What’s Next for New York Churches

“Don’t Leave Our Church Homeless” read the signs distributed during Thursday’s press conference outside New York City Hall. More than 60 churches in New York meet in public schools for their Sunday services. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal this week, the churches learned they will need to find a new location before February 12.

Many of those church leaders, city officials, and concerned citizens met Thursday on the steps of City Hall to hear Council Member Fernando Cabrera introduce legislation seeking to overturn this decision. Some left excited and hopeful after hearing spirited speeches from elected officials, local pastors, and advocate ministries. This legislative push follows nearly 17 years of legal struggle between Bronx Household of Faith and the City of New York, which contends that churches meeting outside school hours inappropriately influence children.

Some of these churches have been meeting in the same public schools for more than 25 years. We’ve been meeting in ours for almost two.

Our Story


I moved with my family to Manhattan on November 14 to serve as the pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side neighborhood. Less than a month later on December 5, after preaching only two Sundays, I learned that we’re losing our meeting space.

I certainly didn’t expect my first several months or even years as a pastor to be rosy. I just didn’t expect this particular problem. I have read books and articles on conflict, difficult counseling situations, and even leadership challenges. But I can’t say political conflict over our meeting space was high on my “to be prepared for” list.

But after eye-balling our apartment living room, wondering how many people we could fit for a Sunday service, the reality of the situation hit. Immediately I had two concerns:

  1. Anyone who has been a part of a church relocation knows that it’s time consuming to look for a new space, negotiate lease terms, plan a budget, and meet to hash everything out. Now consider that more than 60 churches in the city will be searching for the same space in the same condensed time period during Advent.
  2. How will our response—positive, negative, or neutral—influence our community and neighbors?

I brought this second question to a prayer meeting on Wednesday with at least 30 fellow evangelical pastors and staff members from different parts of the city. Several pastors were losing their meeting space. We prayed together and encouraged each other to trust God and not to despair. Many pastors shared my concerns, but no one had a clear answer on how we should respond. Most of these pastors decided to plant or revitalize churches in New York in order to preach the gospel and offer faithful witness to God’s saving work in our community. We’re not immediately inclined toward activism and advocacy for the right to peaceably assemble.

Despite some reports of poor school-church relationships, many churches get along well with their school hosts. The pastor who preceded me, along with our congregation, had such a good relationship with our school they sent us an email to express regrets over our impending departure. We pay our rent on time, keep the place clean, and keep the terms of our lease.

Churches have labored years for a good reputation while preaching a faithful and persuasive gospel in a city where only 2 percent of the population attends an evangelical church. We won’t forfeit the gospel, and we don’t want to respond in anger and forfeit our standing in the community, either.

Public Implications


From what we understand, the city’s move to prohibit churches from meeting in public schools is a clear constitutional violation. And, and as the saying goes, what happens in New York City will happen in your hometown five years from now.

Or at least that’s the fear, that New York will set precedent for the rest of the country. So our response must be weighed against potential consequences for churches in Boston, Dallas, Chicago, and anywhere else believers profess Jesus as Lord.

Surely New York’s ban reflects the intolerance of a tolerant society, as D. A. Carson has said somewhere. “It’s ironic,” one Brooklyn city official commented at Thursday’s press conference, “that the Klu Klux Klan can meet freely in public schools, but churches, who were the backbone of the civil rights movement, are not allowed.”

“Some people are afraid of what our children will be pressured into thinking if they see churches meeting in our schools,” another city official said. “My fear is what they will think when they see that anyone can meet in public schools except churches!”

The city’s decision provides further evidence that our pluralistic society seeks to banish religion and truth from the public square to the private sphere. As Leslie Newbigin once observed, this ideal they seek would eliminate all ideals. Any society attempting to explain the world as something without ultimate truths commits itself to a reality without purpose.

So We Pray


Yet this city desperately committing itself to reality without purpose is the city we love. As I left the Wednesday prayer meeting, another pastor welcomed me to the city. He’s been pastoring in New York for years through some tough times. The elementary school where his church meets doubled then tripled their rent within only a few years. And now the church must leave. “You’ll love this city,” he told me with wide eyes and and even wider heart.

The pastors in the prayer meeting love the city, but not because they enjoy a good show, the night life, or the countless restaurants. They love the city because they’ve prayed for it so much that they can’t get it out of their hearts. I want to love the city that way.

And so we pray. We pray that if this law is not overturned, God will provide meeting places for our churches. We pray that pastors will not neglect the task of preaching the gospel and shepherding the flock while looking for locations. We pray that our response to the city’s decision will honor Christ, uphold the gospel, and gain us a hearing from our neighbors. We pray that we will trust the Lord, knowing that he holds the universe together in his hand and no church is removed from a building apart from the Sovereign’s say-so.

Will you pray for us, too?

