I was at an otherworldly event last Sunday in the middle of Manhattan. It was the third “Prayer in the Square” rally, sponsored by the Times Square Church, a mega-congregation that got 40,000 people to pray at Broadway and 7th avenue and West 45th and 46th streets.
It was definitely a worship service in the rough. While a choir of singers in red T-shirts sang “Our God Reigns,” tourists gawked underneath a seductive poster of Mariah Carey. A large blue M&M candy blinked at the crowd from a video screen, while a racy billboard for “Melrose Place” leered at the crowd.
The turnout was way up from 15,000 last year, plus Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made an appearance.
Any evangelistic-minded enterprise should want to locate a signature event at the marketing crossroads of the world. The Times Square Business Improvement District has clocked 15,000 people passing through there on a busy day.
And so 250 churches and 69 youth groups showed up. The event was also webcast to 100 college campuses across the country as well as 168 ministries and churches overseas. There was even a Facebook livestream comment box attached to nycprayer.org, the event’s Web site.
The Rev. Carter Conlon, who has taken over pastorship of Times Square Church from David Wilkerson, its famous founder, dreamed up the idea for the rally. The 2007 gathering was to establish credibility with the city, he said in a promotional video, and the 2008 rally was to establish credibility with other churches.
As for now, “The Holy Spirit told me 2009 would be a year of calamity in our nation, and it’d be a serious enough calamity that thousands of people would gather in the streets to pray,” he said. “I think reasoning and intelligent people would see that calamity is here now and most likely by September we will see why God called us together to pray.”
Well, it’s now September. As worshippers stood seven to eight people deep on the sidewalks, nine intercessors at the microphone prayed for everything from revival to forgiveness to an end to greed.
“We’re tired, Father, of seeing our children’s faces on milk cartons,” a flight attendant prayed. “Forgive us, God, for any part we have played in contributing to this industry.”
It was hoped the police officers who were there listened up when she prayed that the New York Police Department would do a better job of busting undercover brothels.
But do public prayer services really move the hand of God? Last year’s rally was on Sept. 6, nine days before Lehman Brothers announced the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, kicking off months of economic horror. Did prayer cause the loss of trillions of dollars?
Luly McCoy, the church spokeswoman, quoted a famous verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that calls for believers to “humble themselves and pray” in order for God to “hear from heaven, forgive their sin and heal their land.”
“We would not go to Times Square if we did not believe God answers prayer,” she told me. “Otherwise, it’d be a futile exercise.”
No church is going to rent out such iconic real estate were it not convinced that its requests would be heard on high. But if the stock market crash was the Almighty’s answer to the 2008 rally, I hate to think what might be in store for 2009.
Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven runs on Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.