“Welcome to New York”
In the Netflix sitcom “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, landlady Lillian recoils in horror at the “gentrification” of her beloved, run-down New York City. Similarly, promotional commercials for “The Last O.G.” feature Tracy Morgan’s character screaming incredulously, “What happened to Brooklyn?!?!”.
But in a recent real-life episode itself deserving of sitcom status, journalist Dan Piepenbring wrote an article in The New Yorker a few weeks ago that expressed similar sentiments at the arrival of the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A in Manhattan, which he labeled an “infiltration” of “Christian traditionalism”. Christianity Today sums up Piepenbring’s reaction with an ounce of tongue-in-cheek, sardonic humor:
“The headline says they [Chick-fil-A] are creepy, but probably not in the way that some people talk about, say immigrant restaurants, since The New Yorker would be above such disparagement.
...But, Chick-fil-a is run by evangelicals who hold evangelical beliefs, which [apparently] makes all the difference.”
I’ve written elsewhere about how a truly and ideally pluralistic society would foster constructive dialogue between people of varying beliefs (which would be beneficial to both Christians and non-Christians alike), instead of the double-standard that the article’s rhetoric showcases.
One has to wonder, however, if Piepenbring has been living under a rock in his own city. In a span of just under twenty years, New York City has managed to go from being less than 1% Christian to 5% Christian–a jump that might not seem like much at first glance but is actually pretty statistically remarkable considering both the relatively short time-span and New York’s staggering (and largely secular) population.
NYC is has become home to churches and congregations as diverse as Hillsong NYC (a contemporary Pentecostal church with 9,000 weekly attendees), to more confessional and traditional churches like Redeemer Presbyterian Church (which similarly sees a several thousand every morning). Continued church planting initiatives like “Redeemer City to City” make some predict that the number will only continue to grow in following years. Heck, Piepenbring even shares op-ed space on occasion with fellow New Yorker Tim Keller, pastor emeritus of Redeemer Presbyterian (which he and his wife planted in 1989). All this to say: although Christianity’s presence is still a small minority in the bustling metropolis, it’s cultural influence refuses to disappear in one of America’s largest cultural hubs. The addition of Chick-fil-A to the metropolitan area is simply the latest in a slow but steady movement of cultural engagement taking place in center city New York.
To be fair, though, this seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. After all, the distinctly Christian owners of the Chick-fil-A franchise could be referred to as “traditional family values” people, which is contrasted with the typical urban, secular, and postmodern New Yorker. And yet its arrival was still met with a general sense of enthusiasm from average New Yorkers on the street, and its reputation continues to grow nation-wide. * Likewise, churches like Redeemer hold to largely traditional views of sexuality and marriage, and yet they too continue to grow, thrive, and see consistent attendance as they experience the conversions of skeptics, secularists, and the spiritually polymorphous.**
Which begs the question: how is it possible that churches like Redeemer and Christian-owned businesses like Chick-fil-A can flourish within an increasingly secular society? How can they continue to attract crowds of congregants and customers, respectively?
The answer is pretty simple: 1) they seek to love and serve their communities, and 2) they seek to integrate their faith with every area of life. And their success stories fly in the face of both liberal and conservative types alike.
To Love God and One’s Neighbor
In his article, Piepenbring shudders and cringes at the mention of Chick-fil-A’s mission statement: “To glorify God”. And yet he conveniently leaves out the rest of their the mission statement: “…by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us” and “to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” Just exactly how does Chick-fil-A aspire to glorify God? Simply by providing excellent service and good chicken. (Hardly the “proselytizing” that the article panics about.) Ed Stetzer notes that Chik-fil-A is committed to serving both their employees and their guests with excellence and integrity.
And that’s not all.
Founder S. Truett Cathy, a devout Baptist, famously said “We should be about more than just selling chicken. We should be a part of our customers’ lives and the communities in which we serve.” That’s caring for the community. And his vision has lived on.
For example, in the midst of all this hubbub that Piepenbring’s article sparked, people have forgotten that Chick-fil-A was also featured in the news just last December. The occasion? For having opened on one Sunday to provide food for thousands of passengers stranded at an airport during a power outage. [Chick-fil-A is usually closed on Sundays.] In other words, they were seeking to serve and love the people around them.
Redeemer Presbyterian also has a “mission statement” that likewise includes care for their city:
The Redeemer family of churches and ministries exist to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.
Love For Our Cities
Where does this idea of caring for the city, or community, come from? The answer is also simple: the Bible.
Throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament, God commands His people to be a beacon of light to others in the way we worship, the way we speak, the way we act, the way we treat others, and simply the way we live (although we don’t always live up to it).
When the ancient Israelites were taken captive and exiled into the city-state of Babylon, they initially camped outside of the city until God sent them a shocking message: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7).
This came as a shock. Not only did the Babylonians have a different faith and religion, they were the enemies that defeated them! And yet God was calling them to “seek the peace and prosperity of their city”. For Christians, we too in a sense are “exiles” here, because we know that this world as it is is not our ultimate “home”. Philippians 3:20 describes us as “citizens of heaven”. And yet God calls us to be some of the best citizens of Earth. He calls us to be good neighbors and good residents of our citizens of our communities. He calls us to be so heavenly minded that we’re of earthly good. And that is the philosophy the Chick-fil-A owner’s have taken to heart.
