We often think of New England as one of the most unchurched (or de-churched) regions of the country. So you may be surprised to know that the number of churches in Boston actually doubled between the 1960s and the year 2000. Much of the increase is due to the growth of immigrant-focused evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Christianity Today covered Boston’s “quiet revival” in 2006, and one of the best scholarly analyses of the revival comes from Boston College historian Marilynn Johnson, in a 2014 Religion and American Culture article. Johnson explains:
Some of the earliest examples of evangelical cultivation of new immigrants occurred in the Chinese community. What would become New England’s largest Chinese Christian congregation, the Chinese Evangelical Church, was founded in 1961 by the Reverend James Tan, who arrived in Boston in the 1950s to serve at a Chinatown mission church established by mainline Protestant groups. Raised as a Presbyterian in South China, Tan had also been influenced by evangelicals and Pentecostals working in rural China. With his more popular evangelical style, he soon grew uncomfortable in the mission and founded his own church in 1961.
Baptists with the Union Rescue Mission helped the new congregation secure a worship space while leaders of the Park Street Church helped them write bylaws and navigate the legal incorporation process. As the church grew, its members raised funds to erect their own building on Harrison Avenue in 1979. Most of the early members were Cantonese-speaking laundry and restaurant workers; after 1980, however, it attracted a growing number of Mandarin-speaking migrants from the mainland and added Mandarin-language services in 1989.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Christian student groups at local universities were the seedbed for new churches serving more educated Asians. . .The Chinese Bible Church of Greater Boston had its roots in a Christian study group among predominantly Taiwanese students at MIT. . . .
While the area’s first Asian churches were opening their doors in the 1960s, an even more dramatic explosion of religious activity was taking place among Puerto Rican migrants. In the South End, Puerto Rican Pentecostals organized three new churches—Iglesia de Dios (Mission Board), Iglesia de Cristero Misionera, and Asamblea de Iglesias Cristianes. Along with Canaan Defensores de la Fe, founded in Roxbury in 1966, these churches became the foundations of a dynamic Latino Pentecostal movement in Boston.
The rapid proliferation of these churches followed the growing diaspora from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, islands where Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Church of God had strong followings. In some cases, church members called on their home churches to send preachers to Boston, who then sought out storefronts or older churches to house their ministries. . . .
Many of these churches were Pentecostal, but there were also numerous other denominational churches that shared sanctuaries with dwindling native-born congregations. This was especially true in Jamaica Plain, where older Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches became predominantly Latino in the 1970s and 1980s. St. Andrews United Methodist Church, for example, became a mixed Anglo-Latino congregation in the early 1970s and initiated a Spanish-language ministry, the first among New England Methodists. Another new denominational church was Leon de Juda, a Baptist congregation that began meeting at the Emmanuel Gospel Center in 1982. The church later renovated an empty factory building in lower Roxbury and has since become one of the largest Latino congregations in the city.
Other immigrant groups also began to build evangelical churches during these years. Although most early Haitian arrivals were French-speaking Catholics, the more diverse wave that followed included a growing number of Baptists and Pentecostals. Beginning in 1969, the First Haitian Baptist Church began as a Bible study group in Dorchester, led by a young seminary graduate, the Reverend Verdieu Laroche. In 1978, the church purchased the former Blue Hill Avenue synagogue (Adath Jeshurun), where it would flourish for the next thirty years. Several other pioneer congregations formed in the 1970s, but a veritable explosion of new Baptist and Pentecostal churches occurred in the late 1980s and 1990s to serve the new wave of Creole-speaking migrants. The number of Haitian Protestant congregations in Greater Boston thus increased from one in 1970 to more than fifty in 2000.
Arriving somewhat later, Brazilians and Africans also proved to be avid Protestant church builders. Beginning in the mid–1980s, Brazilians formed dozens of Pentecostal and Baptist churches, including the burgeoning World Revival Church, led by Pastor Ouriel de Jesus. De Jesus arrived in Somerville in 1985 to serve the Brazilian Assembly of God congregation there. Under his charismatic leadership, the church expanded quickly and spawned new congregations across the state, breaking with the Assemblies of God and reorganizing as the World Revival Church in 2002. Most Brazilian churches, though, were smaller congregations that proliferated in Brazilian strongholds such as Framingham, where dozens of Portuguese-language churches were operating by the early 2000s.
Finally, some of the most recent additions to the Protestant network have been African churches, among which Pentecostal groups such as the Apostolic and Nigerian Aladura churches are well represented. West African Christians have also been increasingly visible in mainline denominations such as the Anglicans and Baptists, often joining native-born whites and blacks in English-language ministries.
This spawning of new immigrant churches contributed to a doubling of the number of churches in the Boston-Cambridge area, from roughly three hundred to six hundred, between the late 1960s and 2000.
When it comes to evangelical church planting, more is generally better, as new churches are often better at community outreach and evangelism than older congregations. Immigrant-led congregations are typically better at reaching people in their ethnic and language group, too. Whether new or old, different churches and pastors are going to be better able to reach different groups of people, in any