Fastest Pastor in NYC?

On August 13, I received an email from a friend offering me a bib for the New York City Marathon on November 1.  My friend’s company was one of the corporate sponsors, and they had a few open slots.  You have to understand - entry to the marathon, like many other aspects of life in the City, is extremely competitive.  There are only three ways to run: win the lottery, run 9 races (plus volunteer for another) or raise thousands of dollars for one of the approved charities.  Plus, there is the registration fee of $255.  All of that was being waved, and I was offered a spot on the starting line without all that hassle and absolutely free.  I couldn’t pass it up.

But before I could say yes I had to have a difficult conversation with my wife Lily.  We have a toddler, and my wife is in graduate school with Saturday classes.  I had already agreed to watch our son every Saturday through the fall.  I love taking him in his jogging stroller for short runs over the Brooklyn Bridge, but he wasn’t about to abide 20 miles!  Around that time, a kind and generous friend wanted to encourage us by helping us with childcare.  She wanted to cover a babysitter for 20 hours each month for us.  Her creativity and generosity made the marathon experience possible for me.  It felt a bit extravagant to be paying for a babysitter so that I could go on my long runs, but if you’ve ever experienced the joy of running you know it’s priceless.  Not to mention physically and spiritually renewing, which I’ll write about in my next blog.

With the approval of my wife and son, I began to set up a training program.  I had eleven weeks until the marathon and I hadn’t really begun training in earnest.  I had ten weeks to get in shape and one week to taper.

I quickly realized that I couldn’t do this alone and began to train with two local running groups.  One was faith-based and one was not.  Team World Vision raises money for clean water projects and other global needs.  Orchard Street Runners is a running club on the Lower East Side that brings a passion to their running and socializing.  We meet for tempo runs (6:00 to 8:00/mile pace) and then head to An Choi for pho and tiger beer.  I really enjoyed the physical and relational aspects of both teams.  World Vision was a gathering of other believers who wanted to run for a good cause.  During our long runs, we were able to talk about our churches, our faith and life in New York very openly.  OSR was amazing as well.  I’ve made some friends on that team, and plan to continue to train with them through the winter.  Midway through those runs, the topic of work would often come up.  Most of my teammates were surprised - perhaps shocked is a better word - to hear that I am a pastor.  Responses included, “Sorry I’ve been cursing so much,” and “Is that a real job?”  But we were inevitably able to get past that hurdle and start talking about faith.  I guess most of my teammates felt that they had a captive audience, since we were usually four or five miles from home.  Most took the opportunity to ask a member of the clergy a question they’ve long thought about.  Now I can check off “Explain the Trinity while running 6:30/minute miles” off my bucket list.  I always had a great time engaging in the conversation with them and sharing my hope.

My training came together and slowly but surely I got in shape for the marathon.  Running through all five boroughs was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  It’s truly a day I will never forget.  The crowds make you feel like a rock star.  The energy of the city is absolutely unmatched.  When you come off the 59th Street Bridge and into Manhattan, running north on 1st Ave, there’s a wall of sound that takes your breath away.  It’s absolutely exhilarating - I hope everyone can experience something like that in their lifetimes.  The friends and family (and random strangers!) that came to cheer me on got me across that finish line.  Your whole body wants to quit and the exhaustion plays with your mind.  But I had a joy that couldn’t be squelched and I just kept moving, over the rolling hills of Central Park and back toward the finish line.  I sprinted the last hundred meters, crossed the line and felt my legs seize up.  I couldn’t have run another step.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to.  They were putting a medal around my neck and trying to force me to smile.

In my next blog, I’m going to talk about the new lens God gave me for the city as I actually ran the marathon.

Who are we?

A couple of months ago, a visitor to the church asked who we are, at this point in our development as a church.  This is my response, in part:

1) Gospel-centered.  We think the good news about Jesus is worth centering your life on.  His death for us has changed everything, and we are constantly putting that truth before people as much as possible, through our worship and the ways we serve the neighborhood and city.  The gospel is not just how you become a Christian but also how you grow as a Christian.

