Missionary Impossible

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

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.”

Scott Rourk, pastor of the 411, prays with Mario, a retired Cuban bellman, during a 411 service. Photo: Arlene Gottfried

Rourk has a mildly bohemian look himself. He once jokingly called himself the “long-haired hippie preacher.” He has a classic skate-rat cut and must constantly push his hair back behind his ears. He dresses in untucked shirts and New Balance running shoes. From the first time I met Rourk, he flashed signs that he wasn’t an angry stiff. Even though his denomination takes a dim view of cursing, Rourk throws a well-timed “crappy” or “pissed off” into conversation. Behind his desk, he has propped a calendar featuring photos of outhouses. And while he listens to Christian rock, he admits to being fanatical for Rod Stewart.

During his sermon, he paid homage to Stewart with a moment worthy of stadium rock. He grabbed a stool and precariously balanced himself on one rung. “You’re going to Hell!” he shouted in a thick southern accent, pointing his finger in deliberate parody. A few weeks prior, Rourk was having coffee with a secular acquaintance. Walking down the street, a preacher stood on a corner shouting about damnation. After the preacher faded from view, Rourk sheepishly asked, “You didn’t see that guy saying ‘You’re going to Hell’?” The acquaintance replied, “I didn’t see him at all.” Rourk told this as a parable of how the old fire and brimstone won’t sell in New York. “Post-Christians need to hear about our experiences in a not-so-confrontational way: ‘Let me tell you, this is how Jesus changed me.’ ”

Before he decided to start his church, Rourk had never been to the city. The son of a railroad engineer, he’d spent his childhood in the small-town South. During a brief—and characteristically entrepreneurial—stint owning a landscaping company, Rourk became attracted to missionary work. He spent two summers in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, where he organized churches and furtively proselytized in a military prison, after which he decided that God had called him to serve Jesus full-time. He spent three days on a Georgia mountaintop fasting and praying. When he came down, he enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Rourk received his master’s in “people group strategies,” the seminary term for the science and methodology of missionary work, which requires students to become proficient in the analysis of demographic data. His program also required him to take classes on urban ministry, which freely imbibes the ideology of the renowned liberal urban-planning critic Jane Jacobs. Its teachers are unabashed enthusiasts of city life. The biblical redemption narrative “began in a garden, but it will end in a city. Cities are the future,” Rourk likes to say, alluding to Jerusalem.

In a class on church planting, Rourk took on a life-altering assignment. He devised a plan for a ministry in the Times Square area—an area where his mentor, an old pastor from Georgia, had wanted to start a church. The more Rourk learned about midtown, the bigger his plans became. “When I began to study the people in this area, I found there were influencers of culture. I was amazed. They are actually influencing our culture, because who doesn’t have a TV? Who doesn’t go to movies? Who doesn’t watch MTV? These are things that have an influence on culture, not always a positive influence, but an influence. So my thinking began, What would happen if we began to reach this group of people for Christ?

Rourk explained this to me at an Italian café on Ninth Avenue. Since coming to New York and settling in Hell’s Kitchen, he has become an enthusiast of yuppie life. He takes his daughter to ballet lessons at Chelsea Piers and discourses fluently on the best Mexican restaurants in the city. “There’s a Starbucks on every street corner,” he says in awe. And that’s a fitting sentiment. Rourk wants to reverse the old missionary equation. “We focus not on the down-and-out but the up-and-out. These are people trying to find the next big thrill, jumping out of airplanes with snowboards on, risking their lives, doing all kinds of crazy sports. God loves those people and he wants the people to come to know him, because they are influencers of the world.”

If he had harbored any doubts about his plans, September 11 erased them. After the attacks, he made his first trip to New York to lay the groundwork for his church and minister to the attacks’ victims. He told me, “Just before those planes slammed into those buildings, God whispered into the ears of the terrorists, ‘I’m going to start a church in New York City.’ ”

Of all the spots Rourk sends missionaries, he considers John’s Pizzeria on 44th Street the most resonant. When groups enter the restaurant, it isn’t immediately apparent why it should possess symbolic value. But across from a mural of the city skyline, stained glass is planted in windows. Glass also circles a cupola poking from the ceiling. This was the sanctuary for the Gospel Tabernacle, the pulpit from which the famed A. B. Simpson preached the power of faith healing. During the 1890s, the building served as the headquarters for his Christian and Missionary Alliance, a group that financed proselytizing in remote lands. “It breaks your heart to see churches that have been turned into restaurants and theaters,” Rourk tells me. “But this is what happens in a post-Christian city.”

