BEYOND BOSTON: REACHING THE REST OF NEW ENGLAND WITH THE GOSPEL
You don’t have to be in New England long before you discover that the people of these fine states are very different from each other. Vermonters are not Mainers and are quick to tell you so, and Mainers are not the same as their Massachusetts ancestors. And all of the states are ready to tell you that they are not like Boston.
Such is the life in this fair region of the country, where six small, but significant states are found. These states carry the influence of national aspirations, economic well-being, and religious heritage on their shoulders. And as some have noted, “As New England goes, so goes the nation.”
We find ourselves here, seeking to plant churches with the Gospel, like John Chapman, known to most as “Johnny Appleseed,” planted orchards of trees years ago. Outside of Boston, New England sprawls into rich mountain land, gorgeous forests of colorful trees, and unique church-spired landscapes that define a region. Here, we plant the Gospel itself; here we plant hope found in Jesus Christ.
The North American Mission Board has loudly and visibly declared its commitment to planting churches in 32 prominent urban centers across North American, including Boston. These efforts are making a difference in reaching the cities with the Good News of Jesus. But NAMB has not abandoned the rest of the region. Rather, they have joined the Baptist Convention of New England in doing “whatever it takes” to impact all six states in rural, town and village, suburban, as well as urban areas. Here beyond Boston, they lean on us to take the lead, and to establish the practices and missional outposts that will demonstrate the love of Christ and His message of salvation. Here we apply ourselves to planting in ways that make a lasting difference in the fabric of New England.
What are the keys to such a strategy outside of the city? What makes the rest of New England unique?
Love/hate relationships. This starts with “the Hub of the Universe,” as Boston promotes itself. The remainder of New Englanders outside of Boston acknowledge the importance of Boston in their lives and to this region. Almost half of the sixteen million people in New England work in the metro Boston area, so it obviously impacts them economically. In addition, though, Boston impacts their lifestyle in how they spend their time and money, and attempts to add swagger through its attitude to influence their politics, their opinions, their norms and behaviors, as well. It is here that the “hate” side of the relationship comes to play; New Englanders don’t like to be told what to do or think…by anyone, including their “big brother,” Boston. Even though Boston may be right, the remainder of New England prefers to learn this on its own, rather than being told what how to act. This love/hate relationship extends to other things, too, including government, sports teams, economic engines (like WalMart or McDonald’s), and yes, even the church. Church planters have to be credible and patient to earn a hearing with the Gospel.
Urbane Mentality. Though most New Englanders live outside the city, the city still lives within them. They are urban thinkers, and often invade the urban world for entertainment and opportunity. They have chosen to live apart from Boston or other urban centers, where many lived in previous years, out of personal preference. Yet, they carry their mentality, fed by their education and years of city experience, with them. This affects perceptions, and presents sophistication and intellectualism not ordinary in small towns and country settings across America. Here it drives the ability of planters to connect with the residents who live in the places where they serve.
The More Local the Better. “Mom and Pop shops” rule the roost outside of the city. Why? Relationships, local relationships, that often span generations. This has a corollary in government, too. The town governments are more trusted than the state or the federal government. Local is trusted because it’s known, because it’s “us.” Big bureaucracies are met with suspicion and anger, since lives and livelihoods are at stake. Planters make inroads here by establishing autonomous local churches and reaching indigenous people to lead ministry efforts in the community.
Rugged Individualism. Perhaps only the wild west values the rugged individualism of humanity like New England. From his thoughts to his focused determination, the ideal of a New Englander thriving against the elements and against the odds has driven the people of this region for centuries. Translated it means this: they don’t like to be told what to do; they prefer to find their own way. The challenge motivates them, the success satisfies them. For planters this means harsh weather or adverse obstacles will be met as challenges, not as insurmountable barriers. New Englanders pride themselves on finding a way to make whatever is necessary to happen.
Beat of a Different Drummer. Because of the adversity our forefathers faced here in this region, they taught themselves to innovate. That meant being countercultural in the eyes of society, and even the world. Over time, they set the pace in many ways for our nation because they refused to conform and fit into the status quo. It shaped them into a frank and direct people who stay focused on the task at hand, regardless of public opinion or what others think about it. Church planters discover this out-of-the-box spirit, and the direct communication early in their experience with New Englanders. Unnerving at first, it becomes a welcome addition to the advancement of the Gospel through the efforts of the new church they establish.
“Summer people.” This term is used of many New Englanders for those not from here. It is a term that originally spoke to the large masses of tourists who came here in the short, idyllic summer months, but has grown to represent those who have different values and desires than New Englanders, and hope to impose them upon the locals. “Summer people” are tolerated with some distain (see love/hate relationships above). Over time—and it will take time—the local people will allow planters and a new church to influence their lives. However, this can take decades or even generations. Planters who are in it to stay will find success as they establish their lives here.
Finally, the value of perseverance is necessary in planting a church outside of the city. Every New Englander who has ever lived here knows that nothing comes easily or quickly in this region of the country. Crops take time to root in the soil, and the weather changes dramatically from season to season. The one who makes it here is the one who survives, who understands the rhythms of life, who perseveres through the difficulties that come. Relationships take time, too, but they are worth it, for eternity is at stake for precious people who need to know of Jesus’ great love for them. On farms and in town hall meetings, the people persevere to make decisions that affect their future. Planters will have to persevere in the same way to plant the Gospel, see it take root, and tend it well, for fruit to result.
Today we are having great success also in planting churches here in New England outside of the metropolitan city areas. Church planters in Maine and Vermont, along with other rural areas, are seeing many churches started and new disciples made as the Gospel is planted. It has taken decades of hard work, and diligent, determined commitment to the call of God, but many have responded. As Robert Frost, the New England poet once said, “What is required is sight and insight -- then you might add one more: excite.” God is giving us that excitement for what is happening in New England; could He be calling you to join us?
Dr. David Jackson is the BCNE's church planting director/strategist.