This completely flies in the face of both liberal and conservative types. How so? On the one hand, liberal types tend to believe that in order to be loving, you need to always affirm a person’s lifestyle no matter what, or else you’re being unloving and oppressive. On the other hand, right-wing types tend to believe that we must enforce our values through legislation in order to “take back the culture” with an air of the utmost triumphalism.
But the examples of churches like Redeemer and businesses like Chick-fil-A completely demolishes those categories. They stick to their convictions, and yet they also seek to love and serve those that disagree with them, affirming the core of their personhood as human beings made in the image of God.
Chick-fil-A’s website states,
“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our Restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”
And to think that this is coming from the “Christian traditionalism” that the New Yorker article ridicules and disparages. It really shouldn’t be too shocking. They’re just trying to imitate Christ. Jesus, after all, never surrendered His convictions (and He could be very convicting!); and yet He also lived a life of love and exemplified sacrificial service, doing things such as washing His disciples feet (a statue of which is incidentally featured at Chick-fil-A’s headquarters in Atlanta–a testament to their model of service).
Sure, the Cathy family (the owners) has come under fire for their beliefs. What Christian hasn’t? And yet, they never hopped on the political stage or pulpit. Even amidst the backlash they have received, their voices never got shrill in response. Their rhetoric never became reactionary or defensive. They simply focused on continuing to do what they did best: providing good service and good chicken sandwiches for the people in their communities. They took things in stride and with poise, taking a page out of the examples of the early Christians (who had a lot at stake in terms of being potentially beheaded, thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, or even crucified under the thumb of the Roman Empire, a government unsympathetic to the Christian cause–we have it good here in America).
In the New Testament, Peter encourages Christians to live such good lives among unbelievers that “though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). So on the one hand, Peter tells us to expect that we (Christians) will be accused of doing wrong. On the other hand, he also encourages us to be known by our good deeds, and thus point others to Christ. If we as Christians never receive any pushback, then that means we’ve compromised. But if we only receive pushback, then that means we aren’t being Christ-like, and therefore we’re not reflecting God’s sacrificial love for our cities or nation.
The early Christians took this to heart during the first centuries of the Church, when they were still under Roman persecution. According to historians such as Rodney Stark and Larry Hurtado, they were known for taking care of the sick and the poor. When a plague ran through the Roman Empire, Christians were among the few that didn’t throw the infected out in the streets.
Integrating Faith and Work
How should faith inform the way that Chick-fil-A serves their food? Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”. This includes our work and vocation.
Similarly, Martin Luther said, “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid” and that he “gives the wool, but not without our labor.” In this way, he also provides food to communities through food service. And Chick-fil-A’s owners have sought to do this in a distinctly Christian way, inspired by their faith.
This includes their business practices. Chick-fil-A’s rise could hardly be described as meteoric. Having been founded and franchised roughly parallel to McDonald’s, attention on the national radar has only been relatively recent. I can’t help but wonder if this is because Chick-fil-A didn’t pursue the aggressive, cutthroat business tactics that other franchise expansions typically employ. I can’t tell you if the 2016 biographical drama of McDonald’s franchiser Ray Kroc was mostly apocryphal, but if the true story was anything like the unflattering light of the movie’s depiction of him, then his business practices were antithetical to Christian ethics. From what I can tell, the owners of Chick-fil-A have decided to pursue a different route–making their employees happy and not throwing them under the bus.
All this to say, the owners of Chick-fil-A have sought to integrate their faith in the way that they run their business, and it seems to have produced fruit. Redeemer Presbyterian also seeks to teach Christians to find how their faith should inform their work, by establishing The Center For Faith and Work.
I didn’t go to a Chick-fil-A until I was in the middle of my college career. Having seen the darker side that can exist in “Christian” subculture, I entered with a fair amount of skepticism. Yet years have passed and to this day I have yet to have a bad experience at a Chick-fil-A location. Their employees seem consistently happy or content, but not in a way that seems disingenuous (I can’t say the same thing about many of those flipping burgers on minimum wage incomes), and they always treat their customers cordially and with respect. I realize that this is all anecdotal, but given their track record across time and locations, their management and training has to be doing something right. And I’d like to think that it has something to do with the owners’ convictions.
In Short: Loving the City Revisited
In Jonah 4:11, God tells Jonah, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Ninevah, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left…?”. God’s description of the Ninevites is unflattering and convicting, and yet He offers a different tone than that of the fire-and-brimstone prophet or the typical politician.
Many times as Christians, we are tempted to enforce values upon on a society that simply does not know God. But the example of Jesus encourages us to first show our neighbors who He is through the way we love and serve our communities. Only then will they be willing to listen and turn an ear towards what we have to say.
Like the apostle Peter, I hope and pray that people like Piepenbring can come to “glorify God on the day He visits us”, but that will only happen if they see “good deeds” from those of us that profess Christ. Hey, Christian millennials…let’s do just that.
**In 2017, Princeton Theological Seminary reversed its decision to award Keller with the Kuyper Award due to his more traditional views of marriage and sexuality. He was still invited to give the address, which he did with pleasure.
For further reading….
On ideal pluralism:
On work and vocation: