I think it’s safe to say that New England is in my DNA. My mom’s family has been in New England since the 1600’s, and they were some of the first people to move into Vermont. I grew up in New England, and God seems to be making it clear, that I will be a New England pastor for the rest of my life. When I was young I dreamed of going oversees to train locals for ministry because they know the culture that they are ministering to backwards and forwards, and at 18 I left New England and never expected to return. But at 23, something funny happened, God made clear that I was supposed to return to New England and go to Gordon Conwell. Since then he has been making clear that all along he has been making me someone who is built for ministry in New England. Someone from New England, who speaks it’s language, loves what it loves, mourns and cheers when it does, and bleeds when the Sox lose.
Which is why I look around and feel a deep sadness and excitement. I feel a deep sadness, because I see a place, in desperate need of the gospel. I was at a recent association meeting for the denomination, and the speaker was Glynis LaBarre (LaBarre is a “transformation strategist” for the denomination, and the leading missional thinker in the ABC -as far as I can tell, the only one -we’ll get to the missional church next month), And at one point, she spoke about “the numbers”. She noted that the world that we live in has changed. It used be a world shaped by, and friendly to the church. 8 of 10 used to be in church. Now it’s 2 of 10 of ten, if... Soon it will be 1 of 10. LaBarre, who looked to me to be in her late 50’s, commented that “in the generations under me, less than 1 in 10 has a significant connection with love of God”.
But, the facts on the ground are worse in New England. A 2009 Gallup poll placed the six states of New England in the top ten least religious states in the nation. According to the NETS Institute for Church Planting, all six New England states rank in the top 10 least religious states in the US. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts make up the top four. Roughly 2% of New Englanders attend evangelical churches. One of every six residents of Massachusetts and Connecticut is atheist or agnostic, nearly double the national average. Of the 27 most populous states, Massachusetts has by far the lowest percentage of self-professed "born agains." There is a higher percentage of evangelical church attendees in Mormon Utah than in Rhode Island. That’s pretty mind-blowing. Furthermore, there is very little biblical literacy to speak of. According to a Barna poll entitled “America’s Most (and Least) Bible-Minded Cities” that came out this winter, 5 of the 6 least biblically literate cities are in New England.
As you well know, things are pretty grim here in New England, which is why New England has been designated an unreached people group by some denominations. As a native New Englander, my heart breaks when I think of the reality on the ground here. New England, as a region, fits the category of unreached people. The missions field is not just, over there. It’s here, in our backyard. And this is not new info to many of us. We live in a giant mission field.
So that’s the bad news. However, and there’s the big huge however, at the same time, I’m excited. First, all the bad new means that we have an unprecedented opportunity. Paul dreamed of going and sharing the gospel where no one else had. We get to. We get to work, in almost untilled ground. You, and I. We are the people God has called to proclaim the gospel, and model the gospel to a place that desperately needs the good news of the gospel. That excites me. Will it be hard? Yes. But we get to be missionaries to a place that desperately needs the gospel. We get to walk out the door into one of the toughest missions field imaginable and take the gospel there! We have been called to take on this mantle. That thrills me. I dream of seeing God move here in New England. I dream of seeing revival in New England as in the days of Edwards. I long for revival. For the day when the gospel is preached from pulpits, shared by friends at the coffee shop, over lunches and dinners, at work and at the ballgame, and wherever we go! I dream of a day when the ripe harvest that I see here in New England is reaped. The scary and awesome thing is that the bad news means we have an unprecedented opportunity to share the Gospel!
Furthermore, there are plenty of signs that God is at work in a big way. In the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, there are signs that Aslan is moving well before he is seen. Every part of Narnia buzzes with his presence. The rumor is passed with excitement, and the snow starts melting, and flowers bloom. Father Christmas returns. Throughout Narnia, there are hints, and whispers that the dark days may be ending, and here in New England there are signs that God is beginning to send long prayed for revival; signs that God is already doing something amazing.
Here are a few. First, I look around and see young pastors being called to New England ministry. A few weeks ago, Veronique and I attended an overnight retreat hosted by the New England Church revitalization network, and gathered with other pastors and their spouses doing revitalization work here in New England. Most were young, and all of us were telling stories of God working slowly but faithfully. There was a sense that there are shoots appearing both near and far.
Second, last fall, 1300 Christians gathered for the Gospel Coalition NE Conference. 1300 people! Some were pastors, but many others where faithful Christians who where there to be fed, energized, and equipped for life on the missions field of New England. 1300 Christians excited about living gospel centered lives, and caring enough to get to a conference in the heart of Boston!
Third, shortly after the Gospel Coalition Regional Conference an interesting article appeared in Slate, entitled, “Re-evangelizing New England ‘how church planting and music festivals are bringing about a quiet revival”, and it spoke of some of the things that God is doing in New England, and pointing out that there is a quiet revival going on in New England that has been flying under the radar. It points out that “In Boston, though the population has dipped slightly below its level in 1970, the number of churches has almost doubled, and the number of people attending church has more than tripled in that same period”. Dozens and dozens of churches have been planted here in New England in the last 10 or 15 years; this article is just catching onto something that has been happening for awhile.
Fourth, there are churches returning to Gospel faithfulness even in our own mainline denomination. Dale Edwards, the executive Director of VT/NH ABC was one of the speakers at the retreat Veronique and I recently went to, and he told us that most of the ABC churches in VT/NH are now somewhere on the spectrum of orthodoxy. In the ABC!
These are some of the reasons I’m excited. It’s a good time to be in New England. Shortly after the Gospel Coalition gathering in October, Collin Hansen, one of the speakers at the conference, wrote an article entitled, “The best of times in New England”, one line stood out to me above all the rest. These are the best of times in New England because God has raised up local church leaders who love their communities, who have committed to staying over the long haul as they trust Christ to change hearts and redeem souls. They understand the challenges. The have endured hardship. They have been tempted to hunker down but defied Satan to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to their neighbors and encourage fellow believers to do likewise”.
I look around, and feel a deep sadness, and great excitement. But the work is just beginning. I was speaking with a friend recently and I commented that I am feeling the weight of the great commission more and more, and I’m sure it is because I know that in large part the work is just beginning.
My hope and prayer is that you do too. My hope and prayer, is that you feel the weight of the facts that lay before us, and that they break your heart. May they break your heart for New England, for Massachusetts, for Metro-west, and for Medfield. But I hope that as they do, that you will be excited about the fact that God has called us to be here at this time and place for this very reason. He is sovereign, and he has called you and I to such a time as this. May God use you to be about his work, to be one of those men and women, that look at the world, and hear the words of your Lord, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Matthew 9:36-37)." My hope and prayer is that you will be one of those workers, who shares the gospel, who hears the great commission, who hears the reminder that fields are ripe with harvest, and shares the good news of what Christ has done as you are going through the day to day parts of your life and live for the glory of his name.
Next month, I will talk about the Missional Church movement, which I believe is one of the fundamental church culture shifts that the American church, and especially the New England church, will need to go through, as we switch our gaze from ourselves, to the lost world around us. But for now, let me just ask you to do one thing. Pray, seriously pray, for revival. I dream of revival, I long for revival. I want to see that day with all my heart. But it starts, with prayer. It will not happen without prayer. As Stepehn Um, one of my professors at GCTS and one of the speakers of the Gospel Coalition NE noted “ God puts us into situations that show us we cannot rely on anything else but God who raises the dead." Not cutting-edge ministry methods. Not the memory of a Christian past. Not the social benefits of church attendance. Only the power of the Holy Spirit, the promise of union with Christ, and the persevering love of our heavenly Father”. Prayer is needed. We will not see any change, without prayer. Lots and lots of prayer, and so my request is that you pray, earnestly, fervently, for God to be saving souls, for God to be sending revival. The stats are all bad, but we serve the God who opens channels through the sea, who make the mute speak, and rose, in power. He’s the God who created all things, sustains all things, and holds everything in the palm of his hand. Long odds are nothing new for him, nor all that intimidating to him. So pray. Pray for him to act. Pray for your home region. Let your heart break for New England. My guess is that New England is in your DNA too. Pray for God to move once again in New England.