The business of evangelism is old, but its methods are constantly changing. In recent years, evangelism in America has undergone a little-noticed but profound change in its organization, tactics, and culture. There is no better illustration of the new way of doing business than the appearance of evangelical activists in Boston, of all places.
Boston isn’t a likely candidate for missionary activity, but evangelicals have long dreamed of capturing the birthplace of the American Revolution. Only in the past few years have they found an efficient means to launch their long hoped-for revival.
They call it “church planting.” Missionary preachers create and house new congregations, often in inexpensive or state-subsidized locales. Sometimes the church planters establish their own worship services at existing yet underused church buildings. Other times, they rent out or borrow space in community centers, movie theaters, hotels, and other facilities. One relatively new tool of the church planting strategy is the public school system. In public schools across the country, the new evangelists have discovered facilities that can be made available to churches at relatively low or no cost—except, presumably, to local taxpayers. In some places, including New York City, the churches have not paid any rent at all.
Church planting is happening across the country, and it is organized on a national scale. Its presence in Boston is evidence of its efficiency even in the toughest markets. It has been enabled by pivotal shifts in the interpretation of constitutional law. And it is driven by a subtle yet profound transformation in evangelical culture in America—a transformation in both the religion itself and in its organizations forms.
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There is of course nothing new about evangelists arriving in Boston in hopes of sparking a religious revival. In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, too, arrived with high hopes of saving the city from its freethinking ways. With its reputation for progressive thought, its very large Irish Catholic population, its long history of liberal forms of Christianity such as the United Church of Christ and Universalist Unitarianism, and its distinctly secular intellectual culture, Boston has always presented a challenge for gospel ministers. The city has ranked as one of the least “Bible-minded” in America according to The American Bible Society and Barna Group, and it is among the bottom ten in a Gallup poll about the religiosity of urban populations. But there is a new edge to the evangelical attitude toward the city. Boston isn’t just a tough ground to hoe; to some, it’s enemy territory.
Church planting, especially in publicly funded buildings such as public schools, has taken off over the last decade.
At a Sunday service in February 2015, evangelical celebrity Lou Engle, whose international ministry planted the Justice House of Prayer in Cambridge, took to the podium, exhorting his followers to use the scriptures as a “battering ram.” “Boston is the Jericho of America,” he said. “When intellectualism falls out of Boston, the whole nation will be swept into revival,” he added enthusiastically.
Even pastors who are more measured with their words may describe the city as if it were an alien place. In September 2012, just prior to moving to Boston to plant a church, Pastor Al Abdulla of the California-based Reality Church noted Boston’s “massive cultural influence” and its reputation as “the cradle of Modern America,” before taking a disapproving tone. “But today only two percent of the area attends an evangelical church,” he stated. “Statistically speaking, there’re more Christians per capita in India than there are in Boston.”
Decrying Boston as a “haven for Unitarianism, the birthplace of Christian Science, and Transcendentalism,” Abdulla quoted President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler:
New England is losing the remnants of its Christian memory. We need a new generation of Christians who will bring Gospel anew to New England. New England was the cradle of Colonial America. Is it now the cradle of America’s secular future? . . . We’re praying for another great awakening in the New England area, for a new fire to sweep through.
The symbolic importance of Boston cannot be overstated. In October 2014, the evangelical organization The Gospel Coalition held a Boston conference to bring together evangelical leaders from around the country. In an interview released before the conference, “Seeking Gospel Renewal in Boston and Beyond: Regional Report from New England,”one pastor of a local church plant explained:
In terms of cultural idols, people who come to Boston are often driven with high aspirations . . . They don’t come to an elite school or hospital to be mediocre. With this drive for high achievement comes a strong emphasis on knowledge and intelligence. In New York City, the number one cultural idol may be money. In Washington D.C., it may be power, and in Los Angeles, it may be sex. But in Boston, the number one cultural idol is knowledge. We are a modern-day Athens.
This militant tone reflects a shift in the stance of the leadership of the evangelical movement. While embracing many of the tools of modernity such as social media, rock bands, and hip graphics, they have become more aggressive in their outreach, taking hard-right positions on culture-war issues such as same-sex marriage, reproductive freedom, and prayer in public schools.
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Establishing new churches is as old as Christianity itself, but the language and practice of church planting, especially in publicly funded buildings such as public schools, has taken off over the last decade. The church planting industry is a worldwide business, similar to a franchise system. Centralized headquarters and regional satellites provide high-level, multi-layered support to individual missionary entrepreneurs, including infrastructure, marketing, training, a clear statement of vision and values, and moral support. In some instances, the larger network covers some up-front costs; in other cases, church planters purchase “kits” that include all the necessary materials for establishing and running church services. In nearly every instance, the larger religious network ensures conformity with a distinct theological approach.
The new techniques of church planting, especially in public schools, fit well with the ethos of today’s national evangelical organizations. A 2007 national survey by LifeWay, a Christian research agency, found that 12 percent of newly established Protestant churches met in public schools. Today, that number is surely higher. In many cities, just about every public school auditorium is rented to a church plant on Sunday morning.