  • Ian L

    This is terrible news! I will be praying for NYC churches. I can’t believe they would kick you out during advent :( Get creative. Movie theaters, theater houses, concert halls, etc. And be sure to ask your denomination to give you money for this hardship! God bless.

  • Jenni

    Praying for you and the churches and (The Church) in NYC. Trusting God will be glorified and the gospel goes out in the midst of all of this.

  • Brooke

    “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as Holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” 1 Peter 3:14-15

    I have been meditating on the glory of these words for days, and when I read your story, I immediately thought of them. Praying them for you, my brothers and sisters, and for your city!

  • Rachel W

    Yes I will! I have grown up in a church meeting in a school hall (here in regional NSW in Australia), and we have always had to pay a reasonable amount of rent, and work hard to clean and tidy everything before leaving each Sunday… it’s been a great privelege. But it’s not a right, I guess, so I feel for all the NY churches and can imagine similar things may happen here one day. Praying that it will inspire greater ownership of the church as a body of Christians and acts of generosity among you all :).

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  • David

    Maybe just “Occupy” parks and public buildings? After all, it is only for a few hours a week, so why would the authorities object? Shrewd as serpents; harmless as doves.

    It’s amazing how subtle the shift from respect for the Church and respect for God and His Son has moved to opposition. Look for more of that as we enter the last of the Last Days. May God grant all these churches shelter from the storm that’s rolling in.

  • Kelly

    You would think that with the schools suffering huge budget shortfalls and having to make cutbacks that they would be thrilled to have honest, on-time paying, clean tenants. Doesn’t it make sense to have the income, just when you need it most?

    • David

      Don’t expect logic to dictate their actions, Kelly. It’s a spiritual thing: they probably don’t even know why they don’t like the church tenants.

  • http://justaftersunrise.wordpress.com/ Stan McCullars

    It seems like a good time for Christians in New York to kick the dust off their feet and move on.

    • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

      I agree with you, Stan.

      • http://www.gracenyc.org David Whitehead

        That’s what the church did in the 1920’s. That’s why NYC is in the mess that it is. If we intend to be a witness for Christ, this is what we MUST navigate through. This is our opportunity to love our enemies.

  • http://www.theparkforum.org Bethany Jenkins

    As a Christian who has lived in New York for 8 years, I will be praying for the many churches who are affected by this difficult challenge. As a lawyer, I’ve read the 2d Cir. opinion and their decision seems well-reasoned to me (content vs. viewpoint discrimination). As a person who worked on Capitol Hill for 5 years, I’ve seen how policies and laws are made and I would highly recommend that all churches – in New York and elsewhere – be involved in local government long before they are having to deal with things at this level. In this case, the SOP that the BoE created was drafted and passed long before any court got its eyes on it. We should somehow be involved in the drafting process of legislation – whether it is through lobbying efforts or periods when legislation is open for public comment or any other time before a proposed rule or bill becomes enacted.

  • http://www.abortionbreastcancer.com LD

    If someone is saddened, and disgusted by this (in terms of the Constitution being violated) what actions can they take politically?

  • Lauren

    So thankful that God has sovereignly placed you guys in NYC for this time. We are praying hard that solutions would be found for meeting places but even more so for God’s glory to go forth through your response to this. We miss you all!

  • Winnie

    Will be praying for you all, we’re all in this together and we’re all family. But more importantly, God is sovereign and He is over all, just as you said.

    Hope this song – God of this city – by Chris Tomlin will encourage you all. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmC44K0xQLE

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  • http://CouncilmanCabrera.com Fernando Cabrera

    I urged everyone to call their state and local legislators, and no simply pray about the matter. Elected officials need to hear from their constituants how important is this matter to them. Let your voices be heard and call today. Your three minute call can make all the difference!!!
    Councilman Fernando Cabrera

  • http://www.provokeministries.com Provoke Ministries

    I will be praying that God provides in mighty ways! There are tons of churches I know across the United States that would be placed in a very intense season of struggle if this type of action were to spread.

    It is, however, relieving to know that no matter the circumstances or outcome, God will find a way to provide for His Church!

  • The Nerd Diva

    Let me ask you a question: when you moved into your neighborhood, did you introduce yourself to the local elected officials, community board, or local block association? Did you reach out to other entities in your immediate area? I am a past deaconess of a very large church and also work for NYC and can tell you directly that this is part of the problem. Evangelical churches, other then minority/ethnic ones, do a very poor job of true community relations – and thus have to start from zero when something like this happens. I hope this is a wake up call to all churches: don’t just engage your elected officials or community leaders when something goes wrong. I’m saying this as a person who understands this situation very well from both sides. Other religions [Hasidim, etc.] get this – our denominations do not. I hope we all learn from this…

