The yellow church bus does look peculiar—even to calloused New Yorkers used to seeing just about everything. Driving through Times Square en route to Spanish Harlem, Pastor Daryl Piña laughs because people still shake their heads and say, “You can’t have a bus ministry in New York City.”

But First Alliance Church has a bus ministry, and a successful one. During a three-hour Sunday morning circuit. Piña brings back inner-city youngsters whose vitality, members say, has rejuvenated their once-sleepy congregation.

The unique program is one of several that have enabled this Christian and Missionary Alliance church—the original Alliance church, founded by A. B. Simpson—to do another thing people say churches in New York City can’t do: grow. Since the arrival eight years ago of senior pastor Eugene McGee, First Alliance’s membership has tripled from 100 to 300. Asked the secret of this modest growth, McGee commented, “We changed the whole program to fit the needs.”

The church is located on Manhattan’s upper east side in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, not far from fashionable Park Avenue. First Alliance moved there 10 years ago, when unsavory porno and strip joints near the former church building on seedy Eighth Avenue became too much for members to cope with. The CMA paid roughly $1 million to buy and refurbish the present home, formerly a German Reformed church.

For a time, however, this looked like a poor investment. When McGee became pastor, only about 40 people attended the Sunday Bible school and evening service, with perhaps 100 at morning worship. Soon after, the CMA moved its headquarters out of the city to Nyack—taking with it staff members who had comprised about 20 percent of First Alliance’s membership.

McGee and lay leaders assessed the situation. Believing widely separated Sunday services discouraged attenders, who fear being out at night and dislike more than one cross-town trip per Sunday, they concentrated the Sunday format. An early Sunday school would begin at 9:30 A.M., followed by the 11 A.M. preaching service. A second Sunday school would be conducted at 2 P.M., with “evening church” occurring at 3

This seemed to help attendance, as did McGee’s almost accidental start of the now popular all-church lunch between the two sets of services. McGee had seen a bargain on chow mein while shopping at a wholesale food outlet. He was struck by the idea to buy a quantity, along with a few chickens. Then he personally whipped up a simple after-church dinner the following week. That first Sunday about 20 people stayed, McGee recalls. “And splitting the cost, it came to about 35 cents each.”

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The idea caught on, and the lunch crowd grew. Now cooking and cleanup duties rotate among the members. They eat for a small donation, and enjoy a large amount of fellowship. “One of the biggest reasons inner-city churches die is for the lack of a social life,” McGee explained. He noted that First Alliance members come from all over the city and may see each other only during Sunday or at other church functions.

Desire for relationships also may explain the church’s success with small group Bible studies. These began after McGee felt frustrated that both prayer and Bible study could not be treated adequately during a single midweek service. As a result, the church decided to devote the service entirely to prayer and praise, and encouraged members to start or find their own Bible studies.

A year later, at least 40 home and small group Bible studies are tied directly or indirectly to First Alliance. The church offers a revolving, 10-week course on how to start one. Now, Bible studies form the hub of an auspicious evangelistic effort. Members are celebrating the church’s one hundredth anniversary this year under the theme, “A Home Bible Study in Every Block of New York City—All 39,000 of Them.” McGee is promoting the idea among other evangelical pastors and religious leaders, as well as on his weekly radio and cable television Bible study broadcasts.

Such promotion is another key to survival of the inner-city church, McGee believes; urbanites must be made aware that the church is there, and doing something.

First Alliance’s visibility ranges from its electronic media outreach to tract racks in front of the church. (Because evangelical churches are few in Manhattan, First Alliance plays host to other evangelical programs, from a new Campus Life club at Julia Richmond High School across the street to workshops for Spanish evangelical Sunday school leaders.)

First Alliance has benefitted from the talents and experiences of a diverse group of leaders, staff, and nonstaff people. Piña, for instance, comes from a Roman Catholic and military background. In the early 1970s, he felt called to youth work after a fresh encounter with Christ, and moved to New York’s Spanish Harlem. Within months, he was discipling a group of about 30 boys in his rough, often violent, neighborhood.

Feeling the boys (many of them new converts) needed to get involved in an organized church, he took them one night to First Alliance’s “Cinema Club”—a monthly Friday night showing of a Christian movie. Mostly Hispanics and blacks, the boys had doubts about visiting a predominantly white church, but Piña assured them they could look elsewhere if First Alliance didn’t accept them.

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The young people felt at home, and they kept coming. Seeing Piña’s effectiveness, the church soon thereafter added him to the full-time staff as inner-city ministries pastor.

Piña’s work has opened evangelistic doors to inner-city parents as well; the church interviews the youngsters’ parents before their children are allowed to ride the church bus. While Piña loves to joke with the kids (aged 39 and single, he calls them his “family”), he also commands respect. For instance, the boys don’t get on the bus without a necktie, and he teaches them to practice social courtesies they might not learn at home. He sees changed lives: from the 10-year-old boy formerly involved in a child sex ring, to a young tough who accepted Christ, went to Nyack College, and now speaks of being a witness at his new job on Wall Street.

An Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship staff member, Barbara Benjamin, had provided Piña with contacts in some of the tenement buildings. Benjamin, a cross-cultural ministries specialist and former missionary to Ecuador, started coming to First Alliance partly because of its integrated ministry that attracts large numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and internationals. She also helps out with First Alliance’s Spanish congregation. A Campus Crusade church-relations worker, Russ Mote, directs the senior citizens program. The American Board of Missions to the Jews provided staff help for the church’s small group of Jewish believers.

Other programs include a monthly all-night prayer meeting, college-age and internationals’ fellowships, and a weekly young people’s Bible club and tutorial program. McGee stays close to the action—he and his wife live in the parsonage apartment above the church, and resist suggestions that they find a more relaxed living situation away from the church. The former Youth for Christ director in Atlanta, Chicago, and France doesn’t speak like an inner-city pastor—having a faint Georgian drawl—but he has learned to think like one.

First Alliance faces problems common to most churches. During a staff meeting, complaints surface about too few volunteers for bus driving and for serving meals to the kids before the Cinema Club. Members need more evangelistic training for handling inquirers during some 15 weekend evangelistic campaigns planned at the church for its centennial celebration, one staffer says.

Piña wants indoor quarters for the church’s three buses, now parked along the street and susceptible to battery thieves and window breakers. And McGee wonders about options for solving overcrowding in the church building, in light of skyrocketing rent and high construction costs. He expresses confidence in the future, however: “We’ve seen miracles before—this is a loving church, a praying church.”

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