[Note: this is a cross-post from Church Matters, the 9Marks blog.]
Several hundred years ago, revival broke out in New England under the watchcare of America’s greatest pastor, Jonathan Edwards. 275 years later, it may be happening again.
From Downeast magazine, a secular publication covering life in Maine, comes this hugely unexpected news: Maine, one of the spiritually “darkest” states in New England (America’s least Christian region), is apparently experiencing a revival. Evangelical churches emphasizing biblical literacy and doctrinal solidarity are seeing up to 20% increased attendance in recent days. This, to say the least, is a shocker.
Here’s what Cynthia Anderson writes in “Sanctuary,” the article covering this seeming phenomenon (read the whole thing—it’s that encouraging):
The three Sunday services at Calvary Chapel regularly draw more than two thousand people. Turnout is similar ten miles away at Bangor Baptist Church, which has on its grounds two radio stations and the largest Christian school in the state. A few exits down Route 95 in Waterville, Faith Evangelical Free Church — originator of a popular YouTube series of skits based on the TV show The Office — also draws large crowds. Indeed, attendance at the state’s evangelical churches has swelled in recent years as mainline denominations have continued to struggle. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 37 percent of those Mainers who identify as Protestant now consider themselves evangelical.
The numbers, say religious experts and church leaders, suggest a surge of interest in Bible-based Christianity, particularly north of Portland. “It appears that there’s some sort of revival going on in central Maine,” says Ves Sheely, district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Church in New England. Sheely, who travels the state as he makes the rounds of the association’s sixty member churches, has observed new churches opening and attendance at existing ones rising. “I see an increased openness to spiritual life, here more than in other parts of New England. I see evidence of a new interest in Jesus.”
Others concur. “There is a trend of people going back to church here, especially to the more literally Bible-based churches,” says Jerry Mick, pastor of Bangor Baptist, where the nine hundred-person average weekly attendance reflects a 20 percent increase in two years. In the Bangor area alone there are more than forty churches, close to half of which are evangelical — including Nazarene, Baptist, Assembly of God, and non-denominational. Such religiosity is all the more notable given that the Pew study showed only 59 percent of Mainers are “absolutely certain” God exists, compared with 65 percent of those in the Northeast and 71 percent nationally.
The article, as one can see, doesn’t given a ton of hard data. There’s a good amount of anecdotal evidence referenced here. Furthermore, we all know that Christians have historically had a tendency to claim revival—and church growth—where it may or may not actually have happened. If the testimony recorded here does reflect reality, however, this is a most unexpected and welcome development.
Can I give you a little context here? I’m from Maine. Real Maine—the deep country. I am from a church that averaged between 30 and 70 people in attendance each week during my childhood. Precious few people were saved during my time at First Baptist Church of East Machias. This despite the faithful preaching of the gospel, the sacrificial evangelistic efforts of church members, and devoted members committed to imaging the gospel. I knew of no revivals; my high school had perhaps 3-5 Christian students total.
When I went to college, I went to a vibrant church in Brunswick, Maine of between 200-300 members. I thought it was a megachurch (seriously). The congregation sponsored a radio ministry, had an education wing and pastor’s offices, and more. I could barely believe my eyes.
Why do I share this? Because, in my limited experience, revival in Maine—no, revival in New England—is almost unheard of. Though far from Maine now, I keep tabs on my beloved home state, and I know that now, just as always, many churches fight for their very existence. Many pastors work bivocationally. Asbury’s circuit-riding has not died out; I know preachers who serve several tiny congregations that are the only gospel witnesses within miles. If this revival (and other renewal efforts discussed by folks like Soong-Chang Rah) is indeed happening, and it seems it is, this is some of the most encouraging spiritual news I have ever heard regarding my home state and home region. Ever.
I’m sure that many readers will lack a direct connection to Maine; whatever the case, would you join me in prayer for this development (and for other regions of our country and world)? It may well be another confirmation that even in the darkest of times (a recent cover story by Newsweek showed that North American Christianity is indeed struggling in many cases), God has not forgotten His people. As He has so often shown His church throughout the ages, He is faithful, He is strong to save, and His gospel of the kingdom is pushing back the thickest darkness through a mixed group of churches and faithful believers.
In the land of Edwards, it seems, revival has come again.
To begin learning more about New England Christians:
New England Center for Expository Preaching (note the May 2010 pastor’s conference featuring Mark Dever)