The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


February 13, 2024

Eyes to See

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As a Southern Baptist in Texas, I have often heard congregations and 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 even “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 and Gospel deserts.

I recall 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 notice what we expect or have been trained to see. We do not see our brand or denomination and quickly write off the presence of the Church completely.

Although I have witnessed this in many cities around the world, I have in my mind a visit a few years ago to Boston. 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 Jeff explained, is the hidden nature of the Quiet Revival by “the growth 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 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. Think about how many people were completely surprised about the success of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City and the growth of City to City later.

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 with whom we met echoed that time and again. 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.

Art by John Dykstra

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