Church Plants Affecting Change Across New England
By Kimber Ross, BCNE Staff
Branden Rogers grew up in a small town in Mississippi – the heart of Southern Baptist country. After attending seminary, he returned to his hometown to serve as a pastor. New England had never crossed his mind – until his brother moved to Burlington, Vermont, for a short-term assignment as a travel nurse. Rogers and his family were shocked at the difficulty his brother had in finding a Bible-believing, evangelical church. Encountering the vast lostness that exists outside of the Bible Belt was a life-changing experience for Rogers.
“God planted a seed in our hearts to come back to New England and begin planting a church in New England,” Rogers said.
By any measure, the six states that comprise New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont) have some of the lowest percentages of religious believers – including Southern Baptists, evangelical Christians and people that adhere to any religion – in the United States. a
While these statistics may seem discouraging, a surge in church planting is beginning to make a difference in the lives of individuals, as well as the Baptist Convention of New England as a whole. More than 115 of New England’s Southern Baptist churches have been planted since 2010 – a full one-third of the total Southern Baptist churches in the region – and many more planters are in the process of organizing new church plants.
Church Plants in New England
Alex Vargas never intended to become a church planter. A full-time head custodian at a school who served in prison ministry and as a Sunday school teacher at Iglesia Bautista Emanuel in West Hartford, Connecticut, he already had his hands full. But when Vargas was approached by North American Mission Board church-planting catalyst Greg Torres in 2011 about leading a Bible study for Quechuan immigrants from Ecuador in the nearby town of Waterbury, he agreed to take on this additional role.
The group began meeting in a church basement and faced many initial challenges, including language differences (the Quechua are an indigenous people group that speak Spanish as a second language), cultural differences (Vargas is originally from Puerto Rico), and religious context (most of the immigrants came from a nominal Catholic background).
Vargas went through highs and lows, particularly in the first year, but he continued to believe that God works in people’s hearts “when you teach the Gospel … that Christ is the only one.”
Little by little, as Vargas communicated Biblical truth, people either left the group or committed their lives to Christ. After meeting for a while, the group organized itself into a church – Iglesia Cristiana Bautista Jesus de Nazaret – which now runs around 75 in Saturday evening church services, including about 20 children and 15 young adults.
“Patiently teach the Word, and the Word will … bring us to the light of Christ,” Vargas said.
Buddha Rai, pastor at Grace United Church of Winooski, Vermont, has seen the same principle at work. When he moved to New England from Nepal seven years ago, Rai’s family worshiped together at home because they didn’t know any Christian believers. But as they became more connected, God gave them a vision for reaching their community – starting at the airport.
After learning through word of mouth or through a relationship with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program that new immigrants were scheduled to arrive from Nepal, Rai and other believers began waiting at the airport to welcome them and provide a practical source of help.
“We follow up with them and help them apply for citizenship and apply for different programs. If they don’t have a ride, we help them with going to the hospital and shopping, things like that,” Rai said.
Though many of these immigrants have been raised Hindu, the Nepalese Christians always make a point of telling them about Jesus’ love and inviting them to meet for Bible study.
“When we invite them, they come, and they listen,” Rai said.
Now that the church has grown to a membership of about 125, more of their outreach takes place at church-sponsored cultural events and through individuals sharing the Gospel at work and through relationships in the community. And God is using this approach; last year, 29 people – mostly adults – were baptized.
“In the beginning we had a few people, but now we are growing up,” Rai said. “We really believe that God is helping us to multiply, to save other people who were not saved before.”
Rogers has also seen the importance of relationships in sharing the Gospel, particularly in New England. After moving to Castleton, Vermont, as a North American Mission Board church planter in May 2014, Rogers and his wife, Hanna, connected with members of Foundation Church – a two-year-old church plant in a nearby town – to organize a Backyard Bible Club as one of their early outreach projects. Thirteen children attended the first meetings.
