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peter-lewis-208181Tomorrow I will be joining Midwestern Seminary‘s Academic Provost Dr. Jason Duesing and Associate Professor of Christian Theology Dr. Owen Strachan in leading a group of students on a study tour of New England. I am really excited to return to my second home, a place where I spent 6 years in pastoral ministry in the least-churched state in the nation (Vermont), both to revisit some familiar sites and newly explore some historical landmarks. I am convinced that we need more gospel ministry in the Northeast, and in New England in particular; in fact, I believe the need is urgent for replanting, revitalizing, and the planting of new evangelical works. In terms of mission at home, I think the old grounds of New England are the new missional frontier.

I had never even visited New England before I began the interview process for the church in rural Vermont that I had the privilege of shepherding. As a native Texan who spent more than a decade in Tennessee, I have the blue blood of the Bible Belt coursing through my veins. But in 2008, as the pastor a young church plant in Nashville, God began to shift my attention from the older brothers of my homeland to the prodigals of (what I would consider) the wilderness.

And over the last several years I have been privileged to connect with others who are receiving a heart for the now least-reached portion of the United States, and I believe more and more are receiving the call, looking to "liberal," "pagan," "dead and dry" New England with missionary fervor. But the need is great and the workers are still few. As I keep an eye on the momentum of church planting initiatives in the U.S., I am grateful to see so many willing hearts and strong hands engaging neighbors with the gospel, but I am disheartened to see over and over again this needy post-Christian field constantly overlooked by so many would-be missional planters. Could the neglect of this emerging mission field not be from the lack of God's call, but the lack of the called's interest?

If you are a future church planter or have designs on joining a missional plant, here are some reasons I hope you will consider looking to and praying for a vision of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Vermont, the six states that comprise New England:

1. New England is the least churched area of the nation.

If there is an unreached people group in the United States, it is New Englanders. A 2009 Gallup poll placed the six states of New England in the top ten least religious states in the nation. While the Bible Belt is approaching a completely unchurched generation, New England is already there. There is no high attendance at Easter and Christmas, because nobody even has the nostalgia factor driving them to recapture childhood visits to church. There is no biblical literacy to speak of, of course. According to the Glenmary Research Center, via NETS Institute for Church Planting, those in New England who attend evangelical churches hovers between 1 and 3% of the population. There is a higher percentage of evangelical Christian churchgoers in Mormon Utah than in Rhode Island!

2. Many of New England's evangelical churches are not gospel-wakened.

New Englanders have little desire for anything to do with Christianity or church but even those who have it have little opportunity to explore it. While the landscape of New England is dotted with little church buildings, some quaint and some beautiful, more and more of these buildings now house liberal, practically Unitarian congregations, if they house church gatherings at all. And where churches are evangelical, the evangel has not yet captured the hearts of many congregations. As the cultural environment became more worldly, conservative churches became more insular, opting to self-protect in their religious "bunkers" instead of engaging their communities in gospel mission. The need for gospel-centered missional churches throughout New England is dire. The good news is that a movement is afoot already, but it needs more workers.

3. New England is spiritually fertile.

While the soil in New England is superficially hard, beneath it run springs of spiritual openness. This isn't always a good thing, of course, but there's something about this area of the nation that is spiritually fertile. America's two major cults — the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah's Witnesses — had their genesis in the Northeast United States, both in New York state. (Back in the day 200 year-old church in Vermont actually kicked out Joseph Smith's secretary for heresy!) The New Age movement and pagan spiritualities are still popular in pockets throughout rural areas and college towns.

But there is a rich evangelical heritage in New England, of course. The Great Awakenings began here. George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, the Haystack Revival, the student missionary movement, etc. The heritage is rich. New England enjoys a great history of Reformational preaching and mission. Lemuel Haynes of Rutland, Vermont, a strong Calvinist parish minister, was the first black pastor of an all-white church in the United States.

But where gospel fires once burned now looks burnt over. The majority religion in New England is Catholicism, which seems so odd given the evangelical fervor of the Awakenings.

Many of us believe God can and will do something great again in New England. As in the days of Amos, we are praying that God will do what he promised to do for his dispersed children: "In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old" (Amos 9:11).

Is God calling you to raise up the ruins of beautiful New England? The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.


