The church in New England is hurting, and unreached New Englanders are dying. In New Hampshire—my home state—it is estimated that less than 2% of the population are professing believers; a number which the International Missions Board considers to be “an unreached people group”. With a total population of 1.3 million, that means there are only 26,000 Christians in the Granite State. The other states are not in much better shape. However, it was not always this way.
Two hundred years ago, New England was the center for Christian ministry and learning, as well as the launch point for global missions. The now-liberal institutions of Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, were once seminaries that trained up young pastors and theologians who were sent out into the harvest fields. The Great Awakening revival began in the Northeast, and since then, has been home to many great Christian leaders such as Jonathan Edwards, Adoniram Judson, A.J. Gordon, and Harold Ockenga. And while there was certainly an element of “cultural Christianity” present in the Northeast, this was once a land in which God was worshiped by a vast number of its people.
But those days are over. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have all capitulated to a worldly culture; a secular worldview. In step with our frigid winters, the hearts of New Englanders have grown cold toward the things of God, and those who manifest a love for Jesus Christ have been bullied into a corner; they are the silent minority. Our towns are peppered with archaic, white buildings that were once filled with believers, but are now decaying from a lack of use. Even the occupied churches are often devoid of biblical truth, and our people have not heard the gospel of Christ in a generation.
Many attempts have been made to reach New England: from the formulaic franchise models of southern megachurches, to the ever-changing church-growth trends, cheap revivalism, even a felt-needs approach which often lends itself to a social gospel. But, in the end, all the best efforts to reach New England have failed to produce genuine conversions and long-term spiritual growth. This is because the Northeast is a unique region with complex people. Generally speaking, New Englanders are robust and resilient, self-made and self-driven. Our slavish devotion to a self-reliant ethic produces an individualism that makes saving faith in God—trusting in the redeeming work of another—nearly impossible. The winters make us tough, our Yankee constitutions make us stubborn, the difficult economy makes us cautious, and our rich history makes us proud. But regardless of what number-hungry statiticians report, the hopelessness of the lost is pervasive, and the absence of Christ is profound.
So, what must be done to reach New England and ignite a saving faith in Jesus Christ?
Give God His Pulpits Back
If saving faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17), and Christian maturity and sanctification comes by way of God’s Truth (John 17:17), then the solution should be apparent to us. For the New England church to grow both numerically and spiritually, the Word of God must be preached in our pulpits.
Many pastors might think they’re being faithful because they use the Bible in their sermons, but preaching from the Word is very different than preaching the Word. The difference has to do with the foundation of authority and instruction. When the Bible is used for utilitarian purposes—as a source of proof texting—it only props up the influence of the pastor. In essence, he is forcing Scripture to support his own thoughts, insights, and agendas. Further, the congregation is perpetually devoid of any true understanding of God’s own thoughts on a particular issue.
However, biblical exposition itself is an exercise in constantly asking God, “What do You want to say to Your people?” It’s an exploration into the very mind of God. Faithful exposition humbly unleashes a barrage of questions and seeks answers from the Scripture. It is a relentless search for the divine truth contained within the inspired text. As J.I. Packer has said, “When Scripture speaks, God speaks.”
All too many pastors tend to approach their preaching pragmatically. Rather than do the work of diligent study and faithful exposition, they tell stories, dispense pithy axioms, and offer up weak nuggets of advice, in hopes that it will satisfy the spiritual problems of their congregations enough to keep them coming back week after week. But there is a systemic problem with that approach. It’s like trying to mend a branch when the tree has root rot!
Our complex problems go much deeper than we know and cannot be solved by our half-hearted self-help efforts. They must be addressed by the One who designed and built the human heart. The true problem is that “Our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked”, to which Jeremiah 17:9 asks, “Who can know it?” The answer? God. The problem is our own sinful nature; our human depravity. The solution is prolonged treatment by the Great Physician. Therefore, a Christian must be immersed in biblical doctrine by which the Lord transforms the person at the heart level. Is it not merely the exposure to verses and Bible terms, rather, it is the apprehension and implementation of God’s very truth that changes people.
