First in a series
Mention Vermont and most Americans think pleasant things like maple syrup, bright fall foliage and winter skiing.
But to missions-minded Baptists, Vermont is one of the most challenging mission fields in the country. The state has proportionately fewer Bible-believing churches and Christians than any other state.
BSC photo by Mike Creswell
Lyandon Warren, left, lead pastor of the Castleton campus church of Mission City Church, Rutland, welcomes people to the Sunday morning worship service City Church in Rutland, Vt., welcomes people to a Sunday morning worship service.
Scores of villages in Vermont have had no Bible-believing 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. The state presents an unusual missions challenge, surrounded by other New England states that have similar degrees of lostness.
The population is about 625,000 people, fewer than Charlotte, N.C. Vermont is one of the nation’s most rural states, with vast areas of woodlands crossed by mostly two-lane roads.
A 2017 Gallup poll showed Vermont is America’s least religious state. That is changing.
In 2016, Vermont churches counted 246 baptisms. That is not enough to say a great revival is under way, but it means Vermont led Southern Baptist baptisms in all other New England states.
Further, it only took 11 Vermont Baptists for each baptism. If N.C. Baptists had a similar ratio, all of the state’s 5.8 million lost people would follow Christ in months.
The progress is encouraging. Vermont now has more healthy, growing Southern Baptist churches than ever. New churches are being planted. More pastors and church planters are considering ministry in Vermont.
It’s too early to celebrate, but North Carolina Baptists should feel very good about the progress in Vermont and the important role they have played in part of this new work.
As Sanford, N.C. native Chris Autry put it, “North Carolina Baptists have fingerprints all over the state of Vermont.” Autry now serves as a pastor in Barre (rhymes with Barry), Vt.
A long-term partnership
N.C. Baptist Men (NCBM), also known as Baptists on Mission, set up a partnership with the Green Mountain Baptist Association of Vermont in 2005 and coordinated the flow of thousands of N.C. volunteers into the state.
Partnership means N.C. Baptists ask Vermont Baptists how they can help, rather than trying to dictate a plan, said Mark Abernathy, who oversees partnership programs for NCBM in New England.
“We don’t go in with an agenda. We ask, ‘How can we assist you?’’’ Abernathy said. “We don’t fill all the requests, but we have a pretty good track record on it.”
Because Baptists are sparse in the region, there is one convention, the Baptist Convention of New England (BCNE), incorporating seven associations of approximately 370 churches sprinkled across Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
“We’ve sent an average of 400 to 550 volunteers a year to Vermont,” said volunteer coordinator Steve Carter, who works with NCBM. “Of course, many of the volunteers go back year after year.”
During 2017, NCBM sent 418 volunteers in 30 teams to serve across Vermont. Volunteer requests may be for construction, Vacation Bible Schools, sports ministries or other projects.
Every spring, Carter and his wife, Nellene, pack up their camper trailer and pull it from their home in Lincolnton, N.C., for the two-day trip to Vermont. They stay until fall. During those months, they plan service opportunities for volunteers and encourage local pastors and church planters.
The Carters first went to Vermont as volunteers in 2005, and in 2008 began staying five or six warm-weather months each year to coordinate mission projects.
“The big challenge in Vermont is the culture,” Carter said. “Down South, everybody has heard about Jesus and church … We’re in the Bible Belt. If people are not saved, they at least kind-of know a Bible story and who Jesus is. But [in Vermont], 98 percent of the people don’t have a clue about any of that.”
That has slowly begun to change in the past 12 years, Carter said.
“We have 51 churches in Vermont now and expect to have several more by the end of 2018,” he said. That almost doubles the state’s 27 churches in 2005.
Some Vermont Baptist churches are struggling, Carter acknowledged, but others are doing well. In fact, several Baptist churches now claim several hundred members – virtual megachurches in Vermont where churches feel successful with 25 people present on Sunday.
There are other hints that things are changing.
Carter tells of a sports banquet held in Vermont in late summer in which 34 Vermonters accepted Christ as Savior – a rare response.
North Carolina native Lyandon Warren is working to start a new church in Castleton, Vt., with support from the North American Mission Board (NAMB).
“North Carolina has really shouldered a lot of God’s work in Vermont,” Warren said. “North Carolina Baptists need to know that and I think be proud of that. … God has used them to impact this state in such a great way.”
Becky Pellegrini, who serves on the board of directors of the BCNE, said she is thankful for the partnership with N.C. Baptists.
Pellegrini works with the youth of Faith Community Church in Barre, Vt., where she and her husband John, are members.
“North Carolina has helped me personally put on camps for our youth, and they have done physical work to our church building, our parsonage and our mission house,” Pellegrini said. “It has been a great thing.”