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32 thoughts on “Why New England is the New American Missional Frontier”

  1. Tim says:

    So thankful for this brother Jared. As a pastor of a 225 year old Connecticut Baptist church I can vouch that everything you have said above is true. The need for Gospel preaching pastors is so necessary here. I would argue however, that while church planting here is a great and Godly idea, that church restoration is a much better avenue and approuch to reaching liberal New England. There are already many established churches here, like mine, that are thirsty for Biblical truth that already have a foundation of attendance and finances. Therefore, I would personally encourage anyone called to New England to find an established church and go there if they wish to be use in a most effective manner. I will warn however, that going to an established church means commitment for many years, choosing to love your people through thick and thin. This is the only way in which true change will come to New England in my opinion. The problem with church planters in New England is that they come here with a Bible Belt approuch, thinking that because the tactics they use there can generally speaking bring in alot of people right away, that those same things will work here. Not so. There is nothing quick and easy about New England. Anyways, thanks for this! Its good stuff!

    1. Joe Fisher says:

      Tim, Where are you in CT?

  2. Thank you for all that you have done in highlighting the work that is needed in New England.

    May I add that along with planting, replanting is a vital need here in New England. Organizations like overseed.org and many of the denominations including the SBC have recognize this need.

    As we think about planting, let’s also consider replanting, it’s a great doorway into some communities that would be really tough to plant in because they are so rural.

  3. David Morse says:

    Thank you for this post Jared!

    This post gets me so fired up. If anyone reading this believes God may be calling them to New England (specifically to South Portland, Maine) I would LOVE to connect. My wife and I were born and raised in Maine and will be returning in the coming months to begin planting a vision for the Gospel’s spread in South Portland, Maine. We would absolutely be thrilled if God might use even this blog post in bringing the right team together for the vision He’s been planting in our hearts for the last decade.

    Grace & Peace.

    1. Barry Murry says:

      David Morse- I would love to connect. My wife and I moved to Maine 17 years ago to plant and I am not working to help guys plant all of the state. Let me know if you want to talk.

      1. Barry Murry says:

        now working

      2. David Morse says:

        Barry, Do you have Twitter? If so message me @daviddmorse so I can privately message you my email address. Would love to set up a Facetime or phone call.

    2. Lisa Frye says:

      After over 20 years in ministry in the Pacific Northwest, my husband and I are being called into the mission field to the Northeast. We are just getting started with the support raising phase with my husband being approved as Field Director to the NE mission for InFaith.org just a couple of days ago. We are heading out there within the next year to provide support to those already doing a good work. Though InFaith missionaries are our main focus, we are looking forward to making connections with those who need suppport. We are sensing we are on the edge of a re-planting movement there. There are many people praying for that area and we are both very eager to get to work to help bring the gospel to those seeking. Feel free to email jasonfrye@infaith.org if you’d like to connect with us!

  4. Joe Fisher says:

    As someone who was born and raised in New England and now planting my second church here I hardily agree. Growing up between Springfield, MA and Hartford, CT we drove about 45 minutes to be part of a healthy church. I am currently bivocational and planting in my home town of Suffield, CT. We continue to pray for workers for the harvest and new lives in Christ. It is exciting work here.

  5. Joe Fisher says:

    PS: would love to connect with your group when you are in CT area. Owen was one of my profs at SBTS.

  6. BillW says:

    As a New Englander, we are doing just fine up here without god. Please waste your time elsewhere and we’ll continue living for something other than a non-existant deity/afterlife. Thanks!

  7. For those interested in pursuing church ministry, come to New England and help us! Thanks Jared for continued support of our region.

  8. Kyle Bailey says:

    I am in Seminary right not, but it seems as if God keeps bringing this need up whenever I think about my future. I don’t know where He wants me to go, but New England is definitely in my top three places I would like to go. I have never been to New England before.

  9. Gray says:

    As someone who lives in an ‘unreached’ part of New England, I greatly appreciate this article. I agree with virtually everything in it, for I have seen it and it is true – NE is a dying people that desperately need the Spirit of the Living God. However, let us not misuse the term ‘mission’ with regard to a place like NE or America,
    lest we endanger the Biblical spirit of missions as opposed to evangelism. (http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/why-is-differentiating-between-evangelism-and-missions-important)

  10. Tom McGarvey says:

    I am a transplant from Philly. Been in Maine for 29 years as a high school teacher. Did some interim work. Tried to work within the system. 15 years ago a group of us started in my living room. This year we had 400 on Easter. God is on the move. Would love for your group to visit with us so we could glean from each other. Located in Paris, Maine. Thanks for your concern for New England. We are seeing great things from God. But patience is a real virtue when church planting in New England.

