“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” These words from one of mid-century America’s best-known preachers, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, still resonate with those who are taken with the modern gospel of self-help that he popularized in his most famous work, The Power of Positive Thinking . Peale’s practical philosophy is still evident a generation later at his pastoral home, Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church, which sits in the shadow of the Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue at 29th Street. The church’s facade dates to 1854 and is an important Manhattan landmark. The interior features striking stained-glass windows and a historic organ. But make no mistake—Marble Collegiate Church is, for better or worse, a thoroughly modern incarnation of the Reformed tradition in which this oldest of North American Protestant congregations was born over 380 years ago.

Today, Marble’s 11 a.m. Sunday service includes prayer, song, and reflection, and concludes with a sermon of about twenty-five minutes. The church advertises its services as “uplifting and heartwarming.” One might say that liturgy, per se, is eschewed in favor of a liturgylike precision of service carried out with an almost unsettling level of clockwork logistics. The choir is professional level, and singers are engaged by audition only. The preaching is immaculately prepared and delivered memorized; at times it sounds like a motivational speech. Transitions from one part of the service to another are seamless, and the church is “wired” to the core: It offers a live Internet broadcast and a simulcast in an adjacent room for late arrivals.

Marble’s recently installed senior minister is Dr. Michael B. Brown. He has a sincere demeanor and a therapeutic, uncomplicated method of sermon delivery. A slight southern accent betrays his North Carolinian roots and lends an air of the unfamiliar to the church’s cosmopolitan New York setting. On Sunday, January 24, at the 11 a.m. service, Dr. Brown’s well-constructed sermon brought together several personal anecdotes to point out the importance—and the inescapability—of “teaching” others through our actions. Dr. Brown told his listeners how his initial hope for anonymity in New York soon was burst by awkward encounters with church members on the streets of Manhattan. As he recounted stories in which people’s actions and choices, unbeknownst to them, influenced others, he recalled words often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” In one of his stories, Dr. Brown recalled an episode involving his son. Toward the end of a restaurant dinner in connection with his high school prom, the young man was startled to find that another patron, not part of his group, had already paid his bill. A waitress handed him a note indicating the reason: After observing Brown’s son and his friends praying before their meal, the patron thought it appropriate to thank them for the reminder they had provided.

Given the degree to which our good conduct is instructive to others, Dr. Brown said, we should keep in mind that true anonymity is neither possible nor desirable. Someone always will be our witness, and each of our lives is a sermon to those around us. Although this is hardly a controversial claim, one thing was noticeably missing from Dr. Brown’s conclusion. To many Christians, it would seem natural at this point to mention that “being good” is not wise simply because of the effects our behavior has on others. Rather, God’s moral law would seem to be the primary motivation. While Dr. Brown seemed not to take this step with his remarks, perhaps he presumed that his congregants would.

The environment at Marble is decidedly that of the urban professional. This is borne out not only in the self-help flavor of the preaching but also in the church’s array of practical services. These range from an AARP-sponsored tax-help session for seniors to a “Women’s Spa Day for the Soul” that features yoga and guided meditation. Marble clearly strives for a kind of mastery of Christian worship (indeed, one associate minister notes “worship design” as an interest on her website bio blurb). Some may point to Marble’s frequent capacity attendance as a sign of its success as a church. But while it clearly has achieved success in some areas, Marble’s approach to the Christian life suggests that it may measure success somewhat differently from other churches.

On the whole, the spiritual leaders of Marble seem to wish to make Christianity softer and more broadly appealing by emphasizing the basics of Christian virtue. Past sermon topics (sermons are archived on the church’s website) have included “Carpe Diem” and “An Attitude of Gratitude.” It seems fair to say that while self-help solutions abound in Marble’s sermons and programs, congregants will not receive instruction on some of the more difficult issues in Christian moral life, such as the details of Christian ethics and the formation of conscience. Marble seems to leave these admittedly complex issues to the individual devices of its congregants. Indeed, many of those who come to this church seeking answers may find frustrating Marble’s request for “members to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves”—and, presumably, come to their own conclusions.

It is certainly true that many of its congregants find Marble a consoling place, but many Christians may find the church’s theological underpinnings inadequate for purposes beyond consolation. The church associates with the Reformed tradition but seems to be undergoing a “reform of the reform,” if its mission statement is any indication. Mixed in among more orthodox Christian beliefs (Trinitarian theology, baptism) are others akin to those of so-called “liberal Christianity.” In its statement of purpose, Marble proclaims “the Bible, both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, to be a unique and authoritative account of God’s work in the world and interaction with humanity,” but also states that “the Bible is not to be interpreted literally.” Another section of the statement sounds transplanted from eastern religion: “Sin is an alienation from or a repression of our truest, God-given selves. Salvation is a search for wholeness, peace, and a living relationship with Christ.”

Perhaps Marble owes its apparent rejection of original sin to Dr. Peale’s positive thinking, and owes its characterization of salvation as a “search” rather than a destination to the church’s focus on “practical Christianity”—the here and now rather than the hereafter. Seeking out practical applications of Christian thought is an undertaking all serious Christians should consider, but many may find that Marble’s approach favors Christianity mainly as an instrument of self-improvement, thereby eschewing the more traditional view that Christianity’s teachings are not merely consoling but, in fact, true.

City: New York
Borough: Manhattan
Neighborhood: Midtown
Address: 1 West 29th Street
Web Address: http://www.marblechurch.org/
Phone: 212-686-2770
Religious Affiliation: Reformed
Main Service: 11 a.m. Sunday
Senior Minister: Dr. Michael B. Brown

Precision, Reverence, and Aesthetics of the Service: 6 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Rhetoric of the Sermon: 7 (out of 10)
Music: 8 (out of 10)

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