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New York church planters, Alabama Baptists see 80 church plants take root after 9/11comment (0)

September 15, 2011

At 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Fortner sat down for a quick breakfast. Only five miles from where Fortner blessed his meal, a Boeing 767 commercial airliner navigated by terrorists slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Too far from the twin towers to hear the crash, a co-worker told Fortner and others about the mysterious crash.

In those next few minutes Fortner got his first opportunity to tell a New Yorker about Jesus.  

“I plant the seeds and it’s God’s job to make them grow,” said the bivocational pastor and computer network engineer.

That day — and in the days following — a variety of New Yorkers listened as Fortner told them about Jesus.

As Fortner walked back that night from a sparsely attended prayer meeting, he prayed as he walked. New Yorkers showed unprecedented openness as they began to recognize their vulnerability. Yet Fortner, who would soon be returning to his home in Dallas, felt small and helpless to meet the city’s staggering spiritual needs.

“Send someone else to pick up where I left off,” Fortner prayed.

God has spent the last decade answering that prayer.  

According to a study by the Values Research Institute and reported on the new www.nycreligion.info web magazine covering religion in the city, 40 percent of Manhattan evangelical churches started after 2000. That’s about 80 churches. During a two-month period in 2009, at least one new Manhattan church started every Sunday.

The seeds of Fortner’s answered prayer were already in the city on Sept. 14, when the frazzled pastor/engineer drove his rental car back to Texas.

Two days after Fortner left, on the first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, Southern Baptist church planter Nelson Searcy held two memorial services in a Manhattan hotel. 90 people showed up.  

In the spring, Searcy teamed up with another young church planter, Kerrick Thomas, who had been planning a new church in the East Village. The two would combine their efforts and start one church with multiple campuses. Nearly a decade after The Journey’s official launch on Easter 2002, the church has 1,000 people in attendance each weekend on four campuses around the city (and another 250 people in its Boca Raton, Fla., campus, launched by Searcy in February 2011).

Look deeper and it is clear that God started answering Fortner’s prayer long before 9/11: more than a decade earlier, in fact. For example, in his 2002 book “The Power of a City at Prayer,” Mac Pier documents a prayer movement in the years leading up to 9/11. Tim Keller had arrived in New York City in 1989 and founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which has started 75 churches in the city in the past two decades. And the number of evangelical Christians had already started climbing before 9/11. According to the Values Research Institute, the percentage of people in center-city Manhattan who identify themselves as evangelicals has more than tripled (from less than 1 percent to 3 percent) since 1990.

“When you have a concentrated church planting focus, you’re able to push back darkness,” said Aaron Coe, who started Gallery Church in Manhattan in 2006 and now serves as a vice president for the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

So was 9/11 the catalyst for the church planting boom in Manhattan?

Yes and no, say Southern Baptists in the city today. Most say that 9/11 brought New Yorkers back to the faith and traditions of their past. For most, that wasn’t born-again Christianity.

In fact, despite now being one of the largest churches in Manhattan, Thomas said The Journey’s growth was slow in the months and years directly following the tragedy. The church had 110 people in attendance for its launch, but the number dropped in half the next Sunday and to 35 by the summer.  

Slowly over the next few years, people did show up — first 100, then 300, then 500. In its first nine years, the church baptized 1,000 new believers.

In 2003, NAMB named New York City a Strategic Focus City, a four-year emphasis that brought church planters and much-needed resources to Southern Baptists in the city. During the “New Hope New York” campaign, Southern Baptists started around 45 churches.

“When you see how evangelical adherence has grown in the city and you see how 40 percent of the churches in Manhattan have been started since [2000], we can thank God that Southern Baptists had a part in that,” said Steve Allen, NAMB’s lead catalyst for the New York City Tri-State Church Planting Team.

Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Vestavia Hills, for example, got involved in New York City near the beginning of “New Hope New York” and has remained consistently involved in church planting in New York City for most of the past decade.

Danny Wood, Shades Mountain’s pastor, is turning the church’s involvement into a broader effort to engage Southern Baptists in church planting in New York City.

“We’re all part of this incredible Southern Baptist Convention,” Wood said as he urged other Southern Baptist pastors to involve their churches in the New York City work. “Knowing we’ve been blessed with a number of resources in our churches, we need to go to those other areas and help them in the resource department. Our role [as established churches elsewhere] is to get boots on the ground to help some of these churches get started.” (BP)

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