Vermont Baptists sent a team of volunteers to work in the Lumberton, N.C., area in 2017 to repair hurricane damage, she said.
Buncombe Baptist Association, in Asheville, N.C., has sent teams to Vermont for years, said Perry Brindley, director of missions. That includes sending 40 volunteers during the summer of 2017.
Beyond the volunteers, Brindley speaks with pride about how some of the key leaders in Vermont are from western North Carolina.
Starting strong in Rutland
Some shopping mall stores in Rutland, Vt., are not doing well. But that has enabled Mission City Church to rent space in the mall. Unlike the stores, Mission City is going great, with three Sunday services and more than 400 members. By Vermont church standards, this is a hugely successful, out-of-the-park home run of a church plant. The church now has 12 on staff, including four who are full-time and some who are volunteers.
The Tar Heel roots include Lead Pastor Tim Owens who grew up in Canton, N.C., and served seven years as associate pastor of Pinnacle Church.
In 2014, he moved his family to Rutland along with seven other adults and six children to start a church in his living room.
“We moved six times in six months,” Owens recalled with a smile. The last move was to the shopping center.
The church became Mission City in 2016 after it launched a second campus at Castleton, a university town 14 miles west of Rutland and home of Castleton University. The Castleton church began meeting in a classroom building and has grown steadily.
Lyandon Warren wears many hats as NAMB’s Vermont church planting catalyst. One of those includes serving as a volunteer campus pastor in Castleton.
Warren is from Waynesville, N.C., grew up in the Crabtree/Clyde area and worked as a tool and die maker before he surrendered to full-time ministry in 2001. He graduated from North Greenville University in upstate South Carolina in 2006 and moved to Vermont soon after graduation.
“We’re a church that believes in partnering in church plants,” Owens said. “Our vision is to make disciples and plant churches. We don’t just say it – we do it.”
Along with a strong effort to plant churches in Nepal and helping get churches started in Maine and Georgia, they are also backing several church plants in Vermont.
Mission City helped train others involved in church planting, such as Hayden Swanger. He will lead worship and music at Crosspoint Church, a new plant by Todd West in Williston, Vt. Mission City is also helping Crosspoint with its website. Owens and West are old friends from their western North Carolina days.
Ricky Vest, one of Mission City’s associate pastors, also has N.C. connections. He grew up in Georgia but spent five years in western North Carolina working in camp ministry before enrolling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., in 2011. He graduated and moved to Vermont in 2015 for church planting.
He lives with his family in Pittsford, a 15-minute drive north of Rutland, and says he likes living in Vermont.
“God has given us the opportunity to build lots of relationships,” Vest said, and adds they have had to buy more winter clothes.
A campus connection in Castleton
Many North Carolina church planters would see the trailer pull up beside a classroom building at Castleton University and perhaps have a twinge of backache.
Those weekly setups of sound systems, signs, screens, coffee pots and materials – then the tear down and moving it afterward – are part of the hard work required to have church in a borrowed or rented facility. For now, it’s part of the schedule for Mission City Church’s Castleton campus.
Lyandon Warren preaches but rotates Sunday services with associates so he can pursue his wider church planting ministry across Vermont and beyond. He and his wife, Kim, greet members and visitors in the outer lobby before the contemporary service starts.
Many attendees are university students, but some are older adults. Warren’s own parents moved to Vermont from Waynesville, N.C., to help the new church get started.
At a table with balloons, discipleship pastor Tyler Ray signs up members for home groups. Ray is unusual – he grew up in a Baptist family in Maine, where Baptists are scarce. Called to full-time Christian service, he is attending Northeastern Baptist College, a Baptist school founded in 2013 in Bennington, Vt., to train people for Christian ministry in the region. This school is considered by Vermont Baptists to be a huge asset to Baptist outreach in Vermont and New England. Many New England Baptists who are called into ministry head to Baptist schools in the south; many wind up staying south. Clearly New England Baptists must begin training and equipping their own people to minister and serve here, and Northeastern is an indication that is beginning to happen.
Collin Terenzini, 25, is unusual for another reason. He is a Rutland, Vt., native who accepted Christ as Savior in 2010. He then moved to North Carolina so he could attend Fruitland Baptist Bible College. He graduated in 2013, continued his studies at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., then served as student pastor at Laurel Springs Baptist Church near Boone, N.C.
The unusual part is that Terenzini then moved back to Vermont, where he came to have high regard for the church planting ministry of Tim Owens, so he became part of the Castleton work.
“God is really working in Vermont,” Terenzini said. “He is working to change the least religious place in America to having a thriving Christian influence.”
Be sure to look for more stories from Vermont in the next issue of the Biblical Recorder.