New England’s Quiet Christian Revival

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Nov. 27 2012 9:05 AM

Re-evangelizing New England

How church-planting and music festivals are bringing about a quiet revival.

A church building in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
New England used to be one of the churchiest places in America. Can evangelicals convert the secular natives?

Photo by Purestock.

The pastor of a small church in rural Vermont is not the kind of guy you’d expect to speak with a slow North Carolina drawl. But Lyandon Warren felt a calling to New England ever since he heard a speaker in his college Christian Studies program explain that less than 3 percent of the region’s population is evangelical Christians. By his denomination’s definition, those numbers indicate an “unreached people group”—a whole population without a viable Christian community. “My heart was opened,” he says. “To be a foot-soldier on that battleground is a joy and a privilege.”

In 2006, Warren moved to Vermont to open a new Baptist church in a town whose last church had closed its doors the year before due to lack of attendance. His congregation, which meets in the closed church’s old white clapboard building, grew slowly but steadily, and in early September, Warren opened up a second new church in a nearby town. Similar churches have sprung up throughout the region: New England has become a mission field, and there are seeds of a revival sprouting.

The Northeast is the historic cradle of American Christianity, and just about every postcard-ready town here boasts a white church with a steeple. But sometime between the Second Great Awakening and today, the region evolved into the most secular part of the country. In the words of one regional missions group, “pulpits that once boasted gospel preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield now proclaim universalism, liberalism, and postmodernism.” A Gallup poll this year found that the four least-religious states in America are in New England. For evangelicals, the issue is more pointed: Evangelical researcher J.D. Payne has found that of the five U.S. metro areas with the lowest percentage of evangelicals, New England cities are beat only by Mormon-dominated Provo, Utah. New England is relatively wealthy and educated, and overall, its population is shrinking and aging. That’s why some Christians see New England as “hard soil”—and desperate for re-evangelizing. There’s a palpable sense of momentum growing among evangelicals in New England, who say this hard soil may soon bear fruit thanks to institutional efforts, individual leaders, and an intangible sense of energy often credited to the Holy Spirit. But do they have any hope of success in the most proudly and profoundly secular region in America?

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The movement to convert New Englanders looks something like the recent evangelical focus on Western Europe, another traditionally Christian region that is now broadly unchurched. One popular approach is “church planting,” in which a pastor moves to a new location to found a new church that he hopes will eventually spawn several others, and so on. Because the method eventually produces indigenous churches, it’s considered a more reliable and organic path to growth than traditional “outsider” evangelism. To generalize broadly, church-planters tend to be young and Web-savvy, are almost always male (with a supportive wife), and often share a conviction that orthodox theology needn’t be burdened by the trappings of traditional worship. Think overhead projectors, not organs.

Many of New England’s church-planters are sent by denominations based in (or at least biggest in) the South. The North American Mission Board, the Southern Baptist church planting organization that sent Lyandon Warren to Vermont, helps plant about 20 new churches in the Northeast each year, according to Jeff Christopherson, who heads the group’s efforts in Canada and the Northeast. And that’s just one organization. The Northeast has sprouted a remarkable crop of church-planting organizations and conferences, college campus ministries, and public events like Christian music festivals. Collin Hansen, editorial director of the Gospel Coalition, an influential national church network, recently called these “the best of times for Christians in New England.”

Stephen Um is pastor at Boston’s Citylife Presbyterian Church and a leader in the movement to re-evangelize the region. Born in Seoul but raised and educated mostly in Massachusetts, Um founded his church just over 10 years ago with a base group of 12 people. Citylife now meets in two locations in Boston, including a hotel conference center on Boston Common, and attracts between 700 and 800 people—a highly educated congregation that’s about one-half white and one-half Asian—every Sunday. Um calls what’s happening in New England a “quiet revival.” He speculates that since the drivers of the revival are small churches spread throughout a largely rural area, it doesn’t get the kind of media attention that megachurches attract.

Um is also the founder of the Center for Gospel Culture, which he calls a “catalyzing center” for mobilizing and recruiting Christian leaders in the region. The group hosted a regional conference in October with the Gospel Coalition. The event was designed “to encourage the development of this organic gospel movement.” The 1,200-person-capacity event space he reserved sold out by mid-September. The event drew representatives of about 270 different churches representatives from about 40 networks and denominations.