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Missionary Impossible

Hey, yuppie heathens— are you ready to be saved? Then meet Pastor Scott Rourk, who’s come up from Georgia to troll for your soul.

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Scott Rourk and his fellow proselytizers set out to ply Hell's Kitchen with granola bars.   

On a hazy Saturday afternoon, eight tourists from Chesapeake, Virginia, took the long elevator ride to the Empire State Building’s observatory deck. They maneuvered to the edge, grasped the cross-hatched railing, and marveled at the landmarks below. “There’s Central Park over there,” a twentysomething brunette woman pointed out. Before returning to the Days Inn, they purposefully stopped in the middle of the crowd and formed a tight circle. Their leader, Tony Inmon, closed his eyes, scrunched his forehead in concentration, and placed an arm on his wife’s shoulder. “Lord, we want to pray for this city and that you spread your hand over this city.” He paused to collect his words, and then recited them in a burst. “Open eyes, open truth, Lord. We pray that you start a great revival in this very place in a powerful and mighty way.”

This moment marked the culmination of a daylong “prayer walk,” a new form of worship promoted by a rising generation of postmodern Evangelical entrepreneurs. The crux of the prayer walk is authenticity: By walking among the actual people you are recruiting to the faith, you can pray for them in greater detail, and hence in a more powerful fashion. You aren’t just abstractly praying for God to remove adult-video stores; instead, you can tailor prayer to include the exiting customers.

These visitors from Journey church—a cutting-edge, barely institutional “emerging church” congregation—were nearing the end of a busy day. They had visited Trump Tower, where they asked the Lord to open the Donald’s heart to the Gospel. In front of NBC, they prayed that the network begin beaming Jesus’ message. A sailor, recently returned from the Middle East, and his wife stopped at United Nations Plaza. Surrounded by flagpoles, they bowed their heads and told God of their hope that ambassadors become believers with “influence in other countries.”

Crisscrossing the city, the prayer walkers followed a “spiritual map” that a pastor named Scott Rourk had provided them. The map conspicuously marks obstacles to the Gospel’s spread in midtown—adult bookstores, tarot-card readers, and bastions of “materialism”—barriers that prayer must melt away. Last month, Rourk opened a church in Hell’s Kitchen called the 411 New York, an allusion to both the verse found in 1 Peter 4:11 setting forth the mandate to proselytize and the hip-hop usage of the digits as a synonym for information. Missionaries from Georgia, Tennessee, and Delaware, as well as these Virginians, have journeyed north to promote the 411 and pray for its success; Rourk has guided more than 500 such pilgrims through the city since January.

Reigning myth holds that New York is the nation’s leading producer of atheism, ambition, greed, and sin, and that its natives might dismiss this wave of the faithful as dewy-eyed rubes. But when they call for a religious revival in New York, the Southern Baptists have reason to believe their prayers may be answered. These are boom times for Evangelicals. In recent years, their ideas have steadily migrated into the popular-culture mainstream via surprise best-sellers like the Left Behind series of Revelations-inspired novels, the phenomenal success of The Passion of the Christ, and the explosion of a new brand of youth-oriented religiosity in familiar outposts on the consumer landscape, such as coffeehouses, gyms, and shopping malls. Hoping to capture some of this momentum, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, has launched a campaign to make New York come to Jesus. They call their effort New Hope New York. Missionaries who have spread the Gospel in the Middle East and Africa have moved here to aid the cause. And they have a good-size purse at their disposal. Rourk plans on spending $482,000 this year alone.

Southern Baptist missionaries have come to the city before. But these efforts mostly targeted ethnic enclaves. The denomination has, for instance, established 28 Haitian churches in New York, and 22 Filipino ones. But New Hope New York represents a significant shift in strategy. Rourk’s mission targets professionals who toil in the midtown empires of media, advertising, theater, and finance—the redoubts of high secularism that make this city the capital of blue-state America.

The Baptists blanket Hell’s Kitchen with postcards promising “holistic growth” and “lives transformed.” One card shows an unmade bed with orange pillows and an orange duvet. It asks, “Tired of waking up unsatisfied?”

It’s not, to say the least, an intuitive match. While Southern Baptists have always been conservative, in the eighties fundamentalists took over the denomination. They purged moderates from seminaries and steered denominational doctrine steadily to the right. Evolution is, to borrow a rallying cry, “evil-ution.” No women can be ordained. In fact, the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention plainly stated that a woman must “submit herself graciously” to her husband.

It’s hard to imagine that such fundamentalism could ever gain a toehold in Manhattan. And that may be the reason that the Southern Baptists have brought along their most grizzled veterans. It is the ultimate missionary challenge.

Missionary trips, which cost about $500, are sold like vacation packages. Last Valentine’s Day, the 411 sponsored “a mission to remember,” named after the 1957 Cary Grant movie An Affair to Remember. In addition to proselytizing, the church promised couples carriage rides and ice skating. A prayer-centered “father and son mission,” aimed at freeing men from “ambiguous life-styles,” sent participants to a Mets game.

The day after the Virginia group left, I met with Scott Rourk and a group that he calls his “core” for their weekly Sunday meeting. Because they are Rourk’s foot soldiers—the people who work at his office and organize logistics of visiting church groups—he conducts these services in the spirit of a pep rally. “If we don’t go up and open our mouths and tell our experience to the city, they won’t come,” he told them.

Christian missionaries are just like other New Yorkers in one regard: They obsess over real estate. It’s too expensive to build or buy a church. Rourk spent a good portion of the summer looking for a permanent address. That weekend, they worshipped in a temporary locale, in studios usually reserved for theater rehearsals. When I arrived for the service, a secretary asked me, “Are you here for the Nicotine audition?” Around the corner, a group of actors sat in folding chairs, rereading scripts.

Rourk likes to hold his services in theaters. That’s because he badly wants actors to become the 411’s rank and file. This past summer, he sent a missionary group to a casting call for the Oklahoma! national tour. Outside the auditions, actors milled about in nervous anticipation. While the missionaries worked the room, passing out water, a brunette actress in her twenties approached them and snapped, “I really would prefer that you leave. I’m not comfortable with a religious group here.” She took a bottle of water and turned away. Other actors proved more susceptible. A man bear-hugged a grandfatherly missionary, who had told him to “break a leg.” And in a studiously decorous fashion, the missionaries would try to make the most of these moments. A twentysomething intern with the church named Christi—herself an aspiring actress—quietly asked an auditioner, “Can I pray for you?”

While Rourk claims that he wants to harness the cultural power of actors, they also clearly pique his interest because their lives are so precarious, often desperate. The 411 has produced promotional material to tap their anxieties—“when the auditions aren’t coming, but the bills are . . . Tired of being unrecognized? At the 411 NYC we applaud you regardless of your resume.” Last November, Rourk set up a table at the Actor’s Fest conference. Alongside booths selling head shots and acting lessons, Rourk doled out ten-minute phone cards with the 411’s name and logo emblazoned on them. For the harder cases, a raffle paid out $100 to cover the winner’s electrical bills. “There were 2,500 struggling actors. We had 250 of them sign up and say ‘I’m interested in your ministry.’ They are in our database.”


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