2) We're a deep church.  I've been very influenced by Deep Church by Jim Belcher.  He critiques churches that just exist to make people feel good or entertain people.  A lot of churches can be pretty shallow, providing pat answers to difficult questions or unwilling to walk with people through the ups and downs of life.  Many church communities in NYC can be superficial, overly concerned with how people act, dress, look or where they work.  We believe the gospel brings together diverse people and calls us to form deep, healthy relationships; a family in the city, where many of us are far from home.

3) We're an underdog church.  My wife and I picked up our lives in Seattle, sold our home, most of our belongings and moved out here in 2010 with no money and no plan.  Other churches take a lot of people from other churches or a group of people move to NYC en masse.  Other churches are worldwide "brands" that everyone has heard of.  We obviously had none of that.  We simply trusted in God and we loved New Yorkers.  We felt a deep connection to this place and wanted to serve and love the people here: the poor, the rich, the lonely, the brilliant, the Ivy Leaguers and the Bowery bums.  It has been quite an adventure!  All that to say, we're not a cool or hip church.  We have a big mix of people.  There will be a lot of young people, and I think you'll connect easily with a nice group of friends and a close knit community.  But there's also a huge variety.  We've got the Ivy League educated white collar class but also homeless folks.  We've got lifelong New Yorkers in the 60s and 70s and also NYU and Cooper Students. And our nursery has three little babies with another on the way.  Some folks grew up in church like you and I but many are new Christians or people checking out Jesus for the first time.  I teach a course on the basics of the faith every Wednesday night.  We don't have a grandiose plan to be on TV or dominate NYC.  We want to do simple things with great love.  We want to be part of redeeming our neighborhoods one person at a time.

Can We Know the World and Still Love It?

Four years ago this week, my wife, Lily, and I arrived in New York City. I couldn’t believe we found a parking spot right in front of our building.

That whole first year was a honeymoon — at least for me. It was like the first year of life. Everything about this place was absolutely fascinating. People and places and rats, oh my! We were renovating our apartment and our souls. I look back on that year in wonder at both our naiveté and the generosity of friends and relatives who rescued us.

The renovation of our apartment was a surprise. We wanted to remove the drop ceiling, but once that came down it was like we pulled a thread on a sweater. The whole apartment disintegrated before our eyes. We had been in the city for 10 days and could no longer live in our apartment. A family friend whose children were newly in college took pity on us. My wife and I, along with our feisty cat, Zookie, lived in her spare room until her son came home from college.

But after that first year, we were able to start welcoming people into our new apartment. We broke bread with friends and strangers with great regularity. A church planter who had been here a few years told me the greatest gift you can give New Yorkers is your time. Desperate, I decided to start doing that. We had people over for dinner a couple times a week, and then 20 people started showing up at our apartment every Sunday night to eat, share our lives, pray, and study the Bible. We decided to call ourselves Dwell Church.

As pastor Tim Keller says, paraphrasing Woody Allen, “New York City is like every other place, only more so.”

The last three years have been a whirlwind. Walking with people through cancer, divorce, death, mourning, depression, unemployment — everything NYC or any other place can throw at you. As pastor Tim Keller says, paraphrasing Woody Allen, “New York City is like every other place, only more so.”

Perhaps more joy as well. Creating a home and a life and a family. Starting this beautiful and diverse church that has brought people from loneliness into community, from despair to faith. Recently, I looked out on a theatre full of people from all walks of life worshiping the risen Jesus. A couple of years ago, this theatre was literally and metaphorically dark every Sunday. Now there is life and light.

My first child, a son, was born a month ago. There are now two rules for every person who visits our apartment. They cannot arrive without food and they cannot leave without posing for a picture with our baby.

As I looked at the photo album we’ve created, I got a glimpse of the community that has surrounded us. Black, white, Hispanic, Latino, gay, straight, Christian, atheist, whatever. They have loved us well. We have experienced God’s love through them. We will raise our son to love God and his church, but also to love the world in all its brokenness and pain.

