The Quiet Revival

 In Community, Conference, Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, People, Philanthropy, Theology

As a Baptist in Texas, I have often heard missions organizations promoting the urgency for church planting in areas of our country considered completely secular – cities with low church attendance and little visible Christian influence. Considered “hard soil” or “godless” or “lost territory”, cities like Boston, Portland, New York and Seattle have attracted waves of young planters sent by their home churches and denominations to re-evangelize these “foreign” places.

I am reminded of a friend from Georgia who, upon returning from a trip to New England, told me there were no grocery stores in the entire region because she did not see a single Piggly Wiggly. We see what we expect or have been trained to see.

However, after a recent visit to Boston with a group from The Gathering, I think not being able to see grocery stores may be the same as not seeing the city’s Christian presence. Through visiting with Jeff Bass at the Emmanuel Gospel Center and many others, we learned about the “Quiet Revival” that has been going on in Boston and New England for the last 50 years. Starting in 1965, the number of evangelical Christian churches within the city limits of Boston has nearly doubled – from 300 to almost 600 – even though the population has only grown slightly. However, people across the country still ask, “Why is the Church in Boston dying?” Why has the “godless” description captured our attention so much more than what the numbers are telling us?

Several things might help explain.

First, there is something in the nature of many donors and organizations that is more attracted to desperate need rather than progress. In a study by Deborah Small at The Wharton School, she discovered what she named, “emotional contagion.” Sad faces are far more capable of producing similar states of sympathetic sadness in the viewer than pictures of happy faces. In other words, painting a picture of cities as devoid of the gospel draws a bigger empathetic response than proving that the urban church is, in fact, growing.

A second reason the Quiet Revival has been hidden is that “the growth was happening in non-mainline systems, non-English speaking systems, denominations you have never heard of, churches that meet in storefronts, churches that meet on Sunday afternoons…These were growing communities but even then these communities were not seen by the whole Church as significant, so there was still this old way of looking at things.” Further, the majority of Boston’s new churches were started by Boston’s newest residents and fueled by the Immigration Act of 1965. Not more than 14 of the 100 churches planted between 2000 and 2005 were primarily Anglo or Anglo/multiethnic. The revival has been hidden from us because it does not fit our definitions, so we missed it entirely.

Third, people from outside the city or the region share what EGC’s Gregg Detwiler calls “theological oversight.” Gregg writes, “By theological oversight I mean not seeing the city and the city church in a positive biblical light. All too often the city is viewed only as a place of darkness and sin, rather than a strategic place where God does His redeeming work and exports it to the nations.” The majority culture, especially the suburban culture, has found it hard to imagine God’s work bursting at the seams in the inner city.

During our few days in Boston, we discovered that, yes, Boston is one of the most secular cities in the country but the Christian presence is growing in ways that are invisible to many because they are looking through spectacles that only see what they expect to see. Does Boston need the gospel? Absolutely and all of the people we met with echoed that time and again. However, we should not be so provincial as to think because we do not recognize how the Church is growing (due to our cultural differences), then cities like Boston, New York, Portland and Seattle are dry and parched ground. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Think about areas of your own city or region. Are you hearing the same message about the presence of the gospel being long gone or absent? I think we would all be surprised if we put on different spectacles and took another look. We might even find there is a Quiet Revival going on right before our eyes.

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Showing 9 comments
  • Mario Zandstra

    Great article Fred. This quiet revival is happening all over the US. And candidly in some of the most influential cities in the world.

  • Lauren Dillon

    I think you’re so right, and this is so encouraging.

  • Fred Smith

    Thanks, Lauren. I would be interested in your perspective on Chicago. Same misunderstanding?

  • Carl LaBarbera

    Thanks Fred for the insight. There is a quiet revival happening in the cities, including the quiet revival happening in prisons as we see at World Impact.

  • Lisa Wen

    I agree too, Fred. San Francisco has great spiritual challenges, but there are wonderful Christian ministries working in the inner city.

    • Fred Smith

      Thank you, Lisa. It is easy to overlook the growth if it does not look like us.

  • Paul L. H. Olson

    Many years ago, my business endeavors took us from the Upper Midwest to a more southern part of the country. We settled into a wonderful church and a different evangelical denomination than our familiar one. On one Sunday evening, we heard a stirring strategy to reach the vast unsaved population of Northern Minnesota. Knowing quite a bit about this region we had to smile, perhaps a bit ruefully, at the perception of the untapped home missions opportunity in this woodsy part of our country. There are many evangelical churches in this region of the country and many fine, humble Christians in commerce and community.

    More recently, my wife and I were reminded of how skewed our perception of the lack of Kingdom work in other parts of the world may be, as well. When traveling through China, we attended the Hengshan Church in Shanghai that houses the Shanghai Community Church . We worshipped with over 600 Chinese Christians in one of several services. God is at work in China!

    We need to open to see how Revival is happening around the world and at home. Thanks, Fred, for this reminder to see more clearly what a God is doing!

  • Fred Smith

    I agree, Paul. When we lived in Boston many of our friends there knowing we were from the South assumed we ate fried chicken every meal and lived on a farm. We are all, in some way, provincial!

  • Mary Harper

    Thank you so much, your insight is “spot on.” I’m employed by Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and I manage the Faith and Spiritual Affairs Unit. I am charged to educate communities of faith on signs and symptoms of behavioral health challenges, the Department understand the benefit of faith in a persons recovery and well being.

    My work is not limited to one religion or belief which affords me the opportunity to enter a number of houses of worship across the city. As you may or may not know Philadelphia is a “Sanctuary City/ Welcoming City” which means it’s open to immigrants, refugees and individuals with Asylum status. There are number of people from the Latina/Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Rim and the African Diaspora. Over the past several years I have noticed that a number of diverse Christen communities have purchased or are leasing churches or buildings with services occurring during nontraditional times….I’ve seen Bibles translated in Haitian, Spanish, Korean, Hindi and Dzongkha. Their prayer and worship is different and similar but their love for God is the same. It took me some time to understand this phenomena and then it dawned on me that a number of countries have a Christian connection due the conversion work of Missionaries. I am a Christian and there are a number of times groups from diverse cultures will ask me to conduct Bible Study and I decline explaining that I can’t due to my position.

    In closing I think the description of an “Evangelical, Main Line Christian” will change.

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