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Evangelicals march north

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

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Evangelism, believers are finding, requires a soft touch in these parts. Since getting some cold responses to worship invitations, Capstone member Alta Brown has learned to invite neighbors to dinners and special events by casually saying, for instance, "We're having a free concert." To her delight, some have shown up.

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With such adaptive techniques, theological conservatives might enjoy some measure of success where others have failed, says Andrew Walsh, associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and a scholar of New England religion. One reason: low overhead.

"The problem of shrinking churches is one that everyone has to deal with," Dr. Walsh says. "Evangelicals are just better adapted to deal with it because in their structure they don't require seminary-trained pastors, pension funds, and all that jazz, which the mainline churches assume."

Theology matters, too, in part because a sense of urgency can lead to personal engagement with those who crave a connection. James Tennyson of North Bennington started attending Capstone after someone from the church took an interest in his life and challenges, which include being unemployed with a wife and four children at home.

"I'm just trying to figure out which direction God wants me to go in," Mr. Tennyson says. "I just enjoy coming to church."

Church planters have also met pockets of resistance. Capstone attendee Marie West got an earful when she suggested to a neighbor that he might benefit from more than listening to broadcast ministries at home.

"I told him, 'In the church, there's fellowship and you'll get encouragement,' " Ms. West says. "He told me in no uncertain terms that I should look in the mirror before I judge him."

Vermonters also expect a certain decorum from their new neighbors. Rebecca Brown, an Alabama native and lesbian who now lives in Bristol, Vt., says conservative Christians should feel welcome as long as they don't violate the state's live-and-let-live ethic.

"The whole spirit of Vermont is being able to celebrate a diversity of beliefs," says Ms. Brown, pausing on a Bennington sidewalk alongside her partner, Marni Willms. "If they tried to tell us that we as a couple are sinners, they'd find this isn't the right environment for that. That's crossing a personal boundary."

In church planting, Vermonters are witnessing "just the tip of the iceberg," says the SBC's Mr. Dorsett. The goal of the Baptist Convention of New England is to settle 6,000 new churches across the six-state region.

To get there, church planters are – for now, at least – avoiding controversy. At Capstone, a recent Sunday scripture came from Romans 1, where the Apostle Paul renders sexual impurity as a sign of God's wrath. But Pastor Steadman's homily emphasizes how God answers prayer and builds compassion among the faithful.

"When somebody needs a hand up, it's great to pray for them," Steadman says from the pulpit. "But the Bible tells us it's not enough to say, 'Go and be clothed and be fed.' We're supposed to clothe and feed them."