New partnership targets New England's strategic centerby BSCNC Communications
BOSTON – On any given weekend, less than three percent of New England’s 14.3 million people will attend an evangelical church. About 97 out of every 100 New Englanders do not know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. The six New England states are all among the top eight least religious states in America; religious including both Catholic and Protestant churches.
North Carolina Baptists have committed to helping carry the gospel to an area that is mostly unchurched and unreached with the message of Christ. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s (BSCNC) partnership with the Baptist Convention of New England includes a specific focus on Boston and the interior of the I-495 loop around Boston.
This area is home to 4.5 million people, about 100 Southern Baptist churches and cities as large as 100,000 that have no gospel-preaching church.
Boston’s North Shore, which extends all the way up the I-95 corridor to the New Hampshire border, is also a focus area.
Joe Souza, church planter and North American Mission Board (NAMB) lead church planting catalyst for the Baptist Convention of New England, serves in the North Shore city of Saugus. He is praying that as new churches are started, they will become church planting churches.
“We need churches raising up churches from within and having native New Englanders plant churches. That’s ideal,” he said. “New England is a whole bunch of little towns clustered together. It has a community feel. People will not drive an hour to get to church. The churches that will thrive are those that reach that town; that attract people from the 2 ½ square mile radius from the church.”
Souza said church planters and leaders are learning how to better impact the city by learning from each other and from things in the past that did not work well. In 1998, the survival rate of church plants was 36 percent. Since 2008, the rate has been 100 percent.
Better assessment of potential church planters has helped with the survival rate. “It’s not the same deal planting a church here that it is wherever you are from. Some planters are coming here under the impression that you can buy land and build a building and the people will come. That has not worked here in recent years,” Souza said.
Support for planters is also improving. “A lot of the guys coming here were lone rangers. They were well intended, coming here with prayer support, but that was it. You have no idea how vital it is for planters to come here with a support network. It’s the encouragement and knowing someone has your back.”
Michael Sowers, senior consultant for the BSCNC Office of Great Commission Partnerships, is praying that North Carolina Baptists will consider adding Boston to their comprehensive missional strategy. “It is critical that church planters have partnering churches come alongside them in prayer and with resources. Churches have a great opportunity to be used by God to impact lostness by linking arms with a church planter,” he said.
Church planter Curtis Cook came to Cambridge in 2003 and started Hope Fellowship Church. Cook is also city coordinator for NAMB’s SEND Boston initiative.
Cook described Boston as a city of great influence, as one in four future world leaders work in Boston. More than 250,000 students attend the nearly 80 colleges and universities in greater Boston. Cook said Boston is known for being highly educated, secular and agnostic.
Since 2003, Cook and Hope Fellowship have helped start and support churches such as City on a Hill and Redemption Hill (read related article) and know the importance of partnership.
“We need North Carolina Baptists to participate in a way that serves the local church and leaves the strategy to the local church planter. Ask the planter what he needs,” Cook said.
Cook encouraged churches to take seriously praying for partner churches. “It’s not just praying for Boston; it’s knowing the planter by name and their real needs.”
Stephen McDonald and Mill City Church in Lowell is one example of a church where Cook and Hope Fellowship continue to invest. Mill City started in 2009, and 10 months ago McDonald moved to Lowell with his wife to become the full time pastor.
“I never thought church planting was something I’d be doing. I saw it as a trendy thing,” McDonald said.
But when God called McDonald faithfully obeyed, and he has seen God work through Mill City.
Lowell is not a town with people moving in and out; most are native to New England. “Our growth will be slower because we do not have as many believers, but the fruit and impact will be really substantial. Indigenous planters could come from places like Lowell,” McDonald said.
In New England, almost 90 percent of the Christian population receives Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior through established relationships with other believers. Church planters and ministry leaders have learned that for almost 70 percent of these new believers it took more than one year of faithful witnessing to result in a profession of faith in Christ.
“You have to earn their trust and willingness to hear you out. It’s being alert and looking for those opportunities,” McDonald said. Through community outreach and partnership with a local elementary school, where Mill City helps during parent-teacher events and other school events, McDonald and church members are building relationships.
“We have learned to have a desperation for the Spirit of God to work through us. You can’t manufacture things up here,” he said.
Tim Buehner, mission mobilization and ministry evangelism coordinator for the Baptist Convention of New England, never thought he’d end up in full time ministry, either. In the 1980s, Buehner moved to New England from Cleveland, Ohio, to “chase my dreams of becoming a graphic designer.”
He resisted several years after he knew God was calling him into ministry, but finally responded in faith and headed to seminary. Before coming to the Convention he served as a pastor and associate pastor.
“God changes journey paths at all sorts of ages and generations,” he said.
Since Buehner began serving in New England five years ago the number of churches has increased from 125 to more than 300.
“There’s something special going on in this place,” he said. “It is a dynamic place to come and serve.”
This is the second article in a series about the Baptist State Convention's partnership in Boston.