In the Baptist version of New York history, the city has deeper roots in Evangelicalism than in secularism. There’s something to this. Until the sixties, great revivalist preachers had successful stays in the city. The fiery fundamentalist J. R. Straton, a fierce opponent of evolution, made his home at Calvary Baptist on 57th Street. For a ten-week revival in 1917, Billy Sunday built an 18,000-seat tabernacle in Washington Heights replete with its own post office, emergency hospital, and library. And in the summer of 1957, Billy Graham filled Madison Square Garden for 97 nights and packed Yankee Stadium—drawing 2.4 million.

But, as Rourk and other missionaries explain, their brand of Christianity has come and gone from these parts—and their efforts grow from an acute sense of their own decline. Until now, Southern Baptists haven’t capitalized on the pop-cultural mainstreaming of Evangelical faith. They have been torn by internal divisions and are not nearly as innovative as other denominations. Over the past decade, these failings have taken a toll. More than 75 percent of Southern Baptist churches have stalled in growth or shrunk, even as Pentecostals and other more experiential denominations showed major upticks in church membership.

Five years ago, the denomination announced a plan to boost these numbers by reaching a long-neglected market: cities. Southern Baptists have sent experienced urban missionaries to Chicago, Phoenix, Boston, and Las Vegas and given them two years to spiritually make over the cities. For all these efforts, however, New York clearly represents the missionary mother lode. According to the denomination’s North American Mission Board, Southern Baptists will invest more heavily here than their other target cities.

The Baptists are careful about how they describe New York. They’ve tamped down any threatening rhetoric, scrubbing workaday phrases like “armies of missionaries” and “crusade” from their lingo. When one of Rourk’s deputies described New York to me as a “foxhole,” the pastor quickly interrupted and called that “the wrong choice of words.” “Nice metaphor,” another deputy sarcastically called out, shaking his head.

His gaffe revealed an important truth. According to the Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman, New York symbolizes Evangelical alienation from the culture. “There’s a sense of being disempowered, of being a movement that would have called itself the Moral Majority; but when they look at political and cultural life, and at New York, one of the centers of that life, they say, ‘It is not like us.’ ” Ammerman suggests that the targeting of New York serves much the same purpose as proselytizing trips into danger zones like Iraq or Saudi Arabia. They provide dramatic story lines that stir the imagination of the people in the pews and unite the community behind a big cause. This year, New Hope New York claims that it is on pace to bring approximately 9,000 volunteers to the city, who will give up their vacations and weekends to evangelize. On June 5, New Hope New York imported more than 200 of them from twelve states to spend the day prayer walking. They walked until they covered 213 of the city’s Zip Codes.

Revangelicals may be conservatives, but they have more freedom to adapt to the cultural mainstream than other tradition-minded denominations. True heirs to the spirit of the Reformation, they consider ritual less important than Gospel truth. So they guiltlessly tweak their presentation to suit specific audiences. Abroad, they obsessively translate the Bible into the vernacular. At home, they have less skillfully tailored their message to yuppie America’s therapeutic culture. That’s beginning to change. There’s a big movement to modernize the denomination’s recruitment techniques spearheaded by Rick Warren, the founding pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, California. Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, has been on the New York Times hardcover Advice and How-To best-seller list for 89 weeks. Warren denounces self-help movements and psychotherapy, but he really exhibits the tendencies he decries. His book is structured in the classic self-help style, describing a 40-day program for “discovering God’s purpose for my life.” New Age phrases like “spiritual growth” abound. His ministry leads Dr. Phil–like workshops on marriage enhancement, parenting, and budget planning.

Warren’s phrases echo through the slogans and literature of New York missionaries. They realize success in the city will require even more kinds of protective coloration: embracing New Age rhetoric, repackaging conservative Christianity as something resembling yoga. They 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?”

Rourk wants to tap a fundamental truth about life in the big city. It should be ripe for revivals because it is filled with people living in isolation, searching for a sense of belonging. Even in the ballyhooed megachurches, like Rick Warren’s, the core of American Evangelical church life is not the large Sunday service but small group sessions that convene during the week in homes and cafés. Ostensibly structured for more intensive Bible study, these klatches of believers also have the character of group therapy. Rourk has taken these sessions and turned them into his biggest selling point, mentioning them at every turn. The 411 advertises that “these groups meet together to discuss spiritual issues and support one another in all aspects of life.” The church, he says constantly, will provide “authentic community.”

Rourk sends missionaries to laundromats to hand out quarters, a tactic he calls Underwear Outreach. At dog runs, they distribute biscuits. Subway riders get water, Starbucks, and Krispy Kremes.

And if those appeals don’t work, the Baptists will play to baser instincts. Rourk sends missionaries to laundromats to hand out quarters—a tactic he calls Underwear Outreach. At dog runs, they distribute biscuits. Subway riders get water, Starbucks, and Krispy Kremes. Rourk says, “We want to get people to stop and ask, ‘Who are these people and why are they being so nice to me?’ We tell them that there aren’t any strings attached to this gift. We aren’t asking anything in return.”

