September 26, 2019

PURITAN NATION:

Good News? Evangelicals Are 'Planting' Dozens of Churches in Vermont's Rocky Soil  (CHELSEA EDGAR, 9/26/19, Seven Days)

Cornerstone is one of a growing number of new evangelical churches in Vermont seeking to reach the state's spiritually homeless multitudes. "Evangelical" stems from the Greek word euangelion, meaning "good news" -- a reference to the belief that the death of Jesus Christ offered humanity a means of salvation from sin. Evangelicals are by no means a monolithic group, but those who profess to be evangelical -- about a quarter of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study -- tend to believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and that only those who follow Jesus can be saved from eternal punishment.

That same Pew study found that 11 percent of Vermonters attend evangelical churches, a category that includes more than 10 Protestant denominations. Of these sects, Southern Baptists, in particular, have been quietly establishing, or "planting," new churches throughout Vermont -- a practice that exists at the peculiar intersection of analytics-driven entrepreneurship and low-tech disciple-making.

Church planting is as old as Christianity itself; in the first century AD, the Apostle Paul traveled from city to city, preaching in public squares and assembling makeshift congregations in people's homes. In the two millennia since, evangelical church planting, especially in the Southern Baptist world, has evolved into a sophisticated apparatus, with a well-heeled bureaucracy and a vast network of spiritual and financial support in the form of the Southern Baptist Convention, which includes some 47,000 churches worldwide.

Over the past two decades, Southern evangelicals have become increasingly freaked out by the godlessness of New England, spawning a movement so big that parallel organizations have sprung up along its periphery. Phil Waldrep Ministries, a nonprofit based in Decatur, Ala., holds two all-expenses-paid retreats each year for pastors and their wives at luxury hotels around New England. Thomas Schwindling, the nonprofit's creative director, told me that the retreats are designed as vacations from the hardships of ministering in a gospel-resistant region: "We want to put them in hotels they dream of going to," he said. The most recent retreat, in early September, took place at the Equinox in Manchester; the program included a game show with a $5,000 jackpot. At one of last year's retreats, every attendee received a pair of L.L.Bean boots.

If New England as a whole needs religious defibrillation, Vermont would seem to represent the extreme case. The state has earned the distinction of being the least religious in the country almost every year since Gallup began conducting its annual religious attitudes survey in 2008. (The one exception was 2015, when New Hampshire claimed victory by two points.) A 2018 article in the Biblical Recorder, a North Carolina evangelical newspaper, offered this bleak synopsis of Vermont's Jesus situation: "The state has proportionately fewer Bible-believing churches and Christians than any other state. Scores of villages in Vermont have had no Bible-believing [evangelical or fundamentalist] church for decades. Thousands of families have had no Christian members in five generations. Vermont is not just lost; it is hardcore lost and gospel-resistant."

Through a plexus of national and regional organizations, mission-minded evangelicals have been coming to Vermont to search for the chinks in its gospel-proof armor. According to the Baptist Convention of New England, one of the major evangelical Christian networks in the region, at least 28 Baptist-affiliated churches have launched in Vermont since 2011, more than double the number of churches planted in New Hampshire over that same period.

Posted by at September 26, 2019 6:09 PM

  

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