Evangelicals march north

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

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
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
Old church, New Pulpit: Pastor Phillip Steadman.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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