KOH2RVA: Day 52

I’m looking at the latest news this morning, which says, “At least 16 dead after Sandy devastates New Jersey, swamps lower Manhattan.” Another headline reads: “50 homes destroyed as six-alarm blaze rips through Queens.”

It makes me feel even guiltier about the way I spent the day yesterday.

After making the decision to close the church offices I found myself with an unexpected day off. I dressed in my blue jeans and a warm sweater, lit a fire in the fireplace, poured another cup of coffee, put on some soothing Brazilian music, and began to read N. T. Wright’s latest book, Surprised by Hope, as the rain fell and the wind gusted outside. It was, as I confessed on Facebook, an “altogether pleasurable experience.”

But it didn’t last long.

The first pang of guilt stabbed me after only a few minutes. How could I be enjoying this day so much when some people were bracing for the worst, and fearing for their lives? And so I did the only thing I could think of to do in those circumstances: I prayed for them. Again and again throughout the day, whenever I felt a pang of guilt or looked at the latest news report, I prayed.

Did it do any good?

I believe that it did. I don’t mean that I believe my prayers changed the path of the storm or prevented the loss of life, but perhaps some of those who were fearful became a little less fearful. Maybe even in the midst of that storm they felt some of that peace that passes all understanding.

I’ve seen that happen.

When I offer to pray with someone who is about to undergo surgery I can often see the anxiety on his face. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen, doesn’t know if he’s going to pull through. But after the prayer that anxiety seems to have mostly disappeared. There may be tears on his cheeks, but his face is a picture of peace.

What happened?

Clinical studies have proven that people who are prayed for recover more quickly than those who don’t, even if they don’t know anyone is praying for them. There is something to this business of prayer. As people often say, “It works.” But I want to make it clear that it’s not me or my prayers that work. It’s God. My prayers are only the hair-thin connection between my powerlessness and his power. And so I pray, “God, be with those people who are in the path of this storm. Keep them safe. Give them peace. Help them cope.” And then I leave it up to him to answer that prayer in the way he sees fit. My hope is that he answers it in such a way that those people who were terrified only moments before feel a sudden peace wash over them, that even those who lost their lives in this storm were fearless in that moment, trusting a God who is bigger than a hurricane.

But I don’t know that.

In this morning’s devotional reading I found a long paragraph by C. S. Lewis on prayer. At the end of it he said, “Even if all the things that people prayed for happened, which they do not, this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted.”

KOH2RVA: Day 51

It’s going to be a tough day to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

High wind warnings from Hurricane Sandy are in effect from Noon today until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow in Richmond.  Church Administrator Billy Burford and I made the decision at 6:30 this morning to close the church, at least for today.  The staff is dedicating itself to prayer for those who will be most directly affected by the storm.  I pray that you are not one of those.

But if you are, instead, one of those who is having a “snow day” today, delighted to find yourself with an unexpected day off and time on your hands, you might want to read the article below, forwarded to me by Gerry Ozmore, who thought it was relevant to our year-long, every-member mission trip right here in our own city.

Thanks, Gerry!




Downtown Seattle’s Daniels Recital Hall, with its soaring Beaux Arts dome, intricate woodwork and stained glass, is about to become a church again. The developer who saved it from the wrecking ball has signed a long-term lease with Mars Hill Downtown Seattle, a resolutely evangelical congregation that has been worshiping in a former nightclub since its founding in 2008. With 1,500 members, the congregation outgrew its old, less-than-ideal quarters, where for a time the congregants used exotic dancers’ cages as coat racks.

Christians in Seattle aren’t alone in wanting to reclaim the heart of their city as a place for worship. Though the American evangelical movement is often stereotyped as rural and provincial, it has actually had its greatest success in the suburbs and exurbs, where entrepreneurial pastors found cheap land and plentiful parking to build the “megachurches” of the past generation—think Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., seating capacity over 7,000.

But a new generation of church founders believes that city centers will be the beachhead of a new evangelization. While U.S. cities aren’t growing as fast as overseas metropolises like Lagos or Shanghai, their renaissance since the crime-ridden 1970s is one of the cultural headlines of the last generation, and it has been accompanied by burgeoning urban congregations. On a Sunday morning in any American city the signs of change come in literal form: placards on sidewalks and corners announcing church meetings.

The growth in city-center churches is in tune with the times, summed up by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s book “The Triumph of the City.” News outlets like National Public Radio have aired numerous stories on the boom in urban studies. And my own employer, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, has embarked on a two-year series of cover stories and documentary films about the urban Christian revival called “This Is Our City.”

New York City pastor and best-selling author Timothy J. Keller helped spearhead the movement more than two decades ago. In 1989, he moved from rural Virginia to Manhattan and founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church. With several thousand in worship every week, Redeemer Presbyterian is perhaps the most celebrated city-center church story of recent years.

“You go to the city to reach the culture,” Mr. Keller tells his congregation. This, he explains, is as old as religion itself, and points to what New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks called “the first urban Christians”—the first-century churches founded in provincial cities all over the Roman world, and very quickly in Rome itself.

