These are the best of times for Christians in New England. The body of Christ in the northeastern United States is seeking unity, pursuing mission, enjoying growth, and tasting the goodness of God. No one person or institution has planned this work. No single church or theological camp can claim credit for it. But you will find throughout much of New England today thriving college ministries, fledgling church plants, and revitalized colonial-era congregations renewed in their zeal to love their neighbors and spread the gospel.
I don't mean to underestimate the ongoing challenges. In fact, I heard an interesting argument while returning to the airport on Sunday morning following a wonderful week in New England meeting with students and faculty at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and rejoicing over an anointed TGC New England Regional Conference in Boston. On the radio in my cab, a gay host explained how any religion that does not tolerate homosexuality must be crushed. There is no room in democracy, he explained, for such intolerance: gay rights and biblical Christianity cannot co-exist in America, let alone liberal New England. He told believers something we already know: Christians will continue to face a stark choice. We can capitulate on biblical teaching or incur the wrath of society's self-appointed arbiters of tolerance. Many have already chosen the path of least resistance.
[caption id="attachment_27432" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Collin Hansen moderates a panel on our cultural idols and the gospel with David Wells, John Piper, and Richard Lints."][/caption]
Even so, these are the best of times in New England---after all, there has never been a golden era free of temptation to love self more than God and neighbor. Revival experts might cite the Pilgrim landing or the First Great Awakening as more blessed times in New England's past. Yet we somehow forget that Unitarianism is no new fad in this part of the country. Jonathan Edwards might enjoy a resurgence today, but he was hardly beloved in Boston, a city even then torn between Old Light pastors like Charles Chauncy who denounced the revival and New Light allies like Thomas Prince who published testimonies to the outpouring of God's grace. We ignore in our nostalgic remembrance the self-serving ministers like James Davenport who brought shame on the revival by supposing his antics had been blessed by the Holy Spirit. Then as now, tares grow among the wheat.
Reputation and Revelation
These are the best of times in New England because we wrongly suppose that Christianity depends on the comfort of a moral majority who live out biblical values even if they don't quite grasp the biblical gospel. We give thanks for such common grace, but we dare not invest outward appearance with salvific significance. A book like Revelation comes alive in New England, where Christians often feel the palpable hostility toward God and brazen disregard for his Word. Christians in New England must be prepared that their reputation with family, neighbors, and co-workers may not survive revelation of their faith.
During the New England Regional Conference, TGC president Don Carson spoke with passion about genuine faith that can endure any hardship for the glory of God. He observed that there have been more conversions in the last 150 years than the combined 1,800 years prior. The same goes for the number of martyrs. Both figures will grow till the end. Christians in New England know better than many others in the United States this blessing of laying down their pride and picking up their crosses to follow Jesus wherever he leads, whether in the conservative small towns of New Hampshire or the liberal halls of academia in Boston. Commenting on Revelation 12:11, Carson said, "We triumph over Satan by the blood of the Lamb, the testimony of the gospel, and our willingness to die."
[caption id="attachment_27436" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Stephen Um speaks about gospel-shaped community."][/caption]
These are the best of times in New England because God has raised up local church leaders who love their communities, who have committed to staying over the long haul as they trust Christ to change hearts and redeem souls. They understand the challenges. The have endured hardship. They have been tempted to hunker down but defied Satan to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to their neighbors and encourage fellow believers to do likewise. One such leader is Stephen Um, senior minister of CityLife Presbyterian Church in Boston and leader of The Gospel Coalition New England Regional Chapter. He and his team, especially Justin Ruddy, organized the Regional Conference with the aim of uniting Christians across denominations, equipping believers to stand fast and tell the truth of Jesus, and inspiring them to love their neighbors as themselves. All of us who worked together to organize the event stood together at the Back Bay Events Center and marveled at the faith-stirring sound of nearly 1,300 voices singing praises to the King of kings.
Um could have speaking of the particular challenges in New England when he told the conference, "God puts us into situations that show us we cannot rely on anything else but God who raises the dead." Not cutting-edge ministry methods. Not the memory of a Christian past. Not the social benefits of church attendance. Only the power of the Holy Spirit, the promise of union with Christ, and the persevering love of our heavenly Father can be credited for what we're seeing in New England today.
Writing in 1950, a couple months following an unexpectedly massive turnout to hear Billy Graham preach on Boston Common, the renowned Park Street Church pastor and evangelical statesman Harold John Ockenga observed,
God is moving as he has not moved in America at least for four decades and as he has no moved in New England for two centuries. . . . You do not have to wait till next year. You don't have to wait ten years. You don't have to pray anymore, "Lord, send a revival." The revival is here!
Only God knows if these best of times in New England will develop along the lines of earlier revivals in the region. Our days need not look just like those days to reflect a powerful work of God. Local Christians will be appropriately reticent to claim too much for fear of drawing undue attention on themselves and away from the God whose grace keeps the church in good times and bad. But now is a time for giving thanks. To God be the glory, great things he has done!
"The hardened heart of Boston was at least chipped at this past weekend," wrote Jessica Kent, a student at Emerson College in Boston who attended the conference, "and only God knows if this is really the beginning of a long-awaited thaw."
Photos by Scotland Huber
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of of Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists, and co-author with John Woodbridge of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He earned an MDiv at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and an undergraduate degree in journalism and history from Northwestern University. He previously worked as an associate editor for Christianity Today magazine, co-edited Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, and co-edits the Cultural Renewal series with Tim Keller. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter.