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Adventures of an Urban Church Planter: The Gospel in the Concrete Jungle

by Sam D. Kim

As I was teaching at a local college and seminary in New York, I felt an intense prophetic call to plant a church in the city that would reach urban professionals and university students who were far from God and cynical about Christianity and the church. 

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Andrew, a general surgeon who came to Christ a few years ago, shared with great excitement how his agnostic friend from med school came to church one weekend and experienced God for the first time in his life. He told me his friend could not keep his tears from streaming down his face during or after service. The tears followed him even to the subway. 

Waiting for his train back home, he felt God’s sweet presence envelop him. He then felt a clear prompting to read the Bible, so he quickly went to the App Store to download it on his iPhone. He read the Bible for the entire ride home. He would eventually commit his life to Christ a few months later.

A few weeks after Andrew shared this story with me, on a very quiet Thursday night a NYU international grad student from Shanghai, an accountant from a top firm in downtown Manhattan, and a vice president from a major investment bank all made a life-altering commitment to Jesus in different small groups on the same night! I’ve had the awesome privilege of witnessing the Spirit of God move and bring renewal to the city as prodigals have run into Abba’s arms, embracing the gospel either for the first time or once again. 

These powerful life change stories are the direct result of 180 starting a church in downtown Manhattan a little more than five years ago. Whether they attended the most coveted universities in the world or started careers in medicine, finance, and fashion, hundreds of millennials have come to faith in Christ on a weekly basis since the church was founded.

Why We Planted in the Concrete Jungle

As I was teaching at a local college and seminary in New York, I felt an intense prophetic call to plant a church in the city that would reach urban professionals and university students who were far from God and cynical about Christianity and the church. From the start, we received a lot of help and support from students in local campus ministries at New York University and Columbia University. I got to know many of them well as a guest speaker at local conferences. 

What We Did Well Contextually 

In hindsight, one of the most strategic catalysts for our growth was the digital revolution. The confluence of YouTube’s emergence and the new iPhone’s release created a great hunger for video media. In turn, this gave us great access to the people we were trying to reach. One student suggested to me that instead of traditional audio, we record our sermons on video and share them on Facebook and YouTube. 

It worked. The results were instant and immediate, our exposure was greatly accelerated, and many more people started to visit us and found Christ or rededicated their lives. We even had international exposure from Asia, Europe, and Central America. People found us through social media online and began to watch us on YouTube. We were floored when we got news that the marketing director of Samsung Galaxy USA had started to follow us regularly on YouTube from Seoul and even joined us fasting with us for Lent! 

Conversions in the Ivy Tower

We knew God was up to something special when a group of mostly unchurched girls who were rooming together in a Columbia University suite all came to faith in Christ through small groups within a one-month period. The evangelistic fire continued to burn even after they graduated when their boyfriends and friends also surrendered their lives to Christ. The ladies told the guys they considered dating that going to church as a couple was a deal breaker. The boys agreed reluctantly at first, only to realize later that it was one of the best decisions they ever made.  

Perhaps after reading about our numerous successful highlights, it may seem like we have no failures or struggles, but that is far from the truth. To be honest, planting a church in the concrete jungle has been the most difficult task I have ever undertaken. What’s more, it almost killed me. Here come the bloopers.    

Painful Lessons Learned in the Concrete Jungle

I’ve done many dumb things in my life, but two in particular stand out like a full moon during a lunar eclipse on a beautiful autumn night. The first was planting a church in the concrete jungles of Manhattan and the other was jumping into the water at an exotic beach in old San Juan, both with too much confidence. 

A few years ago a special project brought me and a few friends to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. However, neither my friends nor I are very good at reading signs, especially the ones that imply imminent danger on beaches. Even today, I am still not sure how we could have overlooked those gigantic red Xs on the skulls.

It was quite enchanting to jump into the waves. We rode them like little children, screaming with great excitement as time flew by. The waves were small at first, but suddenly grew in size exponentially. Before we could realize how dangerous it was, we had drifted about a hundred feet from shore. No matter how hard we swam, the riptide kept pulling us back farther. 

After laboriously swimming to avoid drowning, somehow by God’s grace, we got back to shore safely. Even when our bodies finally felt the ground, we continued paddling for our lives. As we stood, we realized the water came only to our ankles. I had never kissed the ground before, but at that moment, it was like I was in love again. I hugged the ground and was never more grateful for its solidarity. I even developed an odd romance for sand.   

Planting a church in Manhattan is a lot like jumping into the deep waters of an exotic beach. It’s exhilarating at first, but you realize in hindsight it will most likely end up killing you. In fact, the possibility of drowning looms so heavily that paddling for your life becomes instinctive, even when you realize you’re back on shore and the water is shallow. 

