One fifth of all the people who live in the United States live in the northeastern states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. It is almost 1,000 miles from Nashville, Tennessee to New York City, and the distance from Dallas, Texas is over 1500 miles. Brethren in these nine states are out of sight as far as the heaviest concentration of New Testament Christians is concerned, and, as is often the case, when “out of sight, out of mind.”
According to “churchzip.com” (a website which lists acappella congregations) there are 33 congregations in New Jersey, 37 in New York, 52 in Pennsylvania, 23 in Connecticut, 7 in Rhode Island, 25 in Massachusetts, 10 in Vermont, 16 in New Hampshire and 16 in Maine. That’s a total of 219. The directory of Churches of Christ in the United States (2012 edition) states the total membership of these congregations is 25,921. The number of adherents: 34,122. Even if we make allowance for a margin of error these statistics are impressive.
There are spiritual misconceptions about the northeast. Some think the people who live there are not interested in Bible study; that the gospel will not find receptive hearts. Some think it is not a wise use of the Lord’s money to send preachers there. (It costs more to support preachers in the northeast than to Africa or India — more people can be brought to Christ overseas for every dollar spent.) Some have suggested liberal-thinking leaders represent the majority of preachers and elders. Others think the northeast is “too far away” for churches in the “Bible Belt” to send young people and adults to help in Vacation Bible School or other activities. Is this the way it really is?
After spending almost 30 years working with congregations in New England, I have learned that some of these concerns are valid. (It does cost more to support preachers in the Northeast than in Africa, and the growth of the church is slower than in other places.) I have also learned that other concerns are not valid. (Missionaries report there is more interest in Bible study now than there has been for years. Most of the preachers and elders I know are solidly committed to the teaching of Scripture and to the Restoration principle to “speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent.”)
What is Encouraging
A renewed concern for evangelism is being heard throughout northeastern congregations. One preacher in upstate New York said that whenever preachers get together, the topic soon turns to how churches can improve their effective outreach with the gospel in their communities. Several factors indicate this is the right time to renew an evangelistic focus..
For one thing, the predominate religion (Catholicism) has been shaken by scandal, changes in liturgy, and a general loss of confidence in “the Church” as they know it. Church attendance is down, church building are being closed and many former Catholics are searching for a religion that makes sense. Some have settled for being “spiritual” without being part of “organized religion.” Not a few are looking for a church that teaches only what the Bible teaches.
Preachers and elders of the Lord’s church are realizing they can no longer rely on members moving in from the Bible Belt to swell their numbers and provide their leadership. (High taxation of industry and property in several northeastern states is causing industries to move south where taxes are lower and property is less expensive.) At the present time the population flow is from the north to the south. All of this is having a significant impact on Churches of Christ. In order to survive, congregations need to convert people who make the northeast their home, whose “roots” are in the northeast and who plan to stay in the northeast most (if not all) of their lives. A preacher in New Jersey put it like this: “It is most encouraging that our last three baptisms are first-generation Christians. We are doing more than baptizing our own children. We are seeing outsiders touched by the simplicity of the gospel.”
The preacher in an urban congregation pointed out that the northeast is a melting pot for people from many nations and languages. His congregation, once almost entirely white, is now 40% African American, 20% Hispanic; 5% Asian; 35%Anglo. “The ‘whole world’ has come to us,” he says. Perhaps the largest Church of Christ in New York City is composed almost entirely of immigrants from Ghana. There are only two Portuguese-speaking Churches of Christ in the United States, one of which is in New Jersey. A number of Spanish-speaking, Chinese-speaking, Korean-speaking and French-speaking congregations now exist in the northeast. The largest congregation in Rhode Island is composed of Liberians.
It is true that some congregations are dwindling. However, others are intensifying their evangelistic outreach and growing. A congregation in Vermont which only a few years ago had little to be encouraged about, today is conducting home Bible studies, baptizing people into Christ and nearing completion of a new church building. It will be the first new or renovated church building in Vermont for Churches of Christ in the last 42 years! The church in Middletown (Orange County) New York plans to enter its new church building the last of this year or early in 2017. The church in White Plains, New York has met the stringent requirements of city planning and zoning, and completed its beautiful 10,000 square feet facilities. The church in New Milford, Connecticut is having a serious parking problem: the church no longer has room to accommodate the number of cars of people attending . It now shares the commercial parking next door. A preacher in a growing Rhode Island congregation which has just entered a new church facility, expressed it well: “We must remember the mission of Jesus Christ and His desire to see His church grow and become a glorious kingdom.” Evangelism is contagious. As the word spreads about the successful outreach of congregations like these, it will become an encouragement for other congregations to do the same.