  11. BCNE says:

    Thanks for your passion for reaching New England with the Gospel, as well as for bringing attention to this often-overlooked part of the country. God is truly doing some amazing things through church planting, replanting and revitalization, as well as ministries among university students and internationals/immigrants — but there is so much need. We would love to connect with you or any others interested in ministering short- or long-term in New England.

  12. Krystal says:

    Although not located in New England, I live in Upstate New York and all of this still applies. The whole Northeast Region is in great need of spiritual Truth and has been a subject of prayer in the community of churches where I live for several years. So I want to thank you for this article and please continue to pray and encourage those who may be interested in working alongside us for the sake of the gospel.

  13. Larry says:

    Throw New York state into the group. We’re just as barren as New England is.

  14. Kathleen says:

    New England is the home of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Smith, Boston University, MIT and more of the nation’s best universities than any other section of the country. This is not the Bible Belt; people here are educated and literate and well-informed. They are not likely to become easy prey to the peddlers of religion and their lives are not the miserable types that drives people to believe outlandish things.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Kathleen, your claim to Northern intellectual superiority is not missed, even by this backwards Southern dolt.

      1. Jim Zartman says:

        The dismissal isn’t helpful. She is making a critique that does need to be thought through. It’s not intellectual elitism but an awareness of the fact that these aren’t “unreached pagan liberals” but people who have heard, who have asked questions, and found the answers of the church lacking. Your caricature of New Englanders will be in the way of reaching them and coming alongside to support the beauty of what they are doing. Most of them are passionate about changing the world for the better but their perception of people who talk in the rhetoric of this article is that the church is too corrupt and immoral to be part of the solution. They have valid criticism and you need to hear them out before you have something to offer. A little humility and a little less defensiveness with be needed here. We’re open to you, but you need to understand that you will have to ask deeper questions of your faith than you ever have if you are going to gain a voice with more than the Christian subculture here.

    2. Kathleen,
      As a New Englander who pastors in a suburb of Boston, I agree with you about your sentiment that New Englanders are not easy prey of peddlers of religion. But the need for the gospel is just as real as in the south. Personally I have come to believe that the key is thoughtful and wise as opposed to slick and sales.

  15. Matt Sullivan says:

    Thankfully there’s a wonderful little remnant in Boston. In addition to City Life Pres., Reality Church Boston has been a light and witness to the gospel.

  16. Pamela Hilton says:

    I’m a Southerner who’s lived in southern NH for 25 years. I’ve seen church planters from the South try and fail repeatedly in this region. I agree that replanting would be a better way to go. And don’t assume that there is no life at all. I belong to a relatively heathy Baptist congregation of about 400 – large by New England standards. Do your homework and talk to the pastors of existing churches. So many times we’ve heard that a church has been planted in a neighboring town, and we could have been a helpful resource. It’s been sad to see so much hope and labor go into failed attempts. Going into a town and knocking on every door has not worked here. But two years ago another small church in our area enlisted 30 of its members to move into a particularly resistant community – becoming neighbors and home owners. The pastor and elders were already established before the move. It was a long two year process before the first service was held. I am hopeful that this method will succeed where at least a half dozen other ‘plants’ have not. And I’ve often wondered if becoming part of existing but dry, liberal (mostly Congregational) churches might be an effective method to breath new life into them.

  17. Tim Hatch says:

    New England pastor for 17 years. It’s been hard and awesome. The people up here are amazing. God is moving. 840 commitments to Christ at our church in 2016 and believing/working for more in 2017. Historic area that I believe the rest of the country owes a debt of spiritual gratitude. Great Evangelicals from Jonathan Edwards to D.L. Moody came out of the New England area. Let’s keep reaching them!

