Walk through the pleasant streets of this compact capital, a few blocks from the gold-domed state capitol, and you'll see a large church building with white columns out front.
If you're a visiting North Carolina Baptist, you'll likely assume that the imposing building must be the First Baptist Church, or perhaps a Methodist church. Instead it is a Unitarian church, not exactly a beacon of evangelism.
Vermont has one of the lowest church attendance figures in the country; more than a fifth of the state's more than 600,000 residents consider themselves "non-religious." While two-thirds of the people still list themselves as Christian, the mainline Roman Catholic and Congregational churches are in long decline.
More people have converted to Buddhism here than anywhere else in the country.
To Baptists Vermont is a mission field, desperately needing more churches and more people coming to know Jesus Christ.
"The need for church planting and evangelism is huge," sums up Terry Dorsett, director of missions for the Green Mountain Baptist Association.
"There are 242 towns in Vermont and only 37 Southern Baptist churches (with more than 1,300 resident members). From an evangelical perspective, it's a wide-open field for evangelism and church planting" he said.
One of the biggest Vermont Baptist churches in Essex, Vt., averages between 250 and 300 in attendance.
Vermonters "really don't know what 'Christian' means," Dorsett said.
"The older existing churches have long since lost their evangelical fervor," he said. "When Vermont residents think of other churches with the title 'Christian,' they think of small, struggling groups who have chicken pie suppers and do little else."
Dorsett says outreach is most difficult in northern Vermont, the most economically challenged area.
One Baptist church in Lyndon Center had 150 members 10 years ago; now only 30 remain. When a team from Aversboro Road Baptist Church in Garner presented a musical drama there in August, it was the first time in years the church was full.
N.C. Baptist teams have worked to restore a historic stone church building in North Bennington over the past four years. Dorsett thinks it will be completed soon, and he's hoping this will help solidify and expand a small Baptist church meeting there.
Though a few American Baptist churches have been in Vermont since the early days, the first Southern Baptist church was started only in 1964. But Southern Baptists are growing; seven years ago there were only 17 Southern Baptist churches.
So, while the number of churches to population remains small, the rate of growth has been strong, "making Vermont one of the fastest-growing conventions," said Dorsett.
Put another way, in much of the United States it takes 43 Southern Baptists to baptize one person; here it takes just 12.5.
"North Carolina Baptists have been a huge piece of that growth," he said. "We could not have done it without help from North Carolina Baptists and other Baptists around the country."
Four years of partnership have brought scores of N.C. Baptist teams to Vermont to work on everything from church construction and renovation to personal witnessing and outreach.
This year alone, 52 teams of N.C. Baptists are scheduled to work in Vermont.
"It's been exciting to see how God is working among Baptists in Vermont," said Mark Abernathy, consultant for partnership missions with N.C. Baptists on Mission.
While most work of Baptist Men is funded through the North Carolina Missions Offering, the year-round planning and coordination Abernathy does to make partnership missions work is funded by N.C. Baptists as they give through the Cooperative Program.
"Vermonters joined us in our recovery efforts in Gulfport, and in the past four years have developed their own disaster relief ministry. I'm not sure that we've ever seen this kind of growth over the course of a partnership before. Without doubt, this is something God is doing," Abernathy said.
Vermont pastor Jim Herod likes the positive influence N.C. Baptist teams have had on his own church, Washington Baptist Church in Washington, Vt.
"The partnership Vermont has had with North Carolina has just been an awesome thing. It has blessed us and inspired us, encouraged us and strengthened us," he said.
Herod is a Texas native who worked as church planter and pastor in Utah before coming to pastor in Washington four years ago. His church had become Southern Baptist during the 1970s.
One of the biggest influences has been missions, Herod said,
"One of our couples just returned from Iowa, where they helped clean up after the floods. Because (our members) were on the receiving end for so long, it has inspired them to do everything they can," Herod said.
Requests for partnership projects in 2009 are coming in. Contact Mark Abernathy at (800) 395-5102, ext. 5607 or [email protected].