A secular mind-set is characteristic of the northeast United States. One of the effective preachers who has spent over 25 years laboring in New York recently commented that presenting the gospel message must start with building faith in the existence of God and inspiration of the Bible. “Evangelism is a big challenge where skepticism and doubt are so prominent. We must start with basic reasons for faith in God,” he said.
Other challenges include the loss of numbers due to people moving south. One elder remarked: “For every person who moves into our area to place membership, we have had 3 or 4 move away.” Church budgets and church works are impacted when talented members move south to follow the jobs. This creates a drain on the leadership in terms of elders, deacons, Bible school teachers, and (according to one preacher’s wife) even the amount of food brought to church fellowship meals. In an economic recession families with children are the first to move elsewhere. Things, however, seem to be turning around for some of the harder hit states; Connecticut has announced its first gain in industry in more than a decade.
Biblical soundness is another concern. An elder in one of New England’s largest congregations says: “There is a constant need to fortify ourselves against some of the recent departures from the faith.” Some congregations have been influenced by the changes in worship and doctrine which are occurring in many parts of the country. Instrumental music has been introduced into a few congregations. Women have taken-on worship leadership roles in some places. Thank God, there are leaders who have the courage to stand firm for the truth. Faithful preachers and faithful congregations represent by far the majority of the brethren in the northeast.
When members travel an hour or more to attend worship services there can be a tendency to feel isolated from one’s Christian family. Having both a morning and evening services on the Lord’s day is not always practical in the mission field. It is heartening to know that congregations are putting forth greater effort to support area-wide fellowships, singings, seminars, etc. It takes deliberate effort and expense to maintain a sense of brotherhood.
Leadership turnover has long been a challenge to churches in the northeast. For the most part seasoned evangelists have neglected this area of the country, while young men fresh out of college or preacher training schools have been more willing to take on the challenges. Often this has resulted in churches losing their preachers after a year or two of ministry. As one preacher in Connecticut observed: “Churches where preachers have been there for a while are growing the most.”
What Christians in the Bible Belt Can Do
Without mission-minded churches in the Bible Belt most churches in the northeast would never have been planted and preachers would not have received adequate support to serve full-time. How can congregations help the churches in the northeast today?
First, there is a real need for faithful brethren to come for short periods of time to work and serve. A New England leader put it this way: “Churches in the Bible Belt can be a great help. Send us Christians who are mature (perhaps retired) to help in teaching and encouraging the members for a few months. Provide funds so churches can have resources they need for evangelism and edification.”
Second, establishing new congregations is a constant need. Several counties in New York state, for example, have no congregation of the Lord’s church. Some counties have large populations. All the factors indicate these areas are ripe for viable churches to be planted. What is needed is sound gospel preachers who see the need and congregations willing to send them. Other members of the church, young or old, (vocational missionaries) who secure jobs in the community and help with church plantings and existing churches which have suffered a loss of members would be a great boost to the Lord’s work. Retirees who spend 3 to 6 months a year with a local church, building up the members and teaching home Bible studies will make a real difference as well.
Third, Christian universities could perform a great service if career offices would contact industries in the northeast to find job openings for their graduates. This would help young people from the northeast return to their homes, and reverse the trend that is taking students out of the northeast to get an education, find a marriage partner and a career in the south then decide to settle there, depriving churches in the northeast of future leaders. Under the present circumstances, “Christian colleges are bleeding off our young people,” says a gospel preacher in New Hampshire. Christian universities can also encourage students to spend the summers as counselors at one of the Christian camps. Congregations can support the young people who make a commitment to be camp counselors. This will expose young people to the needs and opportunities of the northeast.
Finally, churches can “adopt” a congregation in the northeast, support its preacher and outreach efforts. Build a bond between your congregation and a congregation in the northeastern states. Send leaders to see for themselves what is happening, to spend quality time then return home to share the good news of what your “adopted” congregation is doing. And remember: each and everyone of us can pray that the word of the Lord will “spread ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 ESV).
The article above first appeared in the Gospel Advocate magazine, November, 2016