NEW YORK — A former New Yorker who says he grew up knowing how to "play church...really, really well," has uprooted himself and his family from Georgia and moved back to the once dreaded borough of Brooklyn to develop a church plant targeting New York City's disaffected and disillusioned young people who, according to recent Pew studies, consider themselves religious or spiritual, but want nothing to do with church.
"I'm a preacher's kid. I was raised in church, I've done the church thing. I know how to play church, and I know how to play it really, really well because I did it my whole life before college. I don't want to create anything near that. I want people to be who they are. I want them to accept the radical power of the Gospel and allow their lives to be transformed," said James T. Roberson, pastor of The Bridge Church, a fledgling faith community centered in Downtown Brooklyn's trendy Park Slope neighborhood.
Roberson's experience includes helping to found a campus ministry while in college and serving at four church plants in the South, his most recent stint being the missional communities pastor at Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Ga. In February, after "the Lord began to make His call on our lives a tangible reality," Roberson, his wife and their two children found themselves in the "borough of churches" — one of Brooklyn's nicknames due to the number of churches that call the NYC district home.
"Initially, I just didn't see that as a reality," Roberson said of his early thoughts on planting a church up North. He recalled a time when Brooklyn was rife with crime, although he grew up about an hour away in Westchester County. But the 36-year-old, who had eventually started entertaining the idea of a church plant, decided, after 19 years, to return to his home state and make a visit to Brooklyn. It was then, he said, that he "just sensed that this is where we had to be." While his wife needed some convincing at first, she too sensed the calling and eventually got on board.
"We've just grown to love the city and love planting the church," said Roberson, who has been making special outreach efforts to local college campuses, a nearby mall and the Barclay's Center, the borough's newly-minted entertainment center and crowd-magnet.
The father of two has since taken on a residency with the Redeemer Church Planting Fellows Program led by Timothy Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the borough of Manhattan. The year-long program is meant to give participants "a realistic experience of life and ministry within the center-city context." Roberson, 36, is also a part of the Rebuild Network, described as a "family of churches that exist to equip, encourage, and empower the urban church to multiply disciples in the city."
The Bridge Church has been meeting since June for weekly Bible study in a space provided by another local church, Park Slope Christian Tabernacle. So far, about 20 people have become regular participants of the Tuesday night gatherings. But Roberson has managed to attract about five times as many young people to his "Love, Sex and Dating" events held in September and October. During the events, he delved into no-holds-bar discussions about sexuality and relationships, and what the Bible has to say about both.
In addition to sharing his vision for The Bridge Church with CP, Roberson also shared some of his observations from visiting and working with local churches.
Churches Are Losing Young People and Failing to Grow
"What I see happening around the country, and it's a consistent problem generation to generation, but 18-35-year-olds, the young urban professional, we have seen them in droves being raised in church, raised in a Gospel context and then they leave," Roberson told CP when asked for the demographic group he wants to see become a part of The Bridge Church.
"They go to college, they get jobs, they get married and then it's not until either their mid-30s or their late-30s that they now decide, 'Now I need to start going to church again.' So you have this kind of 20-year bump where people just figure that they're going to figure it out on their own because they don't see the church having any relevancy to their current life. I see that in Brooklyn. I see churches, they're having a tough time contextualizing to the next generation. I see them having a tough time contextualizing to their community, I mean the complexity and diversity of the community."
Roberson went on to give an example of one of the many churches he has visited since returning to New York City, telling of a 350-capacity church in Brooklyn that has only about five members — the pastor, his wife and "three little old ladies" on their way to glory. "They're not willing to change anything," he said, adding that he has come across many similar churches in the borough that seem "just fixed in a time warp."
"If they were trying to win people from the 1950s, they would be killing it," said Roberson. "It's a totally different generation. And their problem is, they're cool with that."
"That's an epidemic in Brooklyn," he insisted.
While it is "cool" that some churches, specifically ones he has visited in Brooklyn, have worshippers coming in from other boroughs and are thus "attracting the broad context of the city," Roberson has noticed that some of these churches are "not necessarily winning people around them."
"They're having tough times contextualizing ethnically as well as in terms of age wise," the minister added.
Roberson went on to note how some of the ethnic churches he has observed in NYC, a longtime immigration hotspot, fail to remain relevant in their American-born or Americanized children's lives once they hit adulthood.
"The beauty of NYC is that people come and they start a church because of immigration, they come in and get connected, and you get a lot of Caribbean churches, things like that," said Roberson. "But then all of a sudden, the church tends to define itself ethnically, and the native tongue is what they preach from, which is fine of course. But the next generation that gets born here, they don't have a tie as much to the motherland, even the mother tongue. So they don't invite their friends to the church either, because it's not relevant to their present situation."
'Borough of Churches' Short on Evangelism and Discipleship
It is quite common to walk or drive through some areas of Brooklyn and see several houses of worship located on the same block, some of them even sharing the same wall, yet, as Roberson has learned, "they don't even talk to each other."
"So in terms of a building, there are a lot of church buildings," he said. "In terms of Gospel-centered churches that are focused on evangelism and discipleship that are trying to win all the people in their community whether they're young or old, they're trying to contextualize ethnically, age wise … I don't see a lot of churches like that."
While The Bridge Church will be open to getting a building, he said his main priority will be winning souls.
"...I'm not fighting to say we need another building. I'm saying we need another group of people trying to win Brooklynites. That's what we're trying to do," said Roberson, adding that he hopes to eventually see several churches planted and others revitalized.
He said, "What excites me is a revolution, transformation, like changing the entire city. And I think the Gospel has that transforming power to do that."
The minister also believes a new breed of pastors are needed. "Pastors that are not caught up in the name game, the fame game. For a lot of people, a lot of their icons are big money name preachers. We just need guys that you can trust," said Roberson.
What people are looking for, he believes, is authenticity and a place where they can be themselves. And Roberson is specifically hoping to attract young men, who he believes could affect change in the city if they "would be leaders in our homes, in our schools..."
His goal is to make The Bridge Church an "authentic Biblical community," and not a "black church, Spanish church or anything," Roberson emphasized. He is hoping the location of his church plant will draw from the diversity of New York City, whose residents are predominantly white, black, Hispanic and Asian, and have a median age of 35-36, according to recent census data.
"Brooklyn is now this hub of new restaurants and the Barclay Center, you know there are a lot of young people moving here. Urban centers are different now. We still use the terminology 'inner city,' and when we say inner city we mean 'poor black people.' But the inner city is not that any more. The inner city is now being gentrified and you've got a lot of young affluent people coming, or people who aspire to that. Obviously, I think gentrification is a horrible thing but it does allow you to win different types of people."
The Bridge Church officially launches Sunday services in Sept. 2014. Find out more online: http://bridgechurchnyc.com.