We have worked hard and talked to many people to answer this question. Surprisingly, we have found that the obstacle is not lack of spiritual interest. In fact, quite the contrary, New Yorkers are very spiritually minded people, and even the most seasoned New Yorker has deep spiritual questions. In our experience, we have learned that the main obstacle to New Yorkers visiting church is not lack of interest, but lack of trust.
Although New Yorkers do have spiritual needs, many don’t believe that the church has the credibility to meet their needs. In many cases, this is due to the perception that the church has not done much to benefit the community, but is instead mainly interested in its own benefit. Others fear that if they visit, they will be judged. If I were to be very honest, I must agree that unfortunately some of this perception is quite accurate. Therefore, when New Yorkers seek answers to life’s questions, they seldom seek out the church for answers.
As a result of the above discovery, we have established three mandates:
1. We must take responsibility to rebuild the credibility of the church in NY and to regain the trust of New Yorkers. We must genuinely care about all the needs in our community: emotional, physical, social, financial, intellectual, and spiritual. Then, we must do something to meet them – with no strings attached.
2. We must not rely on attracting people to church. We must also go out and connect people to genuine, gospel-centered community.
3. When people do visit our church, we must provide an environment that meets them wherever they are in their spiritual journey. It is essential that people are allowed to belong to community before they believe, and to move at their own pace.
One way that we are accomplishing the above mandates is through our new “Homework Help” program at a local homeless shelter. We arrive Saturday afternoons at the shelter, where the kids have their homework assignments ready. As we sit with them, not only do we help them with their studies, but we also try to encourage them in their abilities and to stay in school. Finishing school is a significant factor in breaking the cycle of homelessness. Last week we helped some students with Math and English, while another just needed help learning her “ABCs.” Afterwards, we helped the kids fix a broken bicycle.
We see this as not just an activity for “church people.” We believe that it is also necessary for us to engage all New Yorkers in serving the community. Therefore, we invite all of our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers to come with us to serve the homeless. We have found that New Yorkers are very caring people; and most seem to be very happy to hear that we are doing this.
Our motivation in all of this is to be more like Jesus by caring for the vulnerable. We hope that as we do so, we will begin to rebuild the credibility of Jesus’ beloved bride. As we bring our friends along, we also hope that they will see that Christ has truly changed us, that he is real, and is able to meet our spiritual needs. We pray that this will result in many of our friends visiting our church, where they will see and experience the transformation that comes only through Christ.