good news of Jesus, and offering hope and a future to so many.

    And to all the people who chose to leave a negative comment in response to this article- go read Ephesians 4:29.


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  • John McGrath

    Good point. But if a personal relationship with Jesus is the bases of this kind of religious faith, along with the need for fellowship and being part of a community of mutual respect and support, then traditional Christian doctrine is less important. Mormonism, for instance, does not thrive because of its doctrines (many not traditionally Christian on important fundamentals) but because of the way it offers programs to strengthen families, encourage desired behaviors, and build community. In effect, doctrine becomes less important than exemplary behavior.

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