Billy graham’s 1957 New York City Crusade stands unique among evangelistic programs: 16 weeks in the Madison Square Garden arena, a July meeting in Yankee Stadium attracting 100,000-plus, prime-time Saturday night television coverage on ABC-TV, 1,000 local churches involved in visitation, and Christians around the world praying for the meetings.

People got excited. Here was Graham, tackling sin head-on in New York City, and the Christians seemed to be winning—more than 66,000 spiritual decisions from a 2.6 million cumulative attendance. Graham would say afterwards that the exhausting but successful campaign, paired with a previous one in London, took something out of him that could never be replaced.

Missions experts and pastors aren’t sure if another big evangelism campaign is the answer for New York. But they all agree that doing evangelism in the nation’s largest city is a big task. And they agree it’s a vital one: many believe that as New York goes, so goes the nation. Because of its influence, the city’s spiritual revival would raise an awareness in the U.S. and worldwide.

Graham’s organization has no plans for another major New York crusade. In fact, a number of local pastors don’t believe mass evangelism can work in the city because the people are fragmented into too many ethnic and racial groups. They say the best results come when groups and individuals target a specific audience.

While Campus Crusade’s 1977 “Here’s Life, New York” mass-media blitz and evangelistic outreach yielded an estimated 25,000 decisions for Christ, some leaders complain that such an effort produces too few permanent converts, costs too much, and turns off sophisticated New Yorkers with its packaged approach. (The campaign’s director, Dick Burr, now the head of “Here’s Life, World.” said the program did achieve its goal of consciousness raising: Campus Crusade’s research showed that through its newspaper ads, door cards, telephone calls, tracts, and even airplane skywriting, an estimated 60 percent of New Yorkers became aware of the key phrase. “I Found It—New Life in Jesus Christ.”

A superficial glance leads one to believe the gospel is dead in New York City. But beneath the surface, one finds some exciting and effective ministries. Because many of these are carried on by small groups and individuals, they go unseen by the evangelical news media:

• Roughly 31 small group Bible studies are held weekly in Manhattan’s financial district, one composed of heads of major corporations. These spun off from an original group 12 years ago on Wall Street under the leadership of management consultant Homer Figler. The groups have no organizational structure, although they have had guidance from the Fellowship Foundation in Washington, D.C., which encourages Bible studies worldwide and mostly among executives. A year ago the city’s study groups sponsored a first Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, with Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oreg.) as speaker.

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• Parachurch groups are thriving. Seekers Christian Fellowship provides Christian fellowship and outreach on high school and college campuses (CT, Jan. 2, p. 49). InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has chapters on 20 college campuses. Staff member Barbara Benjamin is successfully encouraging formation of small fellowship groups within the larger chapter—for example, Jewish believers, Korean Christian students, and others. When the entire group meets, such as at New York University, one sees a dynamic, integrated group of Asian, Oriental, Hispanic, black, and white Christian students.

• Franciscan priest Bruce Ritter ministers to runaways and street kids at his Covenant House, a rescue-rehabilitation agency near Times Square. The $6 million ministry began some years ago when six teen-agers appeared on a winter’s night outside his lower Manhattan apartment door asking for help. There are an estimated 20,000 runaways underage 16 in New York, and many of them fall victim to pimps, sex rings, and drugs. Ritter reached some 12,000 of these young people last year—offering them free medical help, a bed, a telephone to call home, and food.

Despite its notorious financial woes and an 11 percent population drop in the last 20 years (1980 pop. 7,015,608), New York remains “the” city in the U.S. There’s something energizing about this 300-square-mile city on the mouth of the Hudson River, with its five boroughs—Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island—providing a cultural and ethnic mix found nowhere else.

But even the most careless eye will see worms in the Big Apple. While it has the world’s largest financial center on Wall Street, the nation’s richest port, and leads in manufacturing, New York also leads U.S. cities in most murders (a record 1,787 last year), tolerates hard-core pornography in the heart of touristy Times Square, harbors a tremendous drug traffic, and contains some of the nation’s worst slums.

The city in many respects seems cold. Fearful residents live behind locked doors and ride the subways with locked gazes lest they appear vulnerable to muggers and panhandlers.

