Today, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a case regarding whether churches could use New York City public school facilities for “worship activities” during times when the school buildings were not in use. For many church plants in NYC, where gathering space is hard to come by, as well as countless new church plants meeting in school gyms, cafeterias, etc. around the US, this was seen as a major blow to the ability of these churches to gather. Already in NYC it is common to find small church buildings with 4, 5, 6 different congregations meeting on a Sunday, as the English-speaking church finishes, the Korean-speaking church is waiting at the doors, and the Spanish-speaking church is on deck in 2 hours. The Sunday queue may be a little more packed in the coming months, as church plants still meeting in NYC schools (they were allowed to keep meeting during the appeals process) will have to find new homes effective January 1.
Now of course, I do not think this is the end for church planting in New York City. And here are a few reasons why:
First, many planters are not utilizing “big spaces” for their churches, focusing on small church groups that can meet in living rooms or office spaces, etc. (That’s what we plan on doing in the Bangladeshi neighborhoods of NYC.) I think a Gospel movement in NYC will have to look different than the brick-and-mortar church structures found in other areas of the US.
Second, church planters are nothing if not creative. I remember hearing Rick Warren talk once about Saddleback’s early days when they were in different facilities on regular basis, but how that chaos and confusion led them to develop good community as they had to keep in touch regularly as a church body just to know where they were meeting. Other church plants in the US already deal with space issues like having to rotate every month or two between schools as meeting places.
Third, this situation has huge missional opportunities in neighborhoods across the city. Not only will churches find other spaces to worship, but perhaps they can display the love of Christ by continuing to serve the local schools where they can no longer meet. What would look more like Jesus than churches serving and saying, “You (the schools) don’t exist to take care of us. We are Christ’s body that exists to care for you.”
Fourth, as I mentioned before, some church space is already being utilized by multiple congregations, but more can be shared. Perhaps this will lead some existing churches to also be generous with their facilities. Perhaps it will cause some bridges that were burned between older and newer churches to be rebuilt for gospel mission.
Fifth, Jesus will build his church. (Matthew 16). He will. It’s a promise. The word of God is not bound, despite the restrictions and obstacles Christians throughout the centuries have faced. This circumstance is nowhere near the scale of the attempts to purge China of Christianity during the Revolution. And yet, the Church there flourished and found new ways to grow. Could we pray for the same kind of effect in New York City?
So is this the end of church planting in New York City? I don’t think so. What effects do you see as happening from this ban?