They prefer to describe it as “a quiet revival,” but the army of evangelical Christian missionaries descending on New England more resemble a crusade. Self-styled Warriors for Christ, these spiritual carpetbaggers come North to plant churches and convert the “unchurched” and “gospel-parched” to fundamentalist Christianity. Wielding big smiles and inerrant Bibles, they claim to be willing to die while they “harvest souls” and “open the dead hearts of sinners.”
Like the knights in the Holy Land their mission is doomed to fail, but not without a valiant struggle.
Lyandon Warren came from North Carolina to pastor in rural Vermont. “To be a foot-soldier on that battleground is a joy and privilege,” he told the Baptist Press a few years ago. Bible-believing Christians like him are implored by scripture to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation,” but Warren and his colleagues picked New England, a region they otherwise decry as liberal, pagan, dead, and dry, because of all the “nones” who present a tempting target for hostile spiritual takeover.
“Where gospel fires once burned now looks burnt over,” declares the Gospel Coalition’s Jared Wilson in his sales pitch to potential church planters. Gallup and Pew surveys concur: religion is in decline nationwide, and New Englanders have the lowest religious adherence of all. The Pilgrims may have landed here seeking religious freedom, and this may be where 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards sparked the First Great Awakening, but in spite of the ubiquitous white church steeples religious apathy now afflicts us. The Catholic Church alone – still the largest denomination – has lost somewhere between a quarter and a third of its members since the turn of the millennium.
Sensing opportunity, The North American Mission Board, the church planting arm of the Southern Baptists, has spent over $5 million in the past decade to plant more than 130 churches in New England, using the model for overseas missionary outreach. Other evangelical umbrella organizations have followed suit, “equipping” idealistic young men (always men) with training and strategy manuals on outreach and fundraising.
Church planting is a well-oiled and well-funded franchise operation, seeking rapid expansion and establishment of ever more churches. It comes complete with branding and the proselytizer’s equivalent of sales quotas. Churches of God speak of “multiplication” while other denominations pray for “exponential” growth. And although they all like to talk about “grassroots,” “organic,” and “local” it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, church planting is the antithesis of the traditional New England congregational churches that grew from a community’s desire for fellowship.
Growth is so imperative that community outreach becomes duplicitous. “While it’s always good to love our neighbors and build relationships with them for a number of reasons, we love them best by sharing the good news with them,” says Jeff Cavanaugh of the 9Marks movement. But while setting up a soup kitchen because your faith compels you demonstrates empathy, doing it to help bring new customers to your faith smacks more of calculated compassion and ulterior motives intended to meet your own needs.
Once a pastor obtains seed funding and a calling, he can show up in town – uninvited – and establish his Bible shop. Some have taken over abandoned village churches, others meet in private homes.
Riverbank Church meets in Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, Vermont, and makes excellent use of the venue’s professional stage lighting and large flat screen TVs to create what is called an “experience” rather than a mere service. Ushers in matching t-shirts hand out hugs and fliers, surveys are taken, and newcomers are welcomed profusely.
Riverbank is a typical non-affiliated church, led since its founding in 2010 by Chris Goeppner, an energetic young Floridian. His bald head and casual denim outfit gives Goeppner a charismatic and engaging stage presence. On a Sunday in March his sermon is, not surprisingly, about the mandate to evangelize – share the good news of Jesus with everybody all the time.
“It’s All about Jesus”
Goeppner makes it quite clear: “We are all about Jesus. He is the reason we do everything that we do. You will hear us talk about Jesus, teach about Jesus, and sing songs about Jesus because it really is all about Jesus.” The theme is reinforced to the congregation of roughly eighty through song and preaching all morning. It’s simple and uncomplicated. Black and white, dos and don’ts. Fundamental, if you like. Or fundamentalist, perhaps, if you rather don’t.
Because once you peel away the compelling veneer of hip pop culture references, colloquialisms, cool graphics and the intimate, welcoming atmosphere, Goeppner’s is at heart an old-school Christian message of fear and faith, sin and salvation, obedience and redemption. His sermon relies entirely on reading scripture “as is,” and comes complete with a “fill-in-the-blanks” handout to remind the faithful of their explicit obligations to the church and to Jesus. It leaves little on which to genuinely reflect, and renders the experience quite unlike, say, a Congregational or Unitarian service.
Evangelical fundamentalists hold four cardinal beliefs that set them apart from mainline churches, says John Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars. First, the Bible is inerrant, without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God. Secondly, they believe that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ. Third is the idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. They must become converted. The fourth and cardinal belief of evangelicals is the need to proselytize, or in their case, to spread the evangel, to evangelize.
So, no matter the appealing bells and whistles, it really comes down to this: read the Bible as literal truth, find Jesus, be born again, then go tell the rest of the world. With the Bible as an infallible, timeless go-to document with answers to every question and doubt, scripture need never be reinterpreted or reconsidered, even as society evolves and values change. With faith the be-all and end-all, secular life is relegated to a supporting role; whatever you do, you do to further God’s Kingdom.