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New York is a jumble of subways, trains, tunnels, buses, and taxis. Just one walk up Broadway shows all the city’s contrasts: from fur-wrapped actresses to gutter drunks, Midwestern conventioneers to hardened pimps. There are foreign tongues, soft-pretzel and roast-chestnut venders, Chinese fast food, and pizza by the slice. And pinball palaces with exploding cannons and spaceship battles. The Christians can’t help feeling that only God can bring order to this chaos. Yet a preacher may feel as unwelcome as a bus rider with incorrect change. One cannot but wonder: If God had said New York, not Nineveh, would Jonah have preferred staying in the fish?

Everyone agrees that New York is a tough place in which to minister. Assistant pastor Denny Ruhle of the Manhattan Church of the Nazarene says, “I always heard there was evil, and I believed it. But here you see it every day.… You’re actually in spiritual combat, and not everybody can come here.”

In fact, many workers have left. But visits with those who have stayed show that the gospel is alive. While evangelistic outposts are few in this secularly oriented city, the Christians staffing these seem to reflect an aura of strength and faith not often found among, say, the average suburbanite evangelical. By necessity, their God-reliance factor is high.

One hears most about the city’s “big” names: positive-preaching Norman Vincent Peale of Marble Collegiate Church, activist William Sloane Coffin at Riverside Church, officials of the National Council of Churches and other church agencies at the massive Interchurch Center (dubbed “the God Box” by wags inside), and that connoisseur of fine oratory, David H.C. Read, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian.

But perhaps the true spiritual heroes of New York are the forgotten workers in the “trenches.” There is the college student who led a skid row drunk to Christ in Grand Central Station; now that convert helps direct the Manhattan Church of the Nazarene’s ministry to street people. At the same church is a Staten Island woman who bakes cookies three days a week, then rides ferry and buses to help out with the lunch program—all without recognition or personal glory, and at her own expense. Ultimately, the evangelization of New York City will depend upon the work of the local church. What is its health?

One must look first to the black church because of its numbers. Significantly, at least 80 percent of the city’s 2.6 million Protestants are black, according to Leland Gartrell, director of church planning and research for the Council of Churches of the City of New York. Since another 10 percent of the Protestants are Hispanic, says Gartrell, white Protestants form a small minority (white evangelicals an even smaller one).

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The latter fact describes the decline in the city of predominantly white, mainstream denominations: in a total of 13 of them, New York City membership fell drastically in recent decades—a drop from 640,000 in 1952 to 300,000 in 1976, says Gartrell. The Episcopal church, for instance, lost about 70,000 New York City members in that period—from 130,000 down to 56,000. Of the 13 denominations, only Southern and American Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans gained members.

These figures perhaps say as much about white flight as anything else. For example, the city’s Jewish population also dipped by almost half—from 2 million to 1.1 million—between 1960 and 1977. (Gartrell’s figures show the city is about 35 percent Protestant, 48 percent Roman Catholic, and 15 percent Jewish. According to Gartrell, of the 3,000 or so religious institutions in New York, there are 1,822 Protestant and Orthodox congregations, 452 Roman Catholic parishes, and from 800 to 900 synagogues.

Interchurch cooperation would seem the best way to evangelize New York. Unfortunately, and for several reasons, that is not happening.

The Council of Churches of the City of New York (CCCNY), representing some 1,000 Protestant churches, has had an evangelism committee only since 1978. (The council, which sponsored the momentous 1957 Graham meetings, reestablished the panel after about a 10-year lapse.) The committee focused most of its first two years just on “sensitizing the council and its board of directors to the need for an active voice in evangelism and discipleship,” said chairman Victor Ketchens.

The Greater New York Association of Evangelicals (GNYAE) organized in 1977. Some of its member churches have exciting evangelistic ministries. GNYAE president Daniel Mercaldo, for instance, has seen his Gateway Cathedral on Staten Island grow from 150 members to more than 800 in the last five years, mostly by reaching Catholics. However, the fledgling group doesn’t yet have a city-wide thrust.

Nor do the two church councils show signs of cooperating. Ketchens and Mercaldo didn’t seem to know what each other’s organization was doing. Mercaldo judged the CCCNY as too involved in social and revolutionary causes and probably uninterested in evangelism. On his part, Ketchens realizes evangelicals’ distrust of the council, and admits that at least “prior to 1978 there had been very little light on evangelism” in the CCCNY.

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Ketchens, however, a Bronx Baptist Church lay evangelist who was active in Campus Crusade’s 1977 “Here’s Life, New York” campaign, wants to change this image. For 1981, his committee has targeted formation of pastors’ prayer groups, starting new youth programs—such as short-term missions—and being a more effective resource agency for churches interested in evangelism. If he had the proper time and budget, Ketchens would like to spend six months with 10 churches in each borough, “getting a good sense of what they want to do” in terms of evangelism, and then helping them do it.

