The Church of New York City at Prayer
Three distinct centuries of prayer have had an impact on New York City. In the eighteenth century Theodorus Frelinghuysen led the Reformed Church into seasons of revival through his preaching in 1727 in New Jersey. Across the Atlantic, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, of the Moravians in Germany, launched Hernnhut in 1727 (the Lord’s Watch), a 100-year prayer meeting that thrust three hundred missionaries out around the world—many to America. You cannot understand American Protestantism apart from Count Zinzendorf’s leadership. In his book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal,1 Richard Lovelace said that the Moravian movement was the closest approximation of New Testament Christianity in two thousand years.
In 1747, Jonathan Edwards wrote An Humble Attempt, his call to visible unity and explicit agreement. This was the birthing of concerts of prayer. Concerts of prayer became the methodology of gathering quarterly to pray with other congregations for revival. This movement spread throughout New England and had an impact on the New York City region.
A century later, layman Jeremiah Lanphier launched the Fulton Street Prayer Revival on 23 September 1857. During a climate of slavery and economic devastation, six people gathered for prayer near Wall Street. Within weeks, the simple prayer meeting grew to fifty thousand daily participants and sparked a national revival that swept one million converts into the churches (nearly four percent of the national population) in eighteen months.
The revival planted the seed of the evangelical social awakening that lasted from 1865 to 1920. This awakening saw the beginning of the homeless ministry movement, which included the Salvation Army, Bowery Mission, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
On 1 January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Baptist and Methodist missionaries teaching literacy to freed slaves saw the largest response to the gospel of any ethnic group in church history among African Americans. The first African American church in New York was started in 1790 by Peter Williams as described in Signs of Hope in the City.2
In 1888, the Student Volunteer Movement came alive in New York City and subsequently, twenty-five thousand young people became missionaries in forty years. The early nineteenth century revival movement in Korea and resulting explosion of church growth can be traced to Horace Underwood and the 1857–1958 revival (as described by Rev. Jimmy Lim, executive director of the New York City Council of Churches in the 2007 video “It Started with One”).
The 1906 Asuza Street revival in California had a profound impact on New York City. The revival that spread to the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa boomeranged back to New York in the form of incoming immigrants of Pentecostal persuasion. The fastest-growing churches in the twentieth century in New York City were Pentecostal.
The modern concerts of prayer movement began with a meeting in June 1987 between two Here’s Life Inner City staff and an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship staff member. The plan was to invite sixteen churches to participate in a concert of prayer on 5 February 1988 at First Baptist Church of Flushing, led by David Bryant. Bryant helped to reignite the global prayer movement by traveling to 350 cities worldwide and gathering churches in united prayer. When the evening arrived, more than seventy churches had gathered! By the fall of 1989, seven regions of Greater New York were participating in annual rhythms of united, congregational prayer. More than 150,000 people have participated to date.
A Movement Matures
As the prayer movement grew, it began to take on diverse expressions. Congregations began praying together in 1988; pastors began praying together in 1989. Our first pastors’ concert of prayer took place at Brooklyn Tabernacle, where four hundred leaders participated. This evolved into the Pastors’ Prayer Summit, which began in 1991 with less than one hundred pastors. It has met annually in January ever since, attracting more than four hundred pastors and leaders. The themes of the summit include worship, prayer, and community. The summit has been described by many pastors as the most powerful spiritual experience of their year.
In 1995, the murder rate in New York City peaked at more than 1,500 murders, and churches began a daily prayer vigil patterned after the Lord’s Watch from Count Zinzendorf. What started with thirty churches in 1995 grew to more than one hundred churches and has continued unabated until today.
Churches pray around the theology of Isaiah following specific prayer requests for revival in the Church, reconciliation between churches and peoples of varying cultures and ethnic backgrounds, reformation of society, and reaching out with the gospel. In the next five years the murder rate would drop by forty percent.
In 2004, we launched a new prayer initiative called Pray New York! enlisting church members to prayer-walk the ZIP codes around their churches. In four years, more than twenty thousand people have participated, simultaneously praying in the more than two hundred ZIP codes of New York City on the first Saturday in June. This was coordinated borough by borough by local pastors and ministry leaders.
United Prayer Births Collaborative Mission
After 11 September 2001, three collaborations emerged which have become the largest of their type in the nation. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, World Vision approached Concerts of Prayer Greater New York (COPGNY) to create the American Family Assistance Fund to assist victims and their families. Largely through churches, participants raised and distributed to victims more than $6 million USD. Pregnant wives of the men who had been killed and unemployed workers from the restaurant Windows on the World were among the hundreds of grateful recipients.
In 2003, COPGNY hosted the National Leadership Forum on the Gospel in the City. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church preached expositionally from the Book of Acts. As a result, a church-planting collaboration began with seventeen denominations joining in the work. Together we identify, train, and fund church planters. Our decadal goal is seven hundred new church plants in Greater New York, and we are on our way with more than fifty church planters in training each year.
In 2004, I took a team of pastors to attend the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. We were evaluating whether or not it would be an appropriate training resource for urban leaders in New York City. We decided to partner with the Willow Creek Association and began with six training sites in 2005, expanding to ten in 2006 and 2007. Of the 8,500 participating leaders in our region in the past three years, more than sixty percent have been ethnic minorities. This has been an incredible resource locally and globally, with the number of participating leaders globally reaching 100,000 in 2007.
In 2007, the New York City Leadership Center was incorporated to further address the leadership challenges of Greater New York. This embryonic effort will draw from the best regional, national, and global talent to train leaders in the world’s leading global city. The purpose of the center is to synergize the best class training and service opportunities to radically impact Greater New York socially and spiritually.
The evangelical social awakening after the Fulton Street Revival parallels the movement of collaborating agencies after twenty years of praying together. God has raised up a community of intercessory organizations including Houses of Prayer, Eagles’ Wings, and New York City Intercessors. The trust level is high among these diverse communities who are working toward a common goal of the renewal of our city, region, and beyond.
1. 1979. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press Academic.
2. 1997. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, USA: Judson Press.