“We would meet the adults in the parking lot, and the adults wouldn’t even come inside,” Rogers said. “We had workers ready to meet the children … so other leaders would stay outside and talk to them.”
After some time, Rogers saw parents starting to warm up and become more receptive. As relationships developed, more people were willing to attend weekly Bible studies. Faith for Life Church began having official services in October 2014 and has grown to a steady congregation of 40 in less than two years, baptizing ten people last year alone.
“I really believe that what God has done is all through relational discipleship making,” Rogers said. He encourages his church to invest in the lives of people around them while they look for opportunities to have conversations about God and about church.
New believers are often especially enthusiastic. One example is a friend of Hanna’s, a hairdresser, who sometimes persuades people to attend church by offering them a free haircut.
“It’s amazing how many people have come … just because of this lady,” Rogers said. “We’re definitely seeing the effects of one inviting one … that’s the refreshed vision God has given me this year – each disciple making a disciple, at least one.”
Vargas’s church also has a vision of reaching out to more than 50,000 local Spanish-speakers in and around Waterbury. Their summer plans include feeding and ministering to the homeless, and they hope to one day have a Spanish-to-English translator because they “don’t want to segregate to just one language.”
This desire to reach local communities, as well as an urgency to spread the Gospel, is a common thread in most church plants, and it is making a difference across New England. Churches planted since 2010 baptized more than 700 people last year alone – almost 40% of the BCNE total – with most of these being adult converts. In fact, church plants are a large part of the reason the BCNE has had record baptisms three years in a row.
But this kind of work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Last year Vargas’s church baptized nine people – most of whom are adults now serving in leadership positions in the church. Vargas understands both the excitement and the challenge of leading a church that is almost completely composed of new believers. That’s one of the reasons he recommended joining a local Southern Baptist association and convention.
“Explaining to the church what the BCNE and WCBA (Western Connecticut Baptist Association) do for us – the coaching, the training, the materials … it took a little bit to understand, but they agreed,” Vargas said.
Being an active part of the denomination allows Iglesia Cristiana Bautista Jesus de Nazaret – and other churches that may be new, small, or rural – to access resources and participate in leadership development training that they would not be able to afford on their own. In addition, by giving through the Cooperative Program, every church has the opportunity to expand their reach by helping further local, national and international mission work.
Rai was not familiar with Southern Baptists or the Baptist Convention of New England until he met Dan Pokhrel, a NAMB church-planting catalyst. Pokhrel connected with Grace United Church and shared the BCNE vision of multiplying Christ-followers through partnering, equipping and encouraging.
Believing that “it’s good to join and have relationships with other churches,” Rai led his church into BCNE membership and Cooperative Program giving.
“We love giving things to people, and here in this case, we thought that it is really beneficial to give … If every church gives a few dollars, then together it will be more,” Rai said. “We believe that a small investment in the Kingdom of God will multiply.”
And that investment is already multiplying. In total, about four out of five new churches contribute to the Cooperative Program, providing more than 25% of BCNE Cooperative Program giving.
Faith for Life is one of these churches. Whether in Mississippi or in Vermont, Rogers has always led his churches in Cooperative Program giving.
“I’ve seen the Cooperative Program at work, and I believe we can accomplish more together than individually trying to do missions. We’ll be more effective,” Rogers said.
Just as he was able to move to Vermont to start Faith for Life Church due to Cooperative Program funds, Rogers hopes to invest in other church plants through Cooperative Program giving.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to give back because I am a NAMB church planter. I feel a sense of responsibility to help the next guy coming behind me,” Rogers said.
Vargas, who received a one-time church-planting grant from NAMB, echoed these sentiments. “Hopefully in time we’ll be able to do the same – plant churches in other places,” Vargas said. “God is so good. He guides us where we have to go.”
a See the following links for some recent studies: http://www.gallup.com/poll/189038/new-hampshire-least-religious-state.aspx, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/how-religious-is-your-state, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study