Boston's Quiet Revival
Boston's Park Street Church looks like just another stop on the city's historic Freedom Trail. Tracing the landmarks of the Revolutionary War, Park Street stands between Boston Common and the Granary Burial Ground where the Founding Fathers John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams lie. The nearly 200-year-old church is noted for its 217-foot steeple and for having stored gunpowder in a basement crypt during the War of 1812.
But inside, Park Street is no museum. Nearly half the congregation is made of university students, often from Harvard and M.I.T., and nearly three-quarters of the church is single. Many attended Park Street's Christmas Eve service where they heard a sermon on the meaning of Christmas in response to the city's decision to rename the evergreen standing in the Common a "holiday tree."
Park Street defies the myth that Boston and the rest of New England have shed their religious heritage for a secular society. It also defies the institutional hold that the Catholic church has on America's most Catholic city. In fact, evangelical Christianity is thriving in Boston. During the past 30 years, church growth, fueled by evangelical university groups and immigrant communities, has dramatically outpaced population growth. At the same time, mainline denominations have dwindled and the abuse scandal in the Catholic church has forced the closing of dozens of parishes. Evangelical leaders expect this "quiet revival" not only to continue, but to blossom into another Great Awakening.
Not since the 17th century has there been so many evangelicals at Harvard University, religious historian and Harvard campus minister Peter J. Gomes told The Boston Globe, in 2003. As Harvard and other elite colleges opened their doors to students outside their traditional ground of eastern aristocracy, Midwestern evangelicals and minority Christiansmostly Asianbegan swelling the numbers of the once beleaguered Ivy League campus ministries. Because of the growth of these groups, Daniel Harrell, associate minister at Park Street Church, says university students today make up 40 percent of the congregation.
"These groups are strong and strengthening," Harrell says. Students have helped to plant other Boston churches, and they have made Park Street one of the best places in Boston to meet singles, according to a local magazine. Seventy percent of the congregation is single, Harrell says.
Park Street's Sunday evening service attracts evangelical college students from campuses all over Boston, especially Harvard and M.I.T., and even other parts of New England. The Globe reports that more than 1,000 students attend Park Street's two Sunday evening services. Once pastored by National Association of Evangelicals cofounder Harold Ockenga, Park Street is now one of Boston's premier places to meet singles, according to The Improper Bostonian, a humorous biweekly.
The Catholic church is to Boston what evangelicals are to Wheaton or Colorado Springs, says Harrell. The influence of the Catholic church is everywhere from parishes to politics. Harrell says Catholics often did not leave the church because of the abuse scandal, but they were shocked at how the church handled it. "That's what sent people through the roof," he says.
A recent survey found that only one-third of Catholics attend mass weekly. Despite the low attendance, Catholics tend to stick it out with the church they grew up in, Harrell says. At least, they are reluctant to attend church elsewhere.