By Jared Witt
Editor’s note: ImagineNYC is the latest project of Orchard Group Inc., a church planting organization in New York City. The new church will launch in September 2009 in two separate Manhattan locations, the upper West Side and Greenwich Village. Jared Witt is lead minister. Additional staff for the new church has yet to be selected.
Novelist Tom Wolfe has suggested that New York City is no longer a real city inhabited by real people. It is, rather, a spectacle, a drama staged and orchestrated for the benefit of tourists, a massive public exhibition. New Yorkers now seem more like characters in a play than citizens in a real city.
In certain parts of the city, it certainly feels like a staged spectacle. On my way to Central Park this morning I saw a half-dozen double-decker tour buses, tourists taking pictures at the Dakota (where John Lennon was shot), bicycle taxis offering tours of the park, and tour guides explaining the history of monuments and statues.
But in the midst of all this tourism-fed hustle and bustle, regular people hurry to work, go to the post office, buy groceries, spend time with friends, raise families, and get old. Is Wolfe right to paint all of us New Yorkers as actors in a play?
STAGING A PLAY
Starting a new church is something like staging a play. It requires a script, actors who can both read and improvise, and heaps of imagination.
John Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, once pointed out that both Ronald Reagan and John Paul II began their careers as actors. Political figures and religious leaders can only succeed, he continued, if they have the capacity to help people imagine a reality different from the current one. And what is it to help start a new church if not inviting a community to imagine something new, to invite people into God’s drama of making the world new in Jesus Christ?
My time at Yale was marked by a two-directional trend: evangelicals from places like Wheaton, Fuller, and Trinity were interested in exploring and retrieving forms of worship from earlier church traditions. On the other hand, many of the Catholics and Episcopalians were trying to recover a lively practice of engaging with the texts of Scripture. This double trajectory toward a middle road was appealing to me: a hybrid version of church—both evangelical (Bible-oriented and evangelistic) as well as liturgical (rooted in the Great Tradition of the church).
We don’t yet know what our worship, mission, and evangelism will look like in New York City. But our local incarnation of Christ’s body will make use of whatever wisdom seems helpful in our witness and mission.
We might bow before God in a bodily act of humility. (Why should it always be large groups of Muslims who are pictured bowing before God?) We might go on prayer walks, enacting a collective journey into the triune life of God. We might gather around the table, centering the Eucharist in our worship and lives, rather than the pulpit. We might have volunteer leaders say, “This is Christ’s body, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ, given as a new covenant,” as people receive the bread and wine. And we might recover the tradition of imitating the saints, both dead and living, who can be for us parables of grace, incarnate wisdom that calls forth our own particular ways of manifesting the love of God in our little corner of the world.
Our vision for the church is to create a community of worship, teaching, and friendship that makes it possible for New Yorkers to connect or reconnect with God. We want to contribute to the city’s culture where Christians live out their faith in business, media, the arts, politics, law, health care, education, and parenting. And we want to serve other churches by helping to imagine a way forward amid a thicket of perplexing cultural challenges and opportunities. We want to embody the Christian faith as a way of life.
While our worship may be more liturgical than some Christian churches, our mission and evangelism will take the shape they always do in vibrant Christian communities with friendship, discipleship, and service. Of course, our location in New York requires a measured and somewhat indirect engagement with the realities that matter to New Yorkers. We would do well to foster conversations in which our Christian faith is a resource to generate surprising interpretations and engagements in the arts, literature, design, community development, film, and politics.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Estimates of church attendance in New York City vary somewhere between 3 percent and 10 percent on a given Sunday. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church suggests that if you focus on the groups of Evangelical Protestants, the figure is closer to one-half of 1 percent. The story line that draws so many ambitious young people to the city does not seem to include their playing an active role in God’s drama of remaking the world through local communities of Christians.
But as Christians collaborate to plant new churches and encourage established churches to continue their good work, New York City can become a different kind of place. It can be a place where there are churches in every neighborhood making a difference in the city: By incarnating the healing and reconciling love of God in the midst of the city’s pain and brokenness. And by energizing a creative contribution to the city’s culture in every sector.
New Testament scholar Tom Wright has written about Scripture being a “script.” It is, Wright claims, a script that contains five acts—creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and church. The peculiar thing about this script is that Act 5 is left unfinished. And what the “script” of Scripture calls for is actors who will learn the story, rhythm, plot, and dialogue of the first four acts so well that they can improvise what the fifth and final act should look like.
New Yorkers may or may not be players in a tourism drama called “New York.” I haven’t been here long enough to know. But God invites New Yorkers into a fresh role in God’s drama of making the world new in Jesus Christ. God invites us to try on new clothes, learn to speak in a new way, and imagine our way into a new story line.
The play in New York might look slightly different than it does in Calcutta, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, or Nebraska. But everyone is offered the role of a lifetime. So Shakespeare is right . . . “All the world’s a stage.”
Jared Witt is lead minister with Imagine NYC.