“Why would I waste my Sunday doing that?” responded Jeannie. Her comment was in response to my invitation to attend a special worship service at our church. Even after years of ministry in New England, I was still taken back by the firmness of her conviction that attending church would be a waste of time.
Obviously, I know all the statistics about New England being the least religious region of the nation; I helped write some of those articles you find the statistics in. But I had known Jeannie for years. Several of her adult siblings had come to faith and were active in our church, so it is not like she wouldn’t know anyone. I had officiated at her father’s funeral and she had commented on how much she enjoyed hearing me speak, so I knew that wasn’t the issue. Her children were the same age as mine and had classes together and they have come to our youth group from time to time. Our church had served her family without asking for anything in return. If ever there was a person ripe to be invited to church, it was Jeannie. Yet, when the invitation came, she not only declined, but declined firmly and with conviction.
Such is the life of an evangelical pastor in New England!
Though not a native of New England, my wife and I moved here in our early 20s. I had graduated from seminary, served a short stint as a youth pastor in South Carolina, then heard of the great need for ministers in the northeast. My wife and I moved to a small village in Vermont, with one paved street and more cows than people. The church that called me as pastor had debated closing two weeks prior to voting to call me. Though we did not know it at the time, we were their last desperate attempt to keep the doors open. The 19 souls who gathered to worship with us that first Sunday included my family of 4. But God was gracious to us.
An older minister from a nearby town who served in a different denomination took me under his wing and helped me learn the importance of showing up at every town function and event. Often, it was just me and all the politicians shaking hands and kissing babies. But the politicians were asking for your vote; I was just there to get to know you. In time, community members started showing up at church for special days like Easter or Christmas. Another minister, one from the “big city” (population 20,000) 20 minutes away, gave me this advice: “Don’t just be the Baptist pastor, be the community pastor.”
So, when I heard that someone was sick, I’d call them on the phone, introduce myself, and offer to say a prayer with them over the phone. No one ever refused the prayer. When I would hear that someone in the community had surgery, I’d drop by their house with a cake or box of cookies and offer to say a prayer with them. Soon, people were stopping me at the post office or the country store or those community events I kept showing up to and inviting me to come by and pray with them. Even the town clerk, who was a staunch Catholic, would call me up and give me a list each week of people she thought needed a prayer. In time, community people started coming to church not just on Easter and Christmas, but on all the Sundays in between. Fifty-four adults gave their lives to Christ and were baptized during an eight-year period, and attendance at the church surged to 90 or more each week, the highest average attendance in the church’s 150-year history.
And yet Jeannie still thought it was a waste of her time. I wish I could give you a happy ending to the story. I moved away six years ago and haven’t seen Jeannie since then, but in the twenty years I lived near her in Vermont, I never found a way to help her embrace Christ. Her heart was too hard. And for every success story I can tell, I can share two or three hard case stories like Jeannie where people I poured my heart into just refused to acknowledge the role Christ should play in their lives.
Ministry in New England is both joyful and frustrating at the same time. It is one of the rockiest soils for church growth and church planting, but also a place where baptism rates (at least in the denomination I am part of, the Southern Baptist Convention) are skyrocketing. Clearly, God is at work, but so is the Enemy. The Enemy has held this ground for a long time, and he won’t give it up easily. Fortunately, he doesn’t get to decide who wins in the end. New England will be won to Christ one soul at a time, and though it can be hard and frustrating, it is also full of joy and excitement. Ministry in New England is frustratingly joyful, and worth every moment.