From a missionary standpoint, cities have always been centers of cultural activity and potential congregations. Mr. Keller’s followers see the challenge to influence the culture as a neglected calling for evangelical churches that have become too complacent on their suburban campuses. And given the pervasive secularity and competing temptations of a city like New York, if Christians can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

Growing even faster than city-center churches are immigrant churches in places like Los Angeles and Brooklyn that serve new arrivals from all over the world. And urban ministry, targeted at the physical and social needs of residents (housing, recreation space, education and the like) has been an emphasis of U.S. churches—both Protestant and Catholic alike—for generations.

That emphasis continues in the new generation. Redeemer Presbyterian’s nonprofit affiliate, Hope for New York, gave more than $1.1 million in grants to community development, counseling and youth organizations in 2011.

But city-center pastors are starting to pay as much attention to the spiritual needs, and social influence, of residents of penthouses as those in public housing. This shift from “urban ministry” to what some call “metropolitan ministry” seeks opportunities to connect the up-and-in to the down-and-out.

Mars Hill Downtown Seattle, for instance, not only offers a wide range of services to the needy, but its pastor served a term as president of the neighborhood business association.

And like other new arrivals, evangelicals are finding that the city has more to offer than just the advancement of a cause. Jon Tyson, 36, founding pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York, says the culturally strategic nature of New York was “the determining factor” that brought him there in 2005. Now, he says, “We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Our children are thriving here. We love the city.”

As these city-center congregations expand and thrive—from San Francisco to Houston to Manhattan—expect a lot more sidewalk placards to turn into permanent signs at corners like Fifth and Marion, the new home of the Mars Hill Downtown Seattle congregation.

Mr. Crouch is an editor-at-large at Christianity Today and author of “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling” (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

For God so Loved the Church

Before I say another word, let me say that last night’s “Simple Gifts” concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church was a musical love feast.  I sat there in my pew glowing like a light bulb, so joyful, so grateful, so proud of every person who participated.  As I wrote in my prayer journal this morning, “I think I fell in love with my congregation last night.”  Every man, woman, and child who sang or played became precious to me in a whole new way. 

I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that you don’t become a pastor on the day you are installed at a new church.  You become the preacher, but not the pastor.  That can take months or years, and it doesn’t always happen.  But it happened for me last night.  I thought about those traditions where the minister is referred to as “Father.”  That’s how I felt: like a proud papa.

But now the concert is over, and all that’s left is those delicious memories and the sound of music still ringing in my ears.  Sunday’s coming, and this Sunday is the Day of Pentecost.  I was looking through some of my old files for inspiration and found these thoughts in a sermon preached in 2005 called, “For God so Loved the Church.”


On the Day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And here’s the wonderful thing about a spirit:  you can’t abuse it.  You can’t steal it, you can’t break it, you can’t nail it to a tree.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t damage or destroy. He had learned that if you give people the Ten Commandments, they will break them; if you give them the Promised Land, they will fight and kill each other over it; if you give them your one and only son, they will crucify him.  So on the Day of Pentecost God gave us a spirit—an unbreakable, un-ownable, un-killable Holy Spirit—and for two thousand years now that gift has survived unscathed.  Not that we don’t try to scathe it.  As I was working on this sermon I had a vision of people chasing after the Holy Spirit with brooms, baseball bats, butterfly nets, wooden boxes, running up and down the aisles of the church, jumping over pews in the balconies, trying to catch it, kill it, shut it up.  But it’s a spirit, not a thing.  You can’t contain it.  It got loose in the church on the Day of Pentecost and it’s still loose. 

Sometimes it gets into the preacher and he says things that make the church gasp.  Sometimes it gets into parishioners and they do things that are shockingly new.  No wonder people thought those first disciples were drunk when they saw the way they behaved, but Peter said, “No, this is just what the prophet Joel was talking about, that time when God’s spirit will be poured out on all people and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.”  Do you hear what Peter is saying?  You can’t control this spirit.  You can’t shut it up in the Ark of the Covenant.  You can’t contain it behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies.  You can’t confine it to the rigid lines of the Apostle’s Creed.  You can’t limit it to the conclusions of the Council of Nicaea.  You can’t bind it between the leather covers of the Bible.  You can’t chain it to the pulpit of the medieval church.  You can’t sell it to get a single soul out of Purgatory.  You can’t nail it to the door of the Wittenberg Church.  You can’t close it up in the Westminster Confession.  You can’t shut it up in the Constitution and Bylaws.  This spirit is loose in the church.  It’s loose in the world!  It can get hold of almost anybody and cause them to do unusual things.

It got hold of Stephen in a way that eventually cost him his life.  It got hold of Philip in a way that led him to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch.  It got hold of Paul on the road to Damascus in a way that turned his life around.  It got hold of Peter on that rooftop in Joppa in a way that changed his mind about the Gentiles.  Read the whole of the Book of Acts and you will see the Holy Spirit smashing through one barrier after another—race, religion, nationality, geography—as the kingdom comes, God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It begins with the rush of a mighty wind and builds from there, until it begins twisting across the religious landscape like a tornado, smashing against the coastline of convention like a holy hurricane.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t contain, and can’t contain still.  Who knows where this spirit will lead us in the days ahead?  Who knows where that mighty wind will blow?  I only know that on this day, the Day of Pentecost, as I draw a breath to blow out the candle on the birthday cake of the church, I make a wish that the wind of God will blow where it will, and that you and I will find the courage to follow.