First Free: A Test-case for the Declining Evangelical Urban Congregation
by Adam Gustine
I came to First Free, with my family and co-pastor Ben, when the church was coming out of a long transition period that had followed an even longer period of conflict and trouble. You could say that our church was a test-case for the declining evangelical urban congregation, struggling to make sense of, and respond to, the demographic changes in the neighborhood. Formerly a mono-cultural neighborhood, Bay Ridge and its surroundings are as diverse as anywhere in the city today. I think everyone knew that our future together would look different than our church’s long history, but I don’t think anyone was anticipating what that would mean.
Our church is one congregation in a community of ethnic churches that share space with each other. In some ways, this is not much different than many rental relationships between ethnic congregations. But in other ways, we are starting to see how we can move beyond that landlord/tenant relationship and embrace a multi-ethnic approach to mission in the neighborhood.
The stereotypical strongholds of power and territorialism are starting to come down as we grow together. Ephesians 2 comes to mind as we see a different kind of community coming into focus, where walls that divide are being torn down through Christ as we endeavor to discern a future with some degree of shared purpose and vision, instead of just shared space.
I’m excited to be a part of this process. Living and laboring here is a daily education in cultural difference, a far cry from my middle American upbringing. My assumptions are challenged and values like dying to self and mutual submission take on whole new layers of meaning for me, or anyone engaged in this kind of multi-ethnic missional experiment. We are stepping into a different way of being the church that is new for all of us. We are excited about the possibilities of how God may work through us. Even though we certainly don’t have all the answers, I’m encouraged to see us asking better and more important questions.
Adam Gustine lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ann, and their two sons. He has been serving with First E-Free Church in Brooklyn, and learning to love his city, since the fall of 2008.