10 Things I Learned in New York City (Part 3)

In October I was fortunate to have a month-long sabbatical. I am grateful for the grace that my church gave to me to allow me this time to step away. Part of that time was spent in New York City as part of the pursuit of my Doctor of Ministry. This sabbatical time allowed me to make significant progress, and I am deeply grateful.

Part 1 Part 2

“Start a youth out on his way; even when he grows old he will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6

#4 – New Yorkers love their dogs. In Manhattan, I overheard one sidewalk conversation between two neighbors about when “she” would arrive. “She” was in Europe right now, but everything had been prepared in the apartment. Sitters had even been lined up. The affection, planning, and expense being described in reference to “she” made me think that the conversation was about a child being adopted. Having walked with several families through the adoption process, I smiled thinking about the joy about to come to this new family. Then the neighbor asked, “what breed is she?” I nearly dropped my blueberry crumb muffin on the sidewalk! All of the affection, planning, and expense were for a dog!

There are so many dogs. Big dogs. Little dogs. Exotic breeds. One Christian leader said that there are more dogs than children in New York City. At first, I didn’t believe it. But after walking through Central Park on a Saturday morning, I saw hundreds of people playing with their dogs…and only dozens playing with their children.

But it would not be fair to think that children are not valued. Quite the opposite is the case. Each morning I sat at a small diner about the time that the local elementary school began classes. I saw children being diligently cared for. I listened to parents instructing their kids in appropriate manners and listening to their hopes for the day. I watched a grandpa navigate the busy streets with a young boy hand in hand. At one point an older elementary school kid zipped by on a scooter, and I thought that finally, I was seeing a kid all alone. When he came to the end of the block, he stopped and waited for his dad to catch up. I don’t remember a single time that I saw a parent or guardian on their phone while walking with their child. These parents were almost hyper-attentive to their children. Seeing these rhythms of family life in the midst of a city reminded me of just how powerful the gift of family is wherever one happens to be experiencing it!

#5 – The church in the south needs a farm teampart 1. Just as a major league baseball team is constantly equipping and grooming new players by putting them into action in the minor leagues, so also the church in the south needs to be preparing ministers in live-action not just in the classroom. The pastor of a small country church illustrated the need poignantly. He shared that during Operation Desert Storm Iraqi soldiers surrendered in droves when confronted with American troops. Many of them had never fired a single shot from their rifles…ever…not even in training. One wonders if many of the people not returning to church after the pandemic or designating themselves to have “no religious affiliation” are like those Iraqi soldiers. They have been to church and equipped with elementary Bible knowledge or had an emotional experience in a worship service, but they were never trained to wield their weapon nor “give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). With no battle experience and little if any battle training, is it really a surprise that so many would surrender under pressure?

Here is what we can expect. The challenge to the Christian faith that is everyday life in the North is coming to the South, and it is coming to Waco. One Texan with whom I spoke who lived for several years in New York put it this way, “Up there the question is not, ‘what church do you go to?’ The question is, ‘what religion are you?’” She is right. With shifts in global migration and in cultural expectations, it is not sufficient to celebrate church attenders. We must celebrate trained, resilient Christian leaders. What does that look like?

Training resilient Christian leaders looks like… Retired pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City responded to the need for training by devoting his retirement years to developing Redeemer City to City, an organization dedicated to training and resourcing leaders to start and strengthen churches. While in NYC, I was able to sit in on a training session led by Tim Keller. His approach was remarkable. The level of content was comparable to any seminary classroom, but the focus was not on a history of ideas but on application in concrete, specific circumstances. The “how-to” focus provided by a seasoned minister was invaluable. What was even more remarkable was who was in the room. Many were pastors or folks preparing for full-time ministry. But others were full-time employees in secular professions that were training to strengthen existing churches or were preparing to help launch church plants, not as pastors but as well-equipped members. A certificate in the “City Ministry Program” could be earned if participants complete all four learning tracks, but some participants were only doing the learning track that was applicable to their context. Equipping people in the areas of leadership, mission, pastoral care, and teaching provides a “farm team” of leaders that will serve in a variety of ways in and outside the church. This is what Robert Greenleaf saw back in the 1970s as the unique contribution that churches could make to a culture desperate for servant leaders (Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, 82).

Trained, resilient Christian leaders look like… In the difficult context of post-Christian America, it is not enough to merely train leaders and deploy them. Over and over again, I heard stories of how difficult it is to do mission and ministry in a context of pluralism and secularism. It is not sufficient for leaders to be motivated and mobilized on their own. Resiliency must be planned for not just hoped for. Many church plants in NYC as well as in Texas cities don’t make it for the simple reason that they are not able to reach self-sufficiency. It takes more than a gifted pastor. Partnering pastors with lay leaders who intentionally remain in other vocations for the purpose of personal evangelism and mission funding is key to the movement of the gospel to sustain. After all, Paul only worked as a tentmaker until his team arrived to help provide support (Acts 18:1-5). Mobilizing for resiliency means mobilizing planting teams not just planters and even mobilizing strengthening teams, not just pastors.

Columbus Avenue Impact: Create a ColumbusU Leader Track. I envision a time when we are training resilient Christian leaders to serve not just as planters and pastors but also teams to go with planters and pastors as starters and strengtheners. These leaders have been trained to think through leadership, mission, pastoral care, and teaching with the gospel at the center and practical experience throughout.

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