After a long search, Rourk found a semi-permanent home for his church, a small theater called the Peter Norton Space, on West 42nd Street. When he told me about the locale, he tried not to sound too morose about his co-tenant, a production of a play called The Oldest Profession, about retired whores. The play, he said, had at least provided him with a set that reinforced his favorite catchphrase, “The 411 is a city-loving church.” For the duration of The Oldest Profession’s run, Rourk will preach in front of a gritty street scene that features strewn rubbish, a park bench, and a graffiti-covered façade.

Rourk also needed to spin his church’s lackluster attendance. His grand-opening service pulled nearly 130—not a bad number. But by the third week, his audience had plummeted to 40. His attendees were hardly the coveted influencers of culture. There was Mario, a wheelchair-bound retired Cuban bongo player; two homeless men; and a raft of recent graduates from Christian colleges. But Rourk had an explanation for this, too. At seminary, he had studied “missiology”—a discipline that includes statistical analysis of church attendance. Missiology predicts that churches start slowly. Like restaurants, they need word-of-mouth and buzz.

While it is too early to judge Rourk’s effectiveness, other Evangelical churches have been open long enough to assess. On the East Side, Redeemer Presbyterian holds two Sunday services that often fill Hunter College’s 2,100-person auditorium. Since it launched in the late eighties, Redeemer has spun off sixteen branches in the city and suburbs. Where Redeemer most definitely sounds like the name of an Evangelical church, most of the Southern Baptist outfits do nothing to announce their true identity. (Rourk says that New Yorkers tend to recoil from the word church, let alone Southern Baptist, so it’s better not to use them.) There’s Graffiti on the Lower East Side, and the Journey with both downtown and Upper West Side congregations—all of which draw healthy crowds, usually close to 200.

When the academic Nancy Ammerman placed northeastern Evangelicals under the ethnographic microscope for her 1987 book Bible Believers, she found that they look a lot like the rest of the population—at least in their education, professions, and wealth. “People who join Evangelical churches in the north are not demographically weird,” she told me. And in a way, the New York Evangelicals aren’t so anomalous either. The churches draw from three main subgroups. They attract Asian-Americans, many of whom grew up in Evangelical households. Then there are southern expats, also looking for some comforts of homeland homily. A good number of longtime city dwellers, some of the NPR-listening, antiwar variety, have also joined.

To understand this last group, I spent a Sunday at a Tribeca church called Mosaic Manhattan. It uses a public-school auditorium as a makeshift sanctuary. On the darkened stage, a spotlight shone on a four-piece rock band. “Let all creation proclaim, holy is your name,” goes one typical snatch of lyrics that are projected, Power Point–style, on a big screen.

Southern Baptists, who traditionally condemn card-playing and dancing, aren’t known for their ironic sensibility. But the New York Evangelicals understand that irony is central to the urban vernacular, so they try to speak it. A video appears on the screen showing a finger-puppet rendition of the Bathsheba story, narrated by a child. When King David invites her into his boudoir, the seductive chorus of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” grinds into gear. At the mention of the biblical verse “and they slept together,” an obnoxiously loud snoring sound is emitted. The congregation doubles over in laughter.

The ethos reflects the Rick Warren approach. There’s no hint of denominational affiliation. No cross hangs over the proceedings. Spirituality has been cleverly packaged to resonate with pop culture. A Lacoste marketing executive delivers a talk on temptation. Describing David, he says, “This guy is like Trump.” He compares Bathsheba to “porn pop-ups on your computer.”

There’s one striking thing about the New Yorkers drawn to Mosaic Manhattan: Most of them are lapsed Catholics seeking a new spiritual home. Because of bad childhood memories—not to mention recent scandals—they have no interest in returning to the religion of their youth. If these lapsed Catholics want to find a church that practices a variation on traditional Christianity, Evangelicalism affords an attractive counterpart to Catholic ritual, since it is rooted in the most extreme reaction to Catholicism. Fortunately for Evangelicals, the city has a seemingly endless supply of lapsed Catholics.