Boston is not the only progressive city that has become the focus of evangelism efforts. The national church planting organizations have also focused on Portland, Oregon, Austin, Texas, and New York City, where evangelicals launched a coordinated effort to plant hundreds of rent-free churches in New York City’s public schools. A nationwide program called the Strategic Focus Cities Initiative sought to change the complexion of America’s largest metropolitan centers by planting conservative evangelical churches. According to their promotional materials, Strategic City Focus formed church planting teams to identify places for new churches, then followed various steps to ensure those churches would succeed.
Some of the individuals on the ground in Boston are locals; more are from farther afield. Many are part of religious networks that are international in scope and scale. Among the “religious multinationals” that have planted successful churches in greater Boston within the past decade are the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, International House of Prayer, Acts29, Cornerstone, Vineyard USA, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Mosaic, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and Christian and Missionary Alliance. Sunday services tend to tend attract between several dozen and two hundred or more congregants.
In many instances the church plants do not bear the name of the parent organization. Revolution Church in Cambridge, launched in 2013, currently meets on Sundays at Harvard University’s Science Center, and is a member of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Citylife Presbyterian Church in Chestnut Hill, which launched its worship services in 2002, is part of Redeemer. City on a Hill, which operates in Brookline’s Driscoll Elementary School and is part of the ACTS29 network, was planted in 2010. Highrock Church, with locales in Arlington and Brookline, is part of the 800-church-strong Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) network; it established its plants in 2006 and 2008. According to Highrock Brookline pastor Josh Throneburg, congregants are often unaware of the ECC affiliation.
Church plants are tailored to specific markets. “In Boston you need to understand the cultural storyline,” says Citylife Pastor Stephen Um. “If you don’t contextualize the gospel to the secular mindset that characterizes the population here, people won’t even listen. In a sense, all effective preaching must be apologetic.”
Reality Boston’s Pastor Abdulla, who holds Sunday services at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, a community service building in the South End, says that Boston’s diverse culture “forces you to not just use tribal language like Christianese, to sort of assume that everyone believes the same thing. . . .You have to question your social and political posture, and you have to communicate that in a very tolerant way. So it does cause you to be more careful.” Reality Boston also employs “a more sacramental approach” to worship, reflecting the Catholic and Orthodox cultural practices of some of Boston’s most established religious communities. “We incorporate components of confession, assurance, and make the Eucharist a component of what we are doing,” Abdulla says.
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What are the core beliefs of the national religious groups planting churches in Boston and beyond? Many describe themselves as “nondenominational” or “interdenominational.” To the uninitiated, that may sound moderate, even interfaith, but evangelicals of a generally conservative type overwhelmingly dominate the leadership of this new field.
In many instances, church leadership promotes a Christian Nationalist version of American history that denies the Enlightenment roots of American democracy. The concept of “male headship,” found in the theological position papers of many of the religious organizations and sometimes referred to as a “complementarian” understanding of gender, underwrites a view of gender as Biblically based and hierarchical. Church leaders overwhelmingly oppose abortion rights, and many reserve a special opprobrium for same-sex relationships. But in progressive areas such as Boston, pastors are often careful about how they convey controversial theological positions; many congregants may be unaware, especially at first, of the positions taken by church leaders.
Church planters have become more aggressive on church-state issues, too. One marker is the way many of the new church plants install themselves in government facilities. According to records at Brookline Town Hall, City on a Hill pays just $100 dollars per Sunday for the use of Driscoll School’s auditorium, cafeteria, and multiple classrooms. At the public high school in Brookline, Highrock Church pays just $300 per week for the use of the auditorium, lunch room, art room, and multiple classrooms—just a tiny fraction of the money it would cost to build and maintain their own facilities.
Of course, religious entrepreneurship is an American tradition. But turning public schools and other government facilities into houses of worship is a recent phenomenon. The process was made possible by a 2001 Supreme Court decision, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, in which the court ruled that a ban on an adult-led after-school religious club infringed the group’s first amendment speech rights. The decision dismissed Establishment Clause concerns and the idea that young children might falsely perceive the private speech of the religious group as coming from the school itself. As a result, approximately 4,000 fundamentalist clubs targeting kids in their earliest years of learning, called Good News Clubs, have been installed in public elementary schools in just over a decade. The decision also helped pave the way for church planting initiatives in public schools.
In New York City, the situation has led to a legal challenge, Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, involving more than sixty churches that were at one time operating inside New York public schools on a rent-free basis. The city’s Department of Education has argued that it shouldn’t be subsidizing and managing a large network of religious organizations. Proponents say that if you allow other groups in public schools, you have to allow religion.The case has been fought in the courts for almost two decades.
On March 30, the Supreme Court declined to review a Second Circuit decision that upheld a standing ban by the city Board of Education on the use of public schools for religious services. But the matter appears to be far from over. The right-wing legal advocacy groups backing the case have vowed to continue the fight, and their allies in city and state government are exploring ways to undermine the DOE policy of keeping church and school separate.
Whether the new church plants in Boston will succeed in evangelizing the city or in “churching” enough people to move the dial on voting behavior remains to be seen.
Editor's note: the original version of this piece linked to the Web site of the Evangelical Community Church in Cincinnati. This church is unrelated to the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) discussed elsewhere in the piece.