The Apostle Paul resonated with my sentiment in his letter to the Corinthians, recounting his own church-planting experience: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4: 8-10). This verse should be an anthem for all leaders who’ve known both the joy and pain of jumping into deep waters only to be saved by God’s grace to live another day.

Developing a Biblical Theology of Power

This is the story I found myself in—planting a church in an urban jungle. I’d much rather highlight how smart I am, but I’m learning that it is in my weakness that Christ’s strength is made perfect. Weakness brings us to our knees in humble prayer for God’s help, while giftedness brings us to rely on our own strength to solve problems apart from God. 

It is deeply ironic, but in God’s kingdom, a theology of power is learned in our weakness rather than our giftedness. I used to think that all you needed to plant a thriving church was a proven strategy and a few smart people. Now I know that God has his own plans and only uses the humble and meek to represent him. 

Soren Kierkegaard once said, “The proud person always wants to do the great thing, but because he wants to do it in his own strength, he is fighting not with man, but with God.” Scripture puts it another way: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. I had to learn this the hard way. When I first started, I honestly thought church planting was going to be easy. However, only a few months into it, I realized the immense idiocy of that notion. I learned very quickly that the degree of impact and fruitfulness 180 would have could only be determined by God’s hand of blessing and not by any of my ambitious striving. If we were going to thrive, we had to thrive on our knees, face down, worshipping, and praying for God to move. 

Hardships doing Ministry in the City

One of the greatest challenges that perpetually brought us to our knees was finances. The costs of doing ministry one block north of Union Square and a stone’s throw from Times Square are astronomically high. The usual rent in those areas for commercial space could reach up to $3,000 per square foot. By God’s grace we rented space in an AMC Loews movie theater on 19th street and Broadway along with an administrative office on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. 

Hustling for Survival in the Concrete Jungle

I can’t recall a moment when we didn’t fall behind on our payment obligations. In the past five years, we must have received at least ten potential eviction notices on all our leases if we did not become current within the month. Although God has been faithful each and every time this has happened, I must have aged at least a decade from the stress and anxiety. However, as a result of those trying times, I’ve learned a radical new dependency on God which puts me down on my knees in prayer. At times, there appears an amazing sense of creativity and resourcefulness that I never knew I had.

In Prince Caspian of The Chronicles of Narnia series, C.S. Lewis writes of Aslan, tenderly explaining to the young, faith-filled Lucy that “God never works the same way twice.” 

I’ve experienced this firsthand. On occasion, we have received miraculous checks in the mail ranging from $7,000-$20,000 that bailed us out of binds that would have definitely buried us. Other times, we were forced to be incredibly creative and resourceful to live another day. On June 7, 2010, a staff member had the creative idea to upgrade ten phones on our business line to the new iPhone 4, well aware of its incredible demand in an open market. He listed them on Craigslist for $1,000 each and sold them all in one day. 

I still remember feeling a bit paranoid and weirded out by the whole scene as Andy and I met up with a foreign gentleman inside his minivan with bags full of cash and what looked to be a gun. To our surprise, he was a really nice guy and told us he was buying all the iPhones he could find in order to sell them on the international market, especially in Dubai. At that moment, I thought about telling him about Jesus, but then retracted when I looked at what I thought to be a pistol (which very well could have been my own paranoia). 

Developing a Framework for Life Change in Crisis

The conflicts we face in crisis are always first a matter of perspective. We desperately try to make sense of what is happening and why it is happening to us. James 1:2-4 teaches us to consider it pure joy when we face trials
because we know the testing of our faith produces perseverance so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. We know this to be theologically true, but it is a tough pill to swallow existentially, especially when it feels like the process of what we are going through seems only painful and the purpose futile. I know I felt that too many times to count in the last few years. I once heard a professor say in seminary that, “God uses ministry to change us, rather than God using us to change our ministries.”  

When I heard it, I knew it was true, but now I realize in hindsight that I did not fully grasp it. The Bible makes it very clear that God chooses to use “trials of many kinds” to mature and complete us in Christ. However, many of us interpret these moments as unwanted interruptions and setbacks in our lives. 

This struggle only further accentuates the conflict between God’s goals and ours. Clearly, missionaries and church planters are not exempt from this struggle. The truth is, God cares deeply about the destination and direction of our ministry, but his ultimate goal and purpose is the transformation and formation of our souls into Christ-likeness.

I used to think life change was immediate and instant, but now I know that life change and crisis are inseparable. These are the urban adventures of a church planter hustling for survival in the concrete jungles of Manhattan. If we are going to thrive, we will thrive on our knees, face down, worshipping, and praying for God’s movement to sweep the city. 

. . . .

Sam D. Kim is founder of 180 Church NYC, a community that’s joining God to restore the beauty in all things. He was also a delegate for the 2010 Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, South Africa.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 134-135. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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