  18. Peter Lewis says:

    Fear not! The gospel still works in New England. Yes, we appear dry and dead, but there is real life here and God is still working. Come and help us. We need solid, orthodox, Bible-literate, evangelistic people to come here and bring fresh life to old congregations; and we need new church plants, as well. New Englander’s (especially here in the frozen north of Maine) can be crusty and resistant, but as we all know, God’s Word breaks that resistance and brings new life in spite of it. If God can knock one of the world’s great adversaries right off his horse and turn him into an apostle, then He can do the same thing here. Don’t write us off! Pray for us, and come and share the Truth! And, by the way, I took the photo of the quaint New England church that accompanies this post. I drive past scenes like this every day on my commute to work, and yes, like the classic white church in the photo, many (most) of our old churches are just dead shells partly filled (if open at all) each Sunday morning by dead souls….”But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…” This still works, folks, and there is no more exciting time to be missionaries in New England! (Oh, and if you decide to come way up north, bring a parka…we got almost three feet of snow here in the mountains in the second week of May. No one ever said it would be easy…)

  19. Dick Kiernan says:

    I have lived in NH all my life and I thank the Lord that He has put NE on your hearts. For 14 years I have been an Alpha missionary to NE and in 2010 we found that over 1000 churches had run Alpha reaching 100,000 New Englanders—-Alpha fits our culture very well—it has done as well or better than anywhere in the country. I am also involved in the NH Alliance prayer movement (www.nhalliance.net) and the NE Alliance prayer movement. We are praying for NE to return to the Bible belt! I would say that Alpha and the prayer movement and Baptist church planters and Overseed are all signs that God is at work, and I noticed that we are following the same pattern as the UK/Europe, and the planting of 40 churches from Holy Trinity Brompton (the founding church of Alpha), is an indicator of what the restoration of the faith may look like for us in New England.

  20. Garrett Sears says:

    I am the son of a church planter in MA. I grew up through it all and got a unique view of how my family was able to do it. If you are planning on church planting in NE, knowing these things may be helpful:

    New England worships education and sports. A major way we were able to reach families was through little league, and other town sports. I was able to befriend the kids and invite them to youth group, while my parents were able to befriend their parents as well. Keep in mind that it may be a great idea to start coaching or getting involved in sports in your local town. (It is hard for parents to say “no” to their kids asking to go to church with them) This is where families are in New England. Meet them where they are at.

    Also, New England is very prideful of who they are and where they grew up. Even if you have lived there for 15 years of your life (like myself), you aren’t considered a “townie”, which makes it hard to earn respect from other townies. If you want to make it easier on your ministry, consider living in your town for a couple years before planting. Give yourself time to grow close with your neighbors and establish yourself in the town before you start the church. People will learn to trust you over time, and you will learn to understand their worldview, and how to share the gospel with their specific experiences and beliefs. (They will also be less likely to think you are starting a cult)

    Just a few things I have come to learn through experience. Maybe something to consider! However, these aren’t the only ways to see success in your ministry, but they can help!

  21. Sue says:

    Any and all are welcome here in Western Massachusetts, but please bring the gospel of grace and not a list of rules to obey. The Holy Spirit is at work in people’s lives here. We depend on the grace of God to survive.

  22. Roberto says:

    We are laboring in Western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley. Like you said, the harvest is ready and the laborers few. May God raise up laborers to call his people to himself!

  23. Paul Atwater says:

    As a church planter who has stayed for nearly 28 years in the same New England church, this article confirms what we were seeing narly 30 years ago. It’s still true. However, please don’t come and start something here unless you are called, willing to stay, work hard and learn what it takes to reach skeptical New Englanders. There is more healthy church planting going on here today than ever before.

  24. Jacqueline Tetrault says:

    I’m reading this as a Catholic from Massachusetts, so I’m not sure what to make of this, or how much I agree or disagree with. Why do you find it so surprising that Catholicism is the majority religion in New England? Many immigrants to New England came from Catholic countries, which is why Boston has so many people of Irish and Italian heritage. Do you think that Catholics aren’t Christians, or that we don’t do enough ministry or evangelization? I agree that more can be done and that more people ought to step up for ministry–in my own church we’re experiencing a shortage of priests, which is hard on both them and the parishes they serve –but I’ve never thought of this a spiritually dead/asleep/barren place. I’ve seen spiritually lost people in Salem (for some reason the tourism related to the historical witch trials draws people who are actually interested in the occult), but I’ve also seen strong Catholic and Evangelical communities (I went to Gordon College, which was founded as a missionary school and still integrates faith into all its academic fields). I guess what I’m wondering is, what is your standard of assessment, coming from the Bible Belt?

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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