Ketchens and others further realize many local churches have all they can handle just looking after their own work—and surviving. Research shows that at least 40 New York congregations die or move out every year; declining membership and economics are primary causes. Churches and members face skyrocketing costs. It is not unusual to have to pay $800 to $1,400 for a humble Manhattan apartment. Jews for Jesus evangelists worked 7 A M. to 11 P.M. days last summer, mostly because high living costs (estimated at $35 per day per worker) mandated a short campaign, said leader Moishe Rosen (see accompanying story).

Pastor Donald Hubbard of Calvary Baptist Church—the best-known evangelical congregation in Manhattan, and one of the few established ones there—says members sacrifice just by coming. At its location across the street from Carnegie Hall, the church has little parking to offer except in expensive nearby garages.

Hubbard described other problems urban churches face. Members fear being out at night to attend church functions, and because of commuting costs, are not able to come often during the week. “It’s difficult bringing people in from outlying areas to do evangelism,” he explained. Calvary’s solution has been training members to do evangelism where they are: at school, at work, at home.

But in spite of the odds, some churches are thriving, and they stand out like the 110-story towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Study shows immediately that there is no set pattern for their evangelistic success. The growing churches each have adapted their programs to the needs of their unique situations.

Black and Hispanic church leaders realize more than anyone the failure of hit-and-run evangelism. An effective ministry for them means treating physical needs, often before identifying the spiritual ones.

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Shivering in the pre-Christmas cold, pastor Ezra Williams of Bethel Gospel Assembly said, “A lot of people are going to die this winter.” Asked why, he said, “Well, because they sleep on roofs.” Williams’s church stands in the middle of Black Harlem, and in the middle of probably the heaviest drug traffic in the city. (On a summer day anywhere from 100 to 150 people buy and sell drugs on the street corner by the church.) Gutted buildings stand next to aged brownstones, where individual families are trying to make a living and improve their neighborhood. Williams’s potential audience faces high crime rates, high costs of living, and low moral conditions: that helps explain why more than 50 percent of the church’s new converts have been in jail.

Because many of these people distrust the church as just another institution, the church wants to buy an abandoned building nearby and renovate it into a halfway house for new converts. “It’s not hard to get 30 or 40 converts every time we have a street meeting. But unless we can get them out of Harlem, the ghetto environment, we will lose them,” Williams said. They need a time for discipleship and Christian community. Otherwise, he believes, they drift too easily back to their old ways.

Williams, born and raised in Harlem, and Bible college trained, sees evangelism as the ministry of his Pentecostal church. The church’s calendar and budget prove it. The 400 or so members, now growing too numerous for their building, give 25 percent of their offerings to evangelism and missions. The young people go every week to three prisons and detention centers to witness and pass out tracts; other age groups have other kinds of outreach.

Each summer the church mobilizes for its so-called Invasion of a five-block-square area surrounding the church. On Saturdays, a group goes witnessing door to door. (By the end of the summer the whole target area is covered.) On Sunday, Williams takes his pulpit to the street. Because of frequent population shifts, the church covers this same area each year.

Williams says most blacks in the neighborhood have at least a church background and that there is seldom open defiance of religious things. He maintains a positive attitude: “There is more grace in Harlem than anywhere else in the world, because the Bible says, ‘Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.’ ”

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The much larger Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn takes a slightly different tack concerning evangelism. Founded in 1847, the church is headed by well-known senior pastor Gardner Taylor. The mostly middle-class congregation is situated in an upbeat area of Brooklyn, where block associations (community self-help groups) are numerous. The church’s evangelism director, J.W. Skinner, Jr., promotes a “comprehensive evangelism” ministry that links physical needs with spiritual ones. The church operates a 150-student grade school, a 120-bed nursing home, a “telephone reassurance service” to look after the elderly, and a breakfast program, among other things.

Skinner recently spent six weeks leading about 1,000 persons through a general evangelism training program. (The church has 10,000 members, of which about one-half are active.) From this group, he chose 20 for the church’s evangelism committee. As an example of the social-spiritual tie, people who receive free clothing receive a letter and a follow-up visit from the staff. The same is true of families receiving help at the nursing home.

