Several hundred years ago, revival broke out in New England under the watchcare of America's greatest pastor, Jonathan Edwards. 275 years later, it may be happening again.
From Downeast magazine, a secular publication covering life in Maine, comes this hugely unexpected news: Maine, one of the spiritually "darkest" states in New England (America's least Christian region), is apparently experiencing a revival. Evangelical churches emphasizing biblical literacy and doctrinal solidarity are seeing up to 20% increased attendance in recent days. This, to say the least, is a shocker.
Here's what Cynthia Anderson writes in "Sanctuary", the article covering this seeming phenomenon (read the whole thing--it's that encouraging):
The three Sunday services at Calvary Chapel regularly draw more than two thousand people. Turnout is similar ten miles away at Bangor Baptist Church, which has on its grounds two radio stations and the largest Christian school in the state. A few exits down Route 95 in Waterville, Faith Evangelical Free Church — originator of a popular YouTube series of skits based on the TV show The Office — also draws large crowds. Indeed, attendance at the state’s evangelical churches has swelled in recent years as mainline denominations have continued to struggle. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 37 percent of those Mainers who identify as Protestant now consider themselves evangelical.
The numbers, say religious experts and church leaders, suggest a surge of interest in Bible-based Christianity, particularly north of Portland. “It appears that there’s some sort of revival going on in central Maine,” says Ves Sheely, district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Church in New England. Sheely, who travels the state as he makes the rounds of the association’s sixty member churches, has observed new churches opening and attendance at existing ones rising. “I see an increased openness to spiritual life, here more than in other parts of New England. I see evidence of a new interest in Jesus.”
Others concur. “There is a trend of people going back to church here, especially to the more literally Bible-based churches,” says Jerry Mick, pastor of Bangor Baptist, where the nine hundred-person average weekly attendance reflects a 20 percent increase in two years. In the Bangor area alone there are more than forty churches, close to half of which are evangelical — including Nazarene, Baptist, Assembly of God, and non-denominational. Such religiosity is all the more notable given that the Pew study showed only 59 percent of Mainers are “absolutely certain” God exists, compared with 65 percent of those in the Northeast and 71 percent nationally.
The article, as one can see, doesn't given a ton of hard data. There's a good amount of anecdotal evidence referenced here. Furthermore, we all know that Christians have historically had a tendency to claim revival--and church growth--where it may or may not actually have happened. If the testimony recorded here does reflect reality, however, this is a most unexpected and welcome development.
Can I give you a little context here? I'm from Maine. Real Maine--the deep country. I am from a church that averaged between 30 and 70 people in attendance each week during my childhood. Precious few people were saved during my time at First Baptist Church of East Machias. This despite the faithful preaching of the gospel, the sacrificial evangelistic efforts of church members, and devoted members committed to imaging the gospel. I knew of no revivals; my high school had perhaps 3-5 Christian students total.
When I went to college, I went to a vibrant church in Brunswick, Maine of between 200-300 members. I thought it was a megachurch (seriously). The congregation sponsored a radio ministry, had an education wing and pastor's offices, and more. I could barely believe my eyes.
Why do I share this? Because, in my limited experience, revival in Maine--no, revival in New England--is almost unheard of. Though far from Maine now, I keep tabs on my beloved home state, and I know that now, just as always, many churches fight for their very existence. Many pastors work bivocationally. Asbury's circuit-riding has not died out; I know preachers who serve several tiny congregations that are the only gospel witnesses within miles. If this revival (and other renewal efforts discussed by folks like Soong-Chang Rah) is indeed happening, and it seems it is, this is some of the most encouraging spiritual news I have ever heard regarding my home state and home region. Ever.
I'm sure that many readers will lack a direct connection to Maine; whatever the case, would you join me in prayer for this development (and for other regions of our country and world)? It may well be another confirmation that even in the darkest of times (a recent cover story by Newsweek showed that North American Christianity is indeed struggling in many cases), God has not forgotten His people. As He has so often shown His church throughout the ages, He is faithful, He is strong to save, and His gospel of the kingdom is pushing back the thickest darkness through a mixed group of churches and faithful believers.
In the land of Edwards, it seems, revival has come again.
