Last week I chatted with an older evangelical ministry leader who based his group on Capitol Hill over 20 years ago. At that time, as he recalled, and which I also remember, much of Capitol Hill, now so gentrified, was somewhat rough and dangerous. In the early 1990s the crack epidemic was raging, and Washington, D.C. was known as America’s murder capital. The city’s then mayor was himself a druggie, among other issues, for which he went to prison.
This ministry leader remembered that he and his spiritual colleagues had at that time very deliberately prayed for a reduction of crime in Washington, D.C., especially on Capitol Hill. Without any hint of triumphalism, he noted that the prayers were wonderfully answered. The number of murders is 80 percent less than 20 years ago in the nation’s capital, similar to some other great cities, like New York. It is lower than it has been in 50 years, and incredibly thousands of people who otherwise would be dead are now alive thanks to this miraculous trend. Other crime is dramatically down too. Previous near war zones in Washington, once gutted and predatory, are now thriving, full of young people, families, new restaurants and shops. Where once many avoided walking in daylight, many more now stroll late in the evening.
Answers to prayers indeed. Of course, these prayers were answered through better government and better law enforcement, enhanced by demographic trends, which include a wider desire by many for urban living. After decades of population decline, when much of both the white and black middle class fled for the suburbs, leaving the urban landscape divided between poor and rich, Washington is now a growing city again for the first time since World War II.
The increased economic and demographic vitality is, although unremarked by most, accompanied by increased spiritual vitality. Washington is full of largely unseen new church congregation plants, most of them founded in the last decade. They are invisible to most because they typically don’t have their own buildings. They usually rent space from older, declining or dying congregations that have beautiful sanctuaries but few people. These empty churches available for rent are almost all liberal Mainline Protestant congregations, mostly dating to the 19th century, and once having memberships numbering in the thousands.
Many of these dying liberal churches aggressively celebrate their ostensibly radical inclusivity but don’t appreciate the irony of their mostly empty pews and inability to attract young people. Meanwhile, the new church plants are almost all theologically conservative. I can’t think of one that isn’t. After all, what motive do theological liberals, who don’t believe in the imperative of evangelism, have for planting a new church? Now, many of the young people in these new conservative churches are not necessarily themselves conservative. Some are quite socially liberal. Interestingly, they generally are not drawn, at least not in large numbers, to the dozens of liberal Protestant churches in Washington, or most anywhere else. They are going where the certitudes of the Gospel are preached, creating vitality.
These new church plants are Anglican, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church in America, Southern Baptist and nondenominational, among others. Some of them have gone on themselves to plant new churches. They are mostly attended by white yuppies who’ve moved to the city in recent years, but not always. I was delighted to learn recently that a friend of mine, a black man in his 70s who gave up on church decades ago, and who’s lived in Washington for over 50 years, was attending a new evangelical church plant at the invitation of his Asian neighbor, the pastor. I also suspect that there are many new Hispanic church plants, mostly Pentecostal, that are known primarily through word of mouth.
These dozens of new churches, attended by thousands of mostly new residents, are having a quiet but steady spiritual impact on the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C. is still full of sin, just like all human communities, and maybe more notoriously so because of its political status. And it still has terrible social problems, like all cities. But crime is dramatically down, many neighborhoods are safer, new businesses are opening, and more people are now attracted rather than repelled by urban living.
The worship and prayers of these new churches, combined with many older, already existing churches, doubtless are contributing to Washington’s rejuvenation, which is spiritual and not just social and economic. Every human community has an element of unseen spiritual warfare invisible to human eyes but still influencing human actions. Thanks to the longtime prayers of the ministry leader I met last week, and of many, many others, the angels seem to be at work in Washington, D.C.