The church takes in about 200 new members a year, but Skinner believes blacks aren’t flocking to the church as they once did. People seem to appreciate visits from church members, but it takes maybe five or six visits before they will come to church. He believes blacks today are looking to the government rather than the church for help: with an estimated 30 percent unemployment among the black labor force (National Urban League figure), people are looking out more for themselves than for the gospel. Instead of turning to Christ to supply their needs, Skinner says, blacks are becoming more self-seeking and materialistic.

The Hispanic churches, particularly the Pentecostal ones, show exciting signs of growth. In November, several hundred Hispanic Sunday school leaders attended workshops at the evangelical First Alliance Church (see accompanying story). There are other signs of cooperation among Hispanics, who face many of the same problems of poverty and violence as do many blacks.

The largest Hispanic congregation in New York, the 900-member John 3:16 Christian Church (Assemblies of God), occupies a corner in the south Bronx that resembles post-World War II Berlin. Gutted buildings rise above rubble-strewn vacant lots. The church had to restrict the hours of its all-night prayer room when toughs stole several ladies’ purses. The person who values his car’s health won’t be too keen about parking near the church.

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Yet the church is thriving. John 3:16 has about 120 Sunday school teachers, a bookstore, printing presses, a 10-month Bible institute, and it provides funds and volunteers for three drug rehabilitation centers in the neighborhood.

Pastor Cleofe Vargas emphasizes family conferences as a way to reach people. Church “missionaries” visit hospitals and prisons. Since it has the only baptistry among neighborhood churches, a quarterly service attracts converts from other churches; as many as 500 may be baptized in one service. The church becomes an evangelistic outreach, as the audience fills the 2,000-seat sanctuary. On Sundays, 10 or 11 visitation groups fan out to Bronx hospitals.

Vargas’s wife Ana described the difficult problems faced each Sunday when derelicts enter the church; often they are stoned on drugs, or have no money, no job, no food, and no place to stay. The members, who themselves aren’t rich, must decide how to help. Despite it all, Ana Vargas said Christians should know that “We’re surviving … despite all the pressures, we’re surviving.”

The predominantly white evangelical churches aren’t having a significant impact on the city as a whole, partly because there aren’t many of them. In recent years, a number of Christian organizations have moved from the city. Even though these groups have good economic and other reasons for moving, the end result—fewer Christians in the city—doesn’t justify it, argue the critics.

Several churches are trying, at least. First Alliance is a model of racially integrated and progressive ministry. In this its centennial year, the Christian and Missionary Alliance congregation is promoting small group Bible studies as the way to win the city. Grace Episcopal Church shows new evangelical stirrings. Calvary Baptist of late shows modest growth. And, as mentioned earlier, Gateway Cathedral on Staten Island has an evangelistic impact on “cultural” Catholics.

“I don’t know if consciously we do anything to reach Catholics, but we are seeking to reach families, and most of the families on Staten Island are Catholic,” said pastor Dan Mercaldo. The kind of person most often attracted to Gateway is in his late thirties, has two children, is a Roman Catholic whose marriage is on the rocks, and is reaching out for help.

Because so many new members have Catholic backgrounds, the church makes baptism and Communion two of its most important services. The Catholics, who hold to the importance of sacraments, are told explicitly from Scripture the meaning of these two and how they relate to personal salvation.

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About every evangelistic method has been tried in New York City. Christian television and radio primarily attract a born-again audience, and aren’t geared to gaining spiritual decisions. Most TV preachers see New York as a mission field, says Keith Howser, president and general manager of WFTI-TV, a new Christian station that was scheduled to begin broadcasting earlier this year. “Only Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts make their budgets in New York City,” Houser said.

Prior to Graham’s 1957 New York crusade, his evangelistic team members met for a spiritual refresher weekend. A devotional speaker, concluding his message, knelt on the floor and prayed, “Oh, God, send a revival to New York and let it begin in me.”

Graham, who was sitting at the back of the room, rushed to the front and knelt also. Seconds later, all 19 persons present joined them, offering the same prayer. Graham then admitted that his heart had grown cold for New Yorkers’ souls, and he thanked God for recharging his fervor.

Twenty-four years later, members of the John 3:16 Christian Church hold all-night meetings in their prayer room. Members of other churches also pray for evangelism and revival. The results don’t seem as spectacular now as in 1957. But now, as then, the evangelistic task ultimately lies with each New York Christian, and with the prayers of Christians outside the city.

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