To begin learning more about New England Christians:
New England Center for Expository Preaching (note the May 2010 pastor's conf featuring Mark Dever)
NETS Institute for Church Planting
Bangor Baptist Church
Calvary Chapel of Bangor
Faith Evangelical Free Church
2008 Pew Survey
Samuel Stillman, a Boston pastor and Revolutionary, preached in 1790 a sermon on the foolishness of preaching. He addressed the doctrine of total depravity. Stillman concluded from texts like Genesis 6:5; Matt. 15:19; John 3:6; and Rom. 7:5 that, left on its own, the human heart is totally sinful. He elaborated:By this depravity inspired writers do not mean, that there is any loss of the natural faculties of the soul; these remain entire amidst the ruins of the fall: man has reason, understanding, will and affections; but that he is destitute of a spiritual taste, and under the constant influence of aversion to God. If the sinner's heart was right in a moral sense, I can conceive of no remaining inability to love God for his own sake, and to live for his glory. The essence of religion is love; and the essence of depravity or wickedness is enmity of heart to God. And in this awful condition the sinner is, as long as he remains in unregeneracy.Because of this, we don't just preach, we don't just share, we don't just talk, we pray. Refusing to listen to the lie that there is something better we could be doing with our time, refusing to listen to the lie that our prayers will not be answered, refusing to listen to the lie that someone else's prayers are sufficient, we pray and plead with God to give our friend, our spouse, our co-worker, our child a "spiritual taste" for the things of God.This is why there is nothing more humbling than evangelism. We can do everything right, memorize great gospel outlines, remember all the right texts, but still we need God's Spirit to work. Let's be bold today and pray for conversions. Let's pray for another Great Awakening. It wasn't too long after Stillman preached about total depravity that a Second Great Awakening broke out in America. We need another, but it won't be ushered in by snappy slogans and slick brochures. It will be ushered in by sound preaching and prayers--many, many, many prayers!
I'm reading J.I. Packer's Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and I was struck by this quote:
"Insofar as the preaching at our Sunday services is scriptural, those services will of necessity be evangelistic. It is a mistake to suppose that evangelistic sermons are a special brand of sermons, having their own peculiar style and conventions; evangelistic sermons are just scriptural sermons, the sort of sermons that a man cannot help preaching if he is preaching the Bible biblically. Proper sermons seek to expound and apply what is in the Bible. But what is in the Bible is just the whole counsel of God for man's salvation; all Scripture bears witness, in one way or another, to Christ, and all biblical themes relate to him. All proper sermons, therefore, will of necessity declare Christ in some fashion and so be more or less directly evangelistic....If our churches "evangelistic" meetings, and "evangelistic" sermons, are thought of as special occasions, different form the ordinary run of things, it is a damning indictment of our normal Sunday services. So that if we should imagine that the essential work of evangelism lies in holding meetings of the special type described out of church hours, so to speak, that would simply prove that we had failed to understand what our regular Sunday services are for" (bold added, p. 62-64).
Answering the fifth and final church planting question (if you don't know what I'm talking about, see here): How important is the assessment process and should the sending church be involved?The assessment process is extremely important, but there is a danger here. Some church planting organizations have so elevated the work of the church planter that it seems like some dark art that can only be performed by those with a certain mark on their soul. While the failure rate for church plants is very high, I think that many (probably even most) qualified pastors could be church planters. There are special pressures involved in church planting, and so the assessment process is important. I would suggest that you evaluate him along six lines:
Motivation -- Why does he want to plant a church? Does he resist authority and just want to be his own boss? Does he have delusions of grandeur?
Independence -- Can he work well on his own? Is he disciplined, entrepreneurial, and self-motivated? After all, no one will be looking over his shoulder on a day to day basis.
Home life -- Planting will be stressful on the family. Is his marriage solid? Does he understand what it means to love his wife and children? Is he open to being held accountable in these areas by the sending church?
Teaching and evangelism -- Is he qualified as a teacher to be an elder in a church? If not, he's not a church planter. Can his teaching build, feed, and sustain a church? Is he passionate about reaching the lost? Is he comfortable around non-believers?
Discouragement -- Does he exhibit abiding trust in the Lord's providence and guidance? Is he easily discouraged? How does he deal with apparent failures and set-backs?
Godliness -- Is he qualified morally to be an elder? If not, he's not a church planter. Are there secret sins in his life? Is he faithful with money? Is he humble and open to criticism? You are not going to find the perfect guy with respect to these six categories, so you need someone who is constantly growing in Christ and changing in areas of weakness and sin.
Acts 29 has the best assessment process I've seen, and it is certainly appropriate to use the expertise of groups like that to help with the process. Ultimately, though, I think the local sending church can't outsource their responsibility to assess, call, train, and launch the planter.
Answering the fourth church planting question (if you don't know what I'm talking about, see here): In your opinion, is it better for a planter to be fully funded or to work at least part-time? Why?Some people think that it's strategic for church-planters to be bi-vocational at the outset. This saves on money (since their congregation isn't able to support them) and provides them regular contact with unbelievers. This approach seems to work best when the cell-group model is in play. Basically, the planter is working on making contacts during the day and leading evangelistic cell-groups in the evenings.But I was fully funded and as our church has planted new churches we have chosen to fully fund our planters. I think it's much better that way. Think about it this way: when you pay a pastor or church planter, you are essentially buying up his time. Every dollar you pay him is time he doesn't have to spend flipping burgers. If you have a gifted church planter, wouldn't you want to free up all of his time for the ministry?Church planting is hard work. When we launched out, I was working 70-80 hours a week. If I had had the burden of working part-time as well, my ministry would have been negatively impacted.
