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Evangelicals march north

Southern Baptists are among those ‘planting’ new churches in the rocky soil of secular New England.

By G. JEFFREY MacDONALDCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2009

Revived: Congregants sing at the Capstone Baptist Church in North Bennington, Vt. It was built as a Presbyterian edifice in 1834, to serve the many Scots who worked at a local mill.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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North Bennington, VT.

After three decades as a home to pigeons rather than parishioners, a 175-year-old stone church with Presbyterian roots is once again filled with song on a warm Sunday morning. This time around, however, the brand of faith carries a new tune, one that would be more familiar in Mississippi than Vermont.

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Hallelujah religion is a-rising in Yankee country. As liberal congregations die in a secularizing region, conservative churches with roots outside New England are replacing them with a passionate brand of faith that emphasizes saving souls – even in a land where many think there's nothing to be saved from.

Before worship at Capstone Baptist Church here in North Bennington, 10 adults lay hands on electrician Don Betit and pray for healing from an ankle injury. Then, after 40 minutes of preaching, Pastor Phillip Steadman invites the hurting and newly committed to come forward for an altar call. During intercessory prayers, worship leader Lewis Brown prays for speedy salvation among unbelieving loved ones, "before it's too late."

In eight years, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has more than doubled its Vermont church count, from 17 to 37. Among them is Capstone, which opened on this site in December. Likewise, Southern Baptists have planted at least 24 new churches in New Hampshire over the past 10 years. The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, has planted at least six new congregations in New Hampshire and Maine since 2006.

Northern New England, however, is a land of rocky soil. This year it replaced the Pacific Northwest as America's least religious region, according to Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey. Vermont tops the list in unbelief: 34 percent of Vermonters claim no religious affiliation.

Even so, conservative Christians see opportunity in a land of empty churches and unconverted souls. They're sending teams of volunteers from other states to restore old buildings. They're adapting outreach styles, much as they might in Africa or Eastern Europe, to fit the local culture. So far, they are getting a largely – albeit cautiously – warm reception.

"Vermonters aren't interested in a pie-in-the-sky, 'I'm better than you' kind of faith," says Terry Dorsett, the Southern Baptist Convention's director of missions for Vermont. "But a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-help-my-community kind of faith? There are a lot of Vermonters interested in that."

New churches are building good- will by addressing needs outside their doors. Example: Last summer, during renovations of what is now Mettowee Valley Church in West Pawlet, Vt., locals joined with teams from North Carolina to rebuild an elderly neighbor's collapsing porch. In Barre, Vt., members of five-year-old Faith Community Church regularly serve at the Open Door Soup Kitchen.