Why New England is the New American Missional Frontier
Tomorrow I will be joining Midwestern Seminary‘s Academic Provost Dr. Jason Duesing and Associate Professor of Christian Theology Dr. Owen Strachan in leading a group of students on a study tour of New England. I am really excited to return to my second home, a place where I spent 6 years in pastoral ministry in the least-churched state in the nation (Vermont), both to revisit some familiar sites and newly explore some historical landmarks. I am convinced that we need more gospel ministry in the Northeast, and in New England in particular; in fact, I believe the need is urgent for replanting, revitalizing, and the planting of new evangelical works. In terms of mission at home, I think the old grounds of New England are the new missional frontier.
I had never even visited New England before I began the interview process for the church in rural Vermont that I had the privilege of shepherding. As a native Texan who spent more than a decade in Tennessee, I have the blue blood of the Bible Belt coursing through my veins. But in 2008, as the pastor a young church plant in Nashville, God began to shift my attention from the older brothers of my homeland to the prodigals of (what I would consider) the wilderness.
And over the last several years I have been privileged to connect with others who are receiving a heart for the now least-reached portion of the United States, and I believe more and more are receiving the call, looking to “liberal,” “pagan,” “dead and dry” New England with missionary fervor. But the need is great and the workers are still few. As I keep an eye on the momentum of church planting initiatives in the U.S., I am grateful to see so many willing hearts and strong hands engaging neighbors with the gospel, but I am disheartened to see over and over again this needy post-Christian field constantly overlooked by so many would-be missional planters. Could the neglect of this emerging mission field not be from the lack of God’s call, but the lack of the called’s interest?
If you are a future church planter or have designs on joining a missional plant, here are some reasons I hope you will consider looking to and praying for a vision of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Vermont, the six states that comprise New England:
1. New England is the least churched area of the nation.
If there is an unreached people group in the United States, it is New Englanders. A 2009 Gallup poll placed the six states of New England in the top ten least religious states in the nation. While the Bible Belt is approaching a completely unchurched generation, New England is already there. There is no high attendance at Easter and Christmas, because nobody even has the nostalgia factor driving them to recapture childhood visits to church. There is no biblical literacy to speak of, of course. According to the Glenmary Research Center, via NETS Institute for Church Planting, those in New England who attend evangelical churches hovers between 1 and 3% of the population. There is a higher percentage of evangelical Christian churchgoers in Mormon Utah than in Rhode Island!
2. Many of New England’s evangelical churches are not gospel-wakened.
New Englanders have little desire for anything to do with Christianity or church but even those who have it have little opportunity to explore it. While the landscape of New England is dotted with little church buildings, some quaint and some beautiful, more and more of these buildings now house liberal, practically Unitarian congregations, if they house church gatherings at all. And where churches are evangelical, the evangel has not yet captured the hearts of many congregations. As the cultural environment became more worldly, conservative churches became more insular, opting to self-protect in their religious “bunkers” instead of engaging their communities in gospel mission. The need for gospel-centered missional churches throughout New England is dire. The good news is that a movement is afoot already, but it needs more workers.
3. New England is spiritually fertile.
While the soil in New England is superficially hard, beneath it run springs of spiritual openness. This isn’t always a good thing, of course, but there’s something about this area of the nation that is spiritually fertile. America’s two major cults — the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses — had their genesis in the Northeast United States, both in New York state. (Back in the day 200 year-old church in Vermont actually kicked out Joseph Smith’s secretary for heresy!) The New Age movement and pagan spiritualities are still popular in pockets throughout rural areas and college towns.
But there is a rich evangelical heritage in New England, of course. The Great Awakenings began here. George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, the Haystack Revival, the student missionary movement, etc. The heritage is rich. New England enjoys a great history of Reformational preaching and mission. Lemuel Haynes of Rutland, Vermont, a strong Calvinist parish minister, was the first black pastor of an all-white church in the United States.
But where gospel fires once burned now looks burnt over. The majority religion in New England is Catholicism, which seems so odd given the evangelical fervor of the Awakenings.
Many of us believe God can and will do something great again in New England. As in the days of Amos, we are praying that God will do what he promised to do for his dispersed children: “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11).
Is God calling you to raise up the ruins of beautiful New England? The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.