Some fundamentalist preachers go even further, praying for the day when society will again be ruled by Bible-based morals. The Christian equivalent of Sharia law would necessarily repeal civil rights and put an end to tolerance and compassion that we now take for granted. The same reactionary conservatism can be seen in right wing social policies, which helps explain the incestuous relationship between evangelical churches and congressional Republicans, and was perhaps also why evangelical Christians spearheaded the “Take Back Vermont” campaign to prevent legalized civil unions a decade ago. For fundamentalist Christians the end justifies the means. There is no separation of church and state, and it is perfectly reasonable to engage in politics “for Jesus.”
Bertrand Russell once noted, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Such unwavering and uncompromising notions of moral superiority lead to delusions of grandeur and arrogance.
That becomes apparent when fundamentalist Christians refuse to take part in ecumenical work with other congregations. They they see those who don’t share their exact beliefs as false believers, as flawed Christians. As far as they’re concerned, the Congregationalists, Episcopalians and the rest of the mainline denominations have all gone astray and to hell with their inclusiveness and focus on good works over pure faith. As one Unitarian Universalist pastor said, “The Evangelicals bemoan our embrace of all people.”
They see not only other faiths but modern secular society itself as morally corrupt, sinful and fallen. Frank Schaeffer, former evangelical Christian and author of “Crazy for God,” says that in the fundamentalist movement we have, “within our culture a sub-culture, which is literally a fifth column of insanity, a group of people who are resentful because they know they’ve been left behind by modernity, by science, by education, by art, by literature.”
His is hardly a ringing endorsement, as could be expected from someone who has left behind the fundamentalist movement. But in a marketplace of ideas people should be free to consider alternatives to mainline churches and a life without religion.
So, What’s There to Like?
One former evangelical pastor points out that firm moral guidelines and a promise of salvation may appeal to people whose lives are in turmoil and who are surrounded by rapid change in society and uneasy with significant shifts in core values and morals.
For example, the current heroin epidemic across Vermont is symptomatic of some serious social dysfunction, and recognition of gay marriage still doesn’t sit well with many in the otherwise liberal Northeast. The weak, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised have historically been susceptible to the easy fixes and simple solutions offered by silver tongued spiritual con artists and snake oil salesmen.
But while the assurance and certainty of traditional values and rigid rules may be what appeals to the at most three percent of New Englanders who regularly attend evangelical churches, it’s highly doubtful if it can attract more. And so, by its own measure of success – perpetual growth – the evangelical crusade appears doomed to fail.
Riverbank Church has reached an impressive 200 members after four years, and Pastor Goeppner audaciously talks about reaching all of Vermont for Jesus in less than 13 years. Yet, even the state’s most well-established Evangelical church plant, Christ Memorial Church in Burlington, remains a 200 member congregation after more than 20 years of trying, and that’s with significant outside funding.
Many new church plants fail and fold when the initial seed funding dries up, and even in the once fertile bible belt evangelists are seeing a drop in attendance. Presumably they’ve run out of people to pester with their preposterous platitudes, hence the feeding frenzy in a new, untapped market.
But fundamentalist Christians have drunk so deeply of their own Kool-Aid that they seem genuinely surprised to find precious few takers. Faced with disappointing results from his missionary work in Massachusetts, Joe Souza of the Southern Baptists declared, “It’s like, you found a cure for cancer and you want to give it away and nobody wants it.”
Except, of course, theirs is no cure, and we don’t have cancer. In an open letter addressed to “Christians Who Want to Convert Us,” Emily Heath, a Congregational pastor from Vermont, put it simply: “We’re good, thanks.”
But while they may be good, and certainly more inclusive, the mainline churches do have cause for concern: fundamentalist church plants primarily grow a congregation by “stealing sheep” from others, not by converting the “nones.” Liberal Christian pastors acknowledge the need to attract and keep members, but none think fundamentalism is the answer. And they strongly object to being dismissed and belittled by outsiders claiming to know what’s best for the communities they have been serving for generations.
Rather than lecturing their parishioners about their obligations as undeserving sinners, mainline pastors try to remain relevant by engaging their congregation in an ongoing quest for spiritual growth. One pastor said that he actively encourages members of his flock to question their faith, respects their doubts, and welcomes their critical questions, even if he doesn’t have an immediate answer from scripture.
Barnaby Feder, a Unitarian Universalist Reverend from Middlebury, Vermont, puts it this way: “The questions with which religion has always wrestled persist. And religion that doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door will remain vital.”
The fundamentalist Christians will doubtlessly continue to evangelize, even as their efforts fail to deliver the results for which they pray. It’s an integral part of their creed, after all. But the chance of a religious revival in New England is about as likely as the second coming of Jesus.
© Lars Blackmore