9/11 fueled New York’s rise in church planting
Aug 25, 2011
By STAFF

NEW YORK (BP)—At 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 as Tom Fortner sat down for a quick breakfast, only five miles from where he blessed his meal, a commercial airliner navigated by terrorists slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

As Fortner and co-workers turned their eyes to the largest building in the skyline to watch he got his first opportunity to tell a New Yorker about Jesus. Though she had no interest in making a decision at that moment, Fortner was undeterred. 

“I plant the seeds and it’s God’s job to make them grow,” said the bivocational pastor and computer network engineer.

That day, and in the days following, variety of New Yorkers listened as Fortner told them about Jesus. Still no Gospel seeds germinated that day.

As Fortner walked back from a sparsely attended prayer meeting that night, he prayed. New Yorkers showed unprecedented openness as they began to recognize their vulnerability. Yet Fortner, who would soon be returning to his home in Dallas, felt small and helpless to meet the city’s staggering spiritual needs.

“Send someone else to pick up where I left off,” Fortner prayed.

God has spent the last decade answering that prayer. 

According to a study by the Values Research Institute and reported on the new www.nycreligion.info Web magazine covering religion in the city, 40 percent of Manhattan evangelical churches started after 2000. That’s about 80 churches. During a two-month period in 2009, at least one new Manhattan church started every Sunday.

In an era when most churches are experiencing attendance declines and closings, New York City has been an unheralded aberration. In fact the seeds of Fortner’s answered prayer were already in the city that Friday, Sept. 14, when the frazzled pastor/engineer drove his rental car back to Texas.

A GOSPEL ECOSYSTEM

Two days after Fortner left, on the first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, Southern Baptist church planter Nelson Searcy held two memorial services in a Manhattan hotel. Ninety people showed up. He held prayer services once a month for the next few months.

In the spring, Searcy teamed up with another young church planter, Kerrick Thomas, who had been planning a new church in the East Village. The two combined their efforts and started one church with multiple campuses. Nearly a decade after The Journey’s official launch on Easter 2002, the church has 1,000 people in attendance each weekend on four campuses around the city (and another 250 people in its Boca Raton campus, a new church plant launched by Searcy in February 2011).

Look deeper and it’s clear that God started answering Fortner’s prayer long before 9/11, more than a decade earlier in fact. For example, in his 2002 book The Power of a City at Prayer, Mac Pier documents a prayer movement in the years leading up to 9/11. Tim Keller had arrived in New York City in 1989 and founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which has started 75 churches in the city in the past two decades. According to the Values Research Institute, the percentage of people in center-city Manhattan who identify themselves as evangelicals has more than tripled (from less than 1 percent to 3 percent) since 1990.

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