But for all these victories, the Baptists have found proselytizing in the age of Fahrenheit 9/11 and partisan polarization to be a tricky business. On a Saturday morning, Rourk and ten volunteers stood on Ninth Avenue handing out granola bars and invitations to the next day’s services. Before the group took to the streets, Rourk instructed them on the fine art of Manhattan evangelizing. Don’t initiate conversations with strangers. That won’t go over well. “If they ask why we’re handing these out, tell them, ‘We’re showing Jesus’ love in a practical way.’ ”

As I stood with Rourk, one of his deputies, Ric, approached, removed his Florida State baseball cap, and wiped his brow. A married couple had just aggressively challenged him. “You don’t think there’s too much faith here already?” the women shouted. “You’re creating a new church so that you can get people to give you more money.” The encounter had stoked Ric’s adrenaline. But he admitted that such disputes are frequent. Mostly, their missionaries receive abuse from Bush haters. When I asked for examples, he told about how an enraged woman had recently stood in the face of an elderly missionary from the South, pointed her finger, and screamed, “You’re all Evangelicals, and you’re voting for Bush!”

The only reason Rourk and company don’t find themselves in many more such standoffs during this fraught election year is that Baptists—at least those trying to win over believers in the urban North—have checked their politics at the door. They never mention abortion or homosexuality in services. When the Lacoste marketing manager began to riff about Jim McGreevey’s homosexuality in his sermon, he interrupted himself. “I shouldn’t go there,” he said, quickly changing the subject. But to maintain this silence would require bucking the twenty-year trajectory of the denomination, which has grown ever more enmeshed in conservative politics. Since these Manhattan churches only exist thanks to the denomination’s beneficence, how long can they escape its politics? It seems inevitable that visiting missionaries will harp on the sacrosanct nature of the fetus or the sinfulness of gay people. And if the denomination doesn’t force these issues, life in New York will. It is only a matter of time before congregants take gay friends to church. What then?

One afternoon, Rourk and I left his office and went across 42nd Street to a Starbucks. Conversation had drifted into a discussion of homosexuality, a subject that serves as a dam stanching his usual stream-of-consciousness style. Rourk and the other Southern Baptist pastors in New York know that they have a reputation for intolerance and that their attitude toward gay people usually gets held up as Exhibit A in the case against them. Indeed, Rourk does just about everything to avoid the words gay and homosexuality. He favors the euphemism that particular lifestyle. Given his desire to proselytize in the theater community, however, even he acknowledges that he can’t avoid talking about “that particular lifestyle.”

As he began to lay out his position, Rourk used a straw to draw patterns in the foam at the bottom of his empty Frappacino cup. “There needs to be an understanding that God loves all people. People say that all the time. That’s a nice, easy thing to say. But God loves theater people.” He put down the straw and tried to choose his words carefully. “How am I going to navigate this?”

Pointing out the café’s window, he announced, “I have just seen several couples walk by that, you know, that have a lifestyle that is contrary to what the Bible talks about. But we are supposed to be a church that reaches out, just as Christ did.” Rourk concedes that the church has unfairly stigmatized gay people. “There are many people who commit adultery. Sex outside marriage is not what God intended—but you don’t hear people upset about all those adulterers. These are things that I don’t want to be misconstrued. But Christianity faces far more threats than homosexuality.”

After his initial tentativeness, he caught an explanatory groove, like he gets on the pulpit. “We want to be a place where you’re allowed to come in and believe what you believe and live like you live. But if you discover truth, then you need to embrace it with everything you have.” When Rourk describes his envisioned community, he smiles, partly from satisfaction, partly in the knowledge that this rhetoric will help his case. “In my study of this type of lifestyle and people who came out of the lifestyle, a lot of people don’t want to be in it.” As he uttered this phrase, he realized that he hadn’t navigated the issue as cleanly as intended. He grandiloquently stared at my notebook, as if making fun of his gaffe, and said, “This is going into something that I don’t want to go into.”

It felt like this two-hour conversation had lasted longer. Rourk spent much of it suggesting that my spiritual core would remain hollow until I established a personal relationship with Jesus. “I believe God is working on your heart,” he told me. “You know I love you and your family.” Finishing our conversation, I returned to the gay question one last time. “If someone in your church commits adultery or has a gay relationship, what happens?” I asked.

“When a person falls away,” he explained, “we’re going to introduce church discipline. So, if a person fell back into that particular lifestyle and wasn’t repentant, a believer could confront them. But if the sinner says, ‘You’ve no business telling me how to live,’ we can take them before the church to be judged—and removed.”

As Rourk bounded down 42nd Street, I noticed him stare back wondrously toward the luminescence of Times Square. He still looked more like a tourist—an appropriate pose. Rourk doesn’t quite get his audience. It’s not, as he’s fond of reiterating, that New Yorkers are wary of religious trappings or wield crude stereotypes about Evangelicals. And it’s not just that most of the city’s inhabitants have profound disagreements with Southern Baptist teachings on gays and the subordination of women. New York has a rival view of the world, its own informal theology that preaches the virtues of ambition and tolerance, valuing the cutting edge over the traditional. If the Baptists fail to build a following, it won’t be because the city’s so besotted with secularism. It will be because the city is already a church.

Missionary Impossible