WEST PAWLET, Vt. — Four years ago in this remote valley hamlet in Vermont, the last eight members of the financially strapped United Church of West Pawlet voted to disband the congregation. Tad Perry remembers the wrenching vote as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
But now on a nine-degree Sunday morning in January, a steady plume rises once again from the chimney behind the steeple.
Inside, nearly 50 people singing catchy hymns with piano accompaniment help make the tiny sanctuary feel close to full. And the voice from the pulpit bespeaks what’s taking place — not only here, but in formerly vacant, old church buildings across northern New England.
“The mission of this church is to see lost people saved throughout this region and to disciple the saved,” says pastor Lyandon Warren in a thick southern accent that gives away his Waynesville, N.C., roots. His drawl also meshes with the new, Southern Baptist affiliation of the church, which reopened in May 2007 as Mettowee Valley Church.
20 churches since 2001
Since 2001, Southern Baptists have planted 20 new churches in Vermont, where the denomination’s count now stands at 37 congregations. Half of the new church plants have taken root in buildings once operated by other Protestant denominations. Where more theologically liberal ministries failed, church planters say, opportunity still awaits for harvesting souls — even here in New England’s notoriously rocky spiritual soil.
For Southern Baptists, the price to acquire church properties in Vermont has been right. In each case, congregation members have transferred church deeds free of charge since they’re just happy a church of any stripe will continue to operate on the sites they regard as sacred, according to Terry Dorsett, director of missions for Green Mountain Baptist Association, which oversees Vermont and New Hampshire.
Securing a building, however, may well be the easy part. Evangelical Christianity can be a hard sell in this state that leans left politically and culturally, such as when the legislature passed the nation’s first civil union law in 2000. Warren courts controversy in Vermont, where tolerance is a much-professed virtue, when he says matter-of-factly, “I hope other people see that without Christ, they’re doomed.”
But Southern Baptists are discovering New England may not be as cold to faith as the region’s reputation would suggest.
“I don’t know that I’d say we’ve abandoned the concept of conversion, but we’ve adjusted it,” Dorsett says. “Now instead of going door-to-door and talking to strangers, we’ve urged our people to become involved in their communities and share their faith while they work … to say, while they’re washing dishes at the soup kitchen, ‘I’m here because Jesus made a difference in my life.’
“Vermonters aren’t interested in a pie-in-the-sky, ‘I’m better than you’ kind of faith,” Dorsett says. “But a roll-up-the-sleeves and help my community kind of faith? There are a lot of Vermonters interested in that.”
Southerners have arrived in force to demonstrate what’s possible and help get new church plants going in Vermont. Over two summers, multiple North Carolina teams with as many as 30 volunteers have descended on West Pawlet. Each toiled for a week or so at a time before handing the baton to the next team. Workers cleaned out the basement, repaired a caved-in floor, painted the exterior, launched a fellowship hall renovation and framed a new addition. They even helped fix up the damaged porch of an elderly woman in the neighborhood. Through it all, these out-of-state missionaries importantly didn’t make proud New Englanders feel like charity recipients.
Vermont is one of the partnerships that North Carolina Baptist Men has in the United States. To find out how you can help, visit www.ncmissions.org.
A blessing, not charity
“I don’t think of it as charity but as a blessing what the Lord wanted to happen,” says Heather Baker, a former Jehovah’s Witness who’s recently become a Christian.
Not all of the recent witnessing has taken the form of building projects. At a summer fair, church members gave out bottles of water along with tracts and information about the church. A few people came to worship after taking a bottle and a tract on that hot day. Some even appreciated it when Warren went door-to-door in 2007 to announce the church’s reopening.
“I could tell him the names of everybody in town who needed to be here, but I didn’t think I needed to be here,” construction worker Cliff White says. But when he yearned to quit drinking, he remembered the Warrens’ visit and decided to give the church a try. With the congregation’s help, he’s been sober since May 2008.
Figuring out what works in revitalizing rural New England churches has become a pressing challenge for the region as a whole. Tens of church buildings are for sale at any given time across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine (as well as rural New York state). Warren got familiar with the usual explanation: Too many young people had either lost interest in faith or had moved away from small-town Vermont in order to earn a living elsewhere.
“They say there are no people here, but there are people here,” Warren says. “When they hear that a church is preaching the Bible and standing for truth, they want to go investigate.”
Plan for 6,000 new churches
Now some theological conservatives seem to regard the closure of mainline churches as an opening for a more orthodox resurgence. Southern Baptists planted 24 new churches in New Hampshire, for instance, between 1998 and 2004. The Baptist Convention of New England professes a goal to plant 6,000 new churches across New England.
In smelling opportunity, Southern Baptists aren’t alone. The Assemblies of God (AOG) denomination also is actively recruiting church planters for northern New England. The AOG has planted at least five new churches in Maine and New Hampshire since 2006, including two targeting Indonesian immigrants in southern New Hampshire.
At this point, churches are still learning which approaches might catch fire in a region where mega-churches haven’t blossomed on a large scale and where the vast majority of congregations count fewer than 100 members. West Pawlet’s experience suggests having a coherent strategy and a broad support network can go a long way.
Having received lots of help from North Carolinians, Mettowee Valley Church has been able to free up funds from a tithing congregation to support a few strategic investments. A new $5,000 oil boiler, for instance, means the church is usually warm when the congregation gathers. (As a back-up measure for sub-zero days when the wind is howling, each of the 18 pews is equipped with a crimson fleece blanket).
The congregation also paid about $7,000 in cash for a 1998, 15-passenger van on eBay last summer. Warren flew to Florida to pick it up and drove it back. Now a driver who’s well-known among area families plies this area’s picturesque, twisty, hilly backroads every Sunday afternoon. He picks up youth for teen night and a meal at the church, and later brings them home.
Informality reigns. Kids playing in the neighborhood holler for parental permission to ride along with their friends and then jump in. Parents sometimes show up in church on Sunday to see what all the fuss is about.
Such active ministries are convincing area families that something interesting is afoot in this working-class town of 1,400. Heather Baker and her husband Steven lived directly across the street from the church building when it was United Church. Though they watched individuals occasionally come and go, they never even thought about attending.
“It just didn’t seem appealing,” says Steven Baker. “I didn’t feel like I needed to be here.”
Now as Mettowee Valley Church settles into its second year, church leaders aren’t worried about failure. They’re laying groundwork for endurance. Citing 1 Timothy 5:17-25, Warren exhorted parishioners in early January to keep leaders accountable for the long term by choosing elders carefully and by regarding church leadership as a group project. Lay leader Lee Perry urged them to remember, “Our Christian walk is a war. It’s a battle. We huddle in here, but then we take it out of here, and that’s the battle.” Hymns underscored his point as the congregation sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “We Want to See Jesus Lifted High.”
“… Little by little, we’re taking ground,” they sang. “Every prayer a powerful weapon / Strongholds come tumbling down / And down and down and down.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Originally published in The Layman, a publication of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, www.layman.org. Reprinted by permission.)