Reawakening blue zip codes?

bouguereauthe_prayer1I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. My high school, started by an Anglican canon and a Jewish atheist, started life blocks from Plymouth Congregational Church, former church of the 19th-century rock star abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher. The same neighborhood houses the Watchtower, ground zero for Jehovah's Witnesses, and, more recently is home to the roughly 10,000-member Brooklyn Tabernacle.

So don't count the blue zip codes out when it comes to religious revivals and evangelizing, sometimes on a mass scale.

Nonetheless, it's still fascinating when a religious revival story like the one chronicled by New York Times reporter Paul Vitello emerges out of the New York metro area.

Vitello takes an interesting approach to the "evangelical" semantic trap. He offers a modest definition of the word ("a term generally applied to churches that stress the literal authority of Scripture and the importance of personal conversion, or being born again"). Then he allows congregations to define themselves as evangelical.

The only place in the story where the use of that word might raise hackles for some conservative readers is when he includes Jehovah's Witnesses -- but we'll get to them a little later.

Vitello begins his piece with a trip out to the affluent suburb of Manhasset, N.Y., where he charts hints of new religious fervor:

The sudden crush of worshipers packing the small evangelical Shelter Rock Church in Manhasset, N.Y. -- a Long Island hamlet of yacht clubs and hedge fund managers -- forced the pastor to set up an overflow room with closed-circuit TV and 100 folding chairs, which have been filled for six Sundays straight.

In Seattle, the Mars Hill Church, one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in the country, grew to 7,000 members this fall, up 1,000 in a year. At the Life Christian Church in West Orange, N.J., prayer requests have doubled -- almost all of them aimed at getting or keeping jobs.

Like evangelical churches around the country, the three churches have enjoyed steady growth over the last decade. But since September, pastors nationwide say they have seen such a burst of new interest that they find themselves contending with powerful conflicting emotions -- deep empathy and quiet excitement -- as they re-encounter an old piece of religious lore:

Bad times are good for evangelical churches.

Leapfrogging between farflung conservative congregations and a few in the New York metro area, Vitello quotes from a diverse assortment of Protestant pastors, a televangelist, a Catholic author and TV personality, and an economist to examine the theory that evangelical congregations grow in hard times.

A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In "Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States," David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

The little-noticed study began receiving attention from some preachers in September, when the stock market began its free fall. With the swelling attendance they were seeing, and a sense that worldwide calamities come along only once in an evangelist's lifetime, the study has encouraged some to think big.

OK, so the last sentence here is wry, verging on cynical. But Vitello immediately backs it up with a revealing quote:

"I found it very exciting, and I called up that fellow to tell him so," said the Rev. Don MacKintosh, a Seventh Day Adventist televangelist in California who contacted Dr. Beckworth a few weeks ago after hearing word of his paper from another preacher. "We need to leverage this moment, because every Christian revival in this country's history has come off a period of rampant greed and fear. That's what we're in today --the time of fear and greed."

Because the word "leverage" has more recently been associated with bank failures and derivatives than with evangelism, it makes this quote practically hop off the page.

So what about the mention of Jehovah's Witnesses, frequent visitor's to the stoop of our brownstone in Brooklyn?

Are they evangelicals?

A millenialist denomination, they don't believe in the Trinity, nor do they believe that Jesus is equal to God. While they consider the Bible to be inspired and mostly authoritative, they wouldn't say that all of the Scriptures are literally true.

But members clearly are expected to witness to the denomination's interpretation of Christianity.

I would argue that they are an evangelizing sect, and that many Christian evangelicals would not feel comfortable in the same press room with them --but I also think a case can be made that because of the huge importance they place on door to door evangelizing, they deserve at least a paragraph in a story about religious reawakening in the Big Apple.

By the way, the New York Times has another local story with attitude: a fun piece on a new ecumenical service at the fabled Harlem Apollo theater. And it's led by a woman, the Rev. Dr. Suzan D. Johnson Cook. That goes some way to redressing a weakness in Vitello's story -- there's no shortage of evangelical women pastoring churches, particularly in the African-American community.

The picture by William-Adolphe Bouguereau is from Wikimedia Commons

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