    • erie chapman


  • The Nerd Diva

    Another comment: for those of you not from NY, you might not realize that it is very difficult to get your own space here, particularly in Manhattan. You need to know that sometimes other churches are approached and asked to share space, and turn down their brothers/sisters in need. This is quite real and in my job with NYC I experience these stories. So I again say this: while we are upset at what outsiders do to us, we need to look internally and examine the things we can do to help ourselves as we go along, as well as that attitudes we exhibit to each other. People who are not Christian ask me all the time ‘why don’t they just ask XYZ church to rent them space’ and I have to explain that XYZ church would rather burn down or not pay their heat bill than allow ABC church to rent space from them. I could go on but I wanted people to understand that part of this is a longer term, systemic issue and not simply this court ruling. There are many things that didn’t happen quite right to lead up to this point – and I hope that people look at all of them equally or something like this will happen again.

    • Melody

      How about a Saturday church that rents the space to a Sunday church? The Sunday church then is rude once they have their own space. It’s all so sad.

  • http://www.thetitusmandate.org Ted Bigelow

    Does God’s word have anything to say about it?

    Sure. Its a great time for true gospel churches in NYC to merge as Titus 1:5 teaches.

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  • Andrew

    Hotels are a good option as well as private schools. We do this at Citylife Church in Boston.

  • http://www.steepedintruth.wordpress.com Rosie Udicki

    Isaiah 26:3 “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”

    May your hearts, minds, souls be fixed on Christ alone, as pastors and a congregation, and may God be glorified as you seek him pleading before him for whatever he has for each of you.

  • erie chapman

    With all due respect, your post is clearly off track and reflects a serious misunderstanding of the principles on which this country was founded. As a minister, I would never think of holding a Christian service in a public school setting.
    The original Rhode Island Baptists understood this. I’m sorry that you and some of your followers do not.

  • Jeff

    In thinking about the article and the comments, I’m wondering: 1) knowing that God is completely sovereign over this, when is it time to just leave? Luke 9:5, “Whenever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” 2) why is it assumed that renting space from the government (Caesar) is a good idea? I’m not trying to cast stones-just trying to think biblically and wisely.

  • David

    I’ve wondered that, too, Jeff, but even more, since almost every one of our churches are 501(c)3 NPO, all churches already are under quite a bit of pressure from the government, even to the point that the gov’t can tell pastors what they can’t say from the pulpit. What if we all said, “OK, have it your way. We’ll preach the truth as we see it written, and you can have our tax money.” Would that make things happen in a different way?

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I think we can figure out places to meet aside from public buildings.

    I think we are going to have to.

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  • EAJ

    I am really kind of stumped here and have to say the first thing that came to my mind is there have got to be warehouses, store fronts, business with space because they are closed on Sunday or Saturday, maybe restaurant – and of course I know of quite a few churches in my town that are half empty on Sunday and could use the income of rent from another church. Perhaps this situation will give someone with property a chance to serve in ways these church fellowships have not expected. I think spaces are going to pop up all over the place however folks may discover they might have to bring their own chairs though. But that’s doable.

  • Karl Fischer

    Reminds me of the DA Carson talk at NEXT 2011 – “The Gospel and the Postmodern Mind”


  • ForeBarca

    Why cannot some of these churches meet in a restaurant or an old bar? if they do, would they be violating zoning ordinances? I live in a city in California where we meet at a downtown bar, and have been doing so for the past 2 years. Furthermore, why the physical need for church? Why not become like the earliest churches and meet in each others houses? Surely we do not need a huge building to weep or to rejoice or do both in the Holy Spirit’s presence on any given Sunday! But, I need to read the court’s opinion to see if there is any bias against New York churches. No matter, I prayed for you all this morning. I have the fullest confidence that God will comfort you and give you the strength through this troubling hour.

    • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

      Excellent ideas, ForeBarca.

      If we put our minds to it, and with God’s help, we can overcome the obsticles that the culture places in our path.

    • The Nerd Diva

      Unfortunately apartments in NY tend to be so small that once you hit 25 people you cannot meet in someone’s home. Empty storefronts are definitely an option, and in these bad economic times many landlords will take anything they can get to have someone in there paying something. One of the churches affected by this has over 1000 people who attend three different services [they are multilingual]. Just because they meet in a school does not mean they are all small…

      • ForeBarca

        I am reminded of those churches in China and the former USSR, churches that were rather small, but still spiritually prospered. I suppose that were anybody’s house become too small for a group meeting that the people would split off into another group, almost like an amoeba multiplying. Even though I live in California, I know that real estate is precious in New York thanks to a good friend who lives there. But what option at this point? Taking out an expensive lease on a warehouse? But are not large churches inherently impersonal. Is this not an opportunity for NY churches to eschew the operating costs associated with large churches by meeting in small sacred spaces?

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  • Deborah

    I’m still stuck on how The City of New York contends that they are inappropriately influencing children. REALLY?? This world is so backwards. It can’t even see it. Pray.

    • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

      It is a backwards world, Deborah.

      Everything is upside down.

      Come Lord Jesus, come!

  • Geraldine

    Although it cannot be compared to the slightest degree with the travails of the Shouwang Church in Beijing, China, the thought of congregations made “homeless” or without a building to meet in brought the plight of our brothers and sisters there in China to mind. They being one of the larger churches in their city, mostly upper middle-class and well-educated congregants, when denied by their government to move into their new meeting facility, decided they would not forsake the gathering of themselves together and facing arrests and detentions, job losses and other abuses, decided they would conduct their services outdoors. As you can follow in the reports at China Aid (http://www.chinaaid.org/2011/12/beijing-shouwang-church-announcement-on_06.html), they recently completed their thirty-fifth Sunday outdoor worship service. Their Daniel-like determination and their leaders’ reflections on their experience (translated into English for our benefit) are insightful and applicable. I expect our brothers and sisters in NYC will now be able to pray with them in China with even greater compassion.

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    • David

      As we become less palatable to the unbelievers, we will suffer actual persecution in America. This is very inconvenient for the congregations involved, to be sure, but nothing like having doors kicked in and people arrested. That comes later. But don’t be surprised if this sort of thing moves outward from NYC to other points. If they can make their case stand up in court, be sure that the enemies of the church will be encouraged.

      I once got the impression that the Lord was saying, “My church has always done well under persecution, but can the American church survive without it?”

  • AnnaHildey

    I will pray.

  • Tim Huguenin

    A facebook page has been made to spread awareness and support of the Bronx Household of Faith’s situation and building project- http://www.facebook.com/supportbhof

  • Kathleen Ryan

    Since you all are so sure that NYC’s public schools ought to be able to permit tax-supported public space for the expression of YOUR beliefs, are you ready to grant the same to other religious denominations whose members are also obligated to contribute to the city’s tax base — i.e., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.? If you’re ready to go to bat for access for all of these denominations as well as your own, I say all power to you in your determination to preserve the access you recently enjoyed . However, if you think that only your beliefs deserve be permitted such access, I say the city is appropriately exercising its responsibility to deny ALL religious practice/teaching in public buildings in order not to favor one.

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      Christians would happily support equal access under the law. In fact, no one has suggested otherwise. Feel free to visit one of these churches, Kathleen. You might be pleasantly surprised by the people you meet.

    • The Nerd Diva

      The problem is that most NYC schools are in heavy use every weekday, including evenings, as well as Saturdays. The only day a school space is completely vacated is a Sunday. So the rule applies to everyone – it is just that no other houses of worship could utilize the schools due to the day of the week they would need the space. I don’t believe anyone here ever advocated for churches to the exclusion of any other religious use.

  • Kathleen Ryan

    Points well taken, Collin and Nerd Diva. But even if the city/state is WILLING to allow religious use of inactive public space (a rarity enough in these tight financial times, as Diva notes), adding to the potential problem for the city/state will be in determining which group actually constitutes a religious institution, esp. if the space is being contested among institutions. Would ANY kind of devotional group be allowed access? Do you even WANT the state to be in the business of affirming or denying your institutional legitimacy?

    I guess I still don’t understand why you can’t use your own facilities for your religious instruction, which would allow you freedom from any of the inhibiting factors the entrance of the city/state would inflict upon you should you use public spaces.

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      Do you know, Kathleen, why churches choose to meet in public schools? It’s not like these churches could simply build their own worship spaces but choose to meet in public schools for the aesthetics. The cost is prohibitive, especially for smaller, newer churches. Nor can they easily meet in their own homes. Each of these alternatives also involves the city/state in the form of zoning restrictions.

      There’s no way to entirely avoid government entanglement in religion. Government on every level is involved with affirming and denying the institutional legitimacy of religious institutions, for tax purposes and otherwise.

      As for these tight financial times, I would have expected the schools could find good use for the rent money from churches. Thankfully some churches will be able to relocate to movie theaters, YMCAs, auditoriums, and other church buildings.

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  • http://www.redeemchristianity.org Redeem Christianity

    Change the culture of NY! What an incredible report, keep pressing toward the goal and I have faith the Lord will use you mightily to effect change like never before!!

    • Kathleen Ryan

      @Redeem Christianity: If you’re talking to me (which you might not be; if so, I apologize), I myself like the NYC culture just the way it is, with its strict separation of church and state functions. I thus endorse the limitations being put on religious institutions just as the city is enforcing with this announcement.

  • http://www.thetitusmandate.org Ted Bigelow

    @Redeem Christianity: No wonder you are trying to redeem Christianity. You don’t understand it.

    “Changing the culture of NY?” If you understood redemption biblically, you wouldn’t apply it to culture.

    Gal. 3:13, friend.

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