Answering the third church planting question (if you don't know what I'm talking about, see here): How can a sending church best serve a church planter?These things aren't written in stone, but in my opinion four things are key but sometimes missing:
People -- You can plant a church without a team of people. You can also build a house by yourself. But there's a reason that people usually do things like this in groups. Help the church planter put together a team of people that includes at least some who are very mission minded and sacrificially committed. I would strongly encourage you to send an elder/leader with the planter. It will help alleviate a tremendous burden,
Money -- Money can't solve your problems, but it can make a lot of things a lot easier. Again, this is a burden that you can take off the planter's back so that he can focus on spreading the gospel.
Connection -- Church planting can be lonely and difficult on the family. Appoint an elder that can remain connected and involved in making sure the planter and his family are OK.
Encouragement -- View the plant as a mission of your church, not a would-be competitor. Refer visitors to your church to the church plant if they live close to it. Help with evangelism programs or projects. Pray for them and do everything you can to see them succeed.
I like your comments, Mike. More than that, I like the fact that you led your church to plant another church. I, perhaps naively, don't tend to think about working with denominations to plant churches. I think of cooperating with other churches to plant churches.The church I serve is a member of a local association of Southern Baptist Churches in the Atlanta area. It is a small association of roughly forty churches. It has been traditionally led by an associational missionary. This association is revising its charter to focus on three things: church planting, church vitalization, and church and community ministries. The charter calls for three "teams" consisting of representatives from area churches to suggest how to accomplish goals in these areas.I am hoping that there will be enough unity on the church planting team in this local association to meet together and strategize, asking questions such as:
Answering our second church planting question: What role should denominational structures play in the church planting process? How can they help or hinder the process? (If you don't know what I'm talking about, see here.)I am ambivalent here. I was rejected as a church planter by our state denomination, but that same group has helped us plant one of our Spanish speaking churches.There are some advantages to working with a denomination:
They have money.
They have expertise and experience in church planting.
They may have name recognition that gives you credibility in the community (people will know that you're not a cult).
They can provide training, accountability, and encouragement.
There are also disadvantages:
Depending on the denomination, you may find that they are experts in planting the wrong kind of church. Our local denomination tends to be very pragmatic.
They may run out of money.
There are often rules, pressures, meetings, paperwork, and expectations that unnecessarily constrict and harass the planter. Denominations usually need tangible results so that they can defend their investment to the member churches.
There may be theological and methodological conflicts.
One key thing to remember when dealing with denominations is this: normally, churches should plant churches. The local church is God's missionary arm. Denominations should exist assist with and facilitate the planting of new churches.The problem is, most denominations don't approach it that way. When we planted our first church for Spanish speakers, the denomination kept thanking us for all of our help with their church plant. They saw the "sponsoring church" as a source of money and some accountability, but not much else.As far as we were concerned, we were planting the church and they were helping us. Our church was contributing most of the planter's salary, providing office space and meeting space, our members were assisting him with practical needs, we were praying for him and rejoicing in seeing people come to Christ. So I am not opposed to working with denominations, but it needs to be done advisedly.
Answering the first church planting question (if you don't know what I'm talking about, see here).What should the relationship between the planter and the sending church look like (assuming the sending church is already on the field)?It depends a little bit on the model that you are using for church planting. If you are simply sending a guy out on his own with some financial support, then the relationship is fairly simple: the sending church provides funding, some expertise, accountability and encouragement for the planter. Other than that, he is pretty much on his own.I don't think that's the best model, however. Ideally, church planting should be one healthy church "giving birth" to another healthy church from its own congregation. When I planted from Capitol Hill Baptist, I spent time on the church staff doing regular pastoral ministry tasks. This gave me a chance to know the church culture well and build relationships with people who became our church planting team. The sending church invested a lot of money (in salary) and time (in allowing me to preach, teach, and minster) for which it received little direct benefit. It was all aimed at getting the church plant launched in a healthy way.It is important to make sure that you know in advance what is important to your church. Presumably you like your model of church and want to plant another church that looks something like it. I suppose you could try to plant a different kind of church (for example, a traditional church could plant a missional church in order to reach a different part of the community). But you need to be OK with those differences up front.So when I planted from CHBC, we had an understanding that the new church would be baptistic, reformed theologically, and congregational with plural eldership, and centered on expositional preaching. Those things are important to CHBC, and so the elders rightly insisted that any church they planted have those characteristics. You need to figure out what's important to your church and work that out with the church planter.