Um’s rapid success in expanding his own congregation is unusual here. In New England, he estimates, it usually takes a talented pastor 10 years to build a new church of 100 people. By contrast, he says, even an average pastor can plop down in South Carolina or Tennessee and grow from 50 to 300 attendees a year. “But that’s a Christendom culture,” Um says. “You set up shop and people come.” Up north, it’s a “post-church, post-Christian” environment. “You come to Boston and you see all the beautiful historic churches, but from my perspective they don’t preach the gospel.”
Though many pastors are encouraged by the changes they observe, they acknowledge that it’s more difficult to attract people to church in New England than in other parts of the country. Brandon Levering moved to the Boston suburbs from the Midwest to lead an established Evangelical Free Church last year. Levering wrote in a recent blog post for the Gospel Alliance New England (“Promoting Gospel Renewal in New England”): “Many of us came to New England specifically to see the gospel take root in what has become one of the least-reached regions in North America.” He’s happy in his church and says the people here are friendlier than he and his wife had been warned, but overall, “people just don’t seem as interested in the things of faith here.”
Still, some evangelicals are now convinced they have a real chance of long-term success in the most proudly and profoundly secular region of America. Jeffrey Bass, executive director of the Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston, gave a talk in December to a group of church leaders in which he, like Um, described a “quiet revival” taking place in Boston. Though the population has dipped slightly below its level in 1970, the number of churches has almost doubled, and the number of people attending church has more than tripled in that same period. As evangelist Tom Miyashiro, who leads a youth outreach program that he says reaches up to 4,000 Connecticut school-age kids a year, told me, “I don’t think there’ll be a megachuch in New England anytime soon, like a Joel Osteen-type church. But a lot of leaders are attracted here because of the challenge, and a lot of young people who understand New England will grow up into Christian service. In 20 years, we’ll be dealing with a whole different beast.”
Not all Christians in New England welcome the movement with open arms. Emily Heath is pastor of West Dover Congregational Church in Vermont, which she describes as progressive and egalitarian—just the kind of place that some fear is insufficiently orthodox. Heath says she sees “a growing undercurrent of fundamentalism in New England,” and it bothers her to see her own thriving church characterized as lifeless by local conservatives. “I’ve read that on their websites, and it’s like, Huh, my church feels pretty alive. We’re growing.” On Easter Sunday this year, an evangelical church-planting team from Atlanta opened a new church the next town over.
But confronting wary locals comes with the territory of missionary work. The pastors who have come to New England say they come with a calling of love, service, and, yes, transformation. “This movement is not a political movement,” Um says. “This is happening on an organic, grassroots level from people with a burden for pursuing the common good and loving their neighbor, but still holding onto an orthodox doctrine.”
And after all, the work of spreading the gospel is not new here. The royal charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, drafted in 1691, states that this was the very purpose of the colony: “to win and incite the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind, and the Christian faith.” As some new New Englanders see it, that’s even more true today. The question is how the natives will respond.