I’ve been reading Steven Garber’s new book, Visions of Vocation, very slowly all summer. It needs to be digested one chapter at a time. He holds out this question: “Is it possible to know the world and still love the world?” It is possible to really know a place? To really know a people? And, still, to love them deeply? I want to try.

Can a Parish-Based Church Dwell in the Bowery?

I'm a New York City-based pastor with a deep interest in the history of my city. This week, I learned that there used to be a large church on my block. Every Sunday from 1885 until 1958, New Yorkers gathered at the Broome Street Tabernacle to worship God. The original minister, Rev. John Dooley, was orphaned when his mother died of yellow fever. A police officer found the six-year-old boy wandering the streets and took him to his own apartment at Broome and Centre Streets.

In the coming years, God changed his life and called him into the ministry. His passion became helping people who were lonely and disconnected — perhaps from family, perhaps from their heavenly Father. Eventually, the exact building he was taken into went up for sale, and Rev. Dooley bought it for his church. In the cornerstone was placed a Bible turned to Psalm 27:10: “When my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.”

On the first Sunday of worship, the doors were opened, the organ rang out into the streets, and hundreds of people flocked. Just like that, a church was planted.

Today, this block is emblematic of a diverse, global city. What was once Little Italy is now a melting pot of Italian-Americans, Chinese, creative-class professionals, and hundreds of other demographics that aren’t easily classified. On our street, you’ll find tomorrow’s leaders living in an NYU dorm and wealthy executives living in lofts. You can get a banh mi sandwich for $3.99 and a one-bedroom apartment for $11,250/month.

But urban ministry now is not so different from what it was in Rev. Dooley’s era.

The last couple of years, I’ve gathered with some friends to live out the gospel in our neighborhood. We decided to call it Dwell Church, because we were looking for a foundation upon which to build our lives. We felt disconnected. One friend aptly described New York as a city of eight million lonely people.

We dreamed of dwelling in Christ, together and for the city. Here’s a picture of our church: we join with our neighbors, other churches, people of other faiths or no faith. We bring a hot meal to the homeless and hurting. We make awkward conversation with those who are vastly different from us. We gather around the Word and communion every Sunday. We fight for widows and orphans ravaged by horrific housing practices. In short, we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed.

And in that time, we’ve discovered that the ancient text and rituals of the Christian faith have become real to us. We have met Christ in the bread and wine, but also in the faces of our neighbors. The residents of the Bowery still call out to my friends and I. We continue to pray for it. We long to bring transformation not only to individuals but the entire community.

As we grow this church, we’re reflecting on this question: After a generation or more of regional (mega)churches and large-scale Christian movements, can the parish-based church and pastor make a comeback?

Recently, a friend published The New Parish, a book about churches with a sense of place. I’m also reading a lot about the downturn of the celebrity pastor and the desire for people to connect with those who guide them spiritually.

The Broome Street Tabernacle was razed in 1959. Now that spot is occupied by my favorite bodega and a New York University dorm. But the Holy Spirit is still on the move in this community. And I believe the church of New York City will grow and be transformed one neighborhood at a time.

I look forward to sharing with you the questions I am wrestling with as I minister to the Bowery. Just another pastor to the parish, much as Rev. Dooley back in 1885.

Oldest Street in Manhattan

Oldest Street in Manhattan

The Bowery is the oldest street in Manhattan. Long before the Dutch arrived it was a Native American foot trail, but it has an even more fascinating story to tell. Prior to the Civil War it was the place where Peter Stuyvesant retired to his farm, George Washington had a beer, James Delancey built a house and the Astors expanded their real estate holdings. It continued to be deeply influential throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in the area of arts and culture.

A Reflection of Diversity

A Reflection of Diversity

Pete hasn't always lived in The Bowery.

As time and opportunity played out, he and his wife Lily moved cross-country from Seattle to The Bowery to begin their ministry of sharing the gospel with New Yorkers. Upon their arrival, he was especially struck by two themes which always seemed to emerge when thinking about The Bowery: loneliness and economic disparity.