Rather than placating the weakened believers of New England, our ministers must be in the habit of preaching the full and saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and training our flock to do the same. Adding a few new attendees to the church roll is not church growth! The church expands as lost sheep are saved by the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 10:14-17). It is by this gospel we are saved; it is by this gospel that we are sustained. Any other approach will yield a field of tares that will die come first frost.
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” (2 Tim. 4:2)
Tear Down the Fences
Robert Frost famously penned the line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This sentiment has epitomized the underlying attitude of New England residents for years. The implication is, as long as others mind their own business, everything is fine. As a people, we are guarded, closed-off, and individualistic. We pride ourselves on our work ethic and revel in good ol’ fashioned Emersonian self-reliance. But with regards to the true community of believers, the Bible knows nothing of this phenomenon.
The first Christian community in the book of Acts exemplifies a group of believers who are committed to biblical teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). While receiving instruction from the Word of God feeds and nourishes the flock, it is the fellowship of the body that cultivates true brotherly love and the unity of the Spirit. Jesus said that when the church demonstrates love for one another, the outside world takes note that we are His disciples (John 13:34-35). In order to do this, we must tear down our fences and step across the property lines into our neighbor’s yard.
The Bible uses the Greek word koinonia (“fellowship”) to describe a culture of sharing with and nurturing one another. When we open our homes and our hearts to others, the result is our bearing of fruit that makes the gospel attractive (cf. Titus 2:10). This engagement with body life includes a devotion to service, praying for the needs of others, ministries of mercy and benevolence, visitation, and discipleship.
Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus left His disciples with what we have come to know as The Great Commission: to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). A disciple is simply “a learner”—in our case, one who is engaged in studying the teachings of Christ (cf. Matt. 11:28-30). While pastors are given by God to the church to equip the church, it is the body that is to engage in this work; no one is exempt (cf. Titus 2:2-10). It is by this process of teaching, learning, counseling, encouraging, and admonishing that the body of Christ is built up to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:12-16).
Reignite the Lamps
The time has come to make some changes. We can no longer sit idly by and watch our people and our region fall into ruin. Too many of our people are stumbling in their faith. Too many of our children are leaving the church. Too many of our formerly faithful are apostatizing. Too many of our unsaved neighbors are ending up in hell, having heard no gospel from our lips. The time to act is now.
Rededication. The first step is to assess the faithfulness of your ministry. There may be elements that are God-honoring, while other areas of church life may have gotten slack. Maybe your preaching has been half-hearted, or the fellowship superficial, or the discipleship weak. Now is the time to rededicate yourself to the Lord!
Revitalization. But you might find that you may need to stop dead in your tracks, and repent of your waywardness in ministry. If there is no gospel and no Bible exposition coming from your pulpit, change it! It has been said: You don’t need a church vote to change the way you preach. And if your members are sold into the idea that the mission of the church is anything other than soul-winning, labor tirelessly to teach them the gospel and its bearing on the work of ministry.
Church Planting. Tradition dies hard in New England, and for many gospel ministers, the task of revitalizing an existing church is often near impossible. There are many church buildings that are filled with unregenerate endowment managers. Some church groups are so resistant to the Bible and to Christian doctrine, they will vote Jesus Christ out of the assembly! Remember, Jonathan Edwards was fired in 1750 for insisting on biblical standards for partaking in the Lord’s Supper. In some churches, this might be the outcome.
However, New England is fertile soil for church planting. In fact, there are entire towns that lack a Bible-preaching church, even a gospel witness. This can be remedied by beginning a new work. While this option may be difficult, in some ways, it is far easier than uprooting the ungodly practices of a 200-year old church down the street. If any region in America is need of church planting, it is New England.
For generations, God was honored and worshiped in New England, and we were richly blessed for it. But our current spiritual condition should warrant deep mourning. With millions of souls at stake, we must not permit ourselves to sit on our hands. We must act. Should the Lord Jesus come today, He would not find faith in New England. And that is a terribly tragedy. However, while there is breath in our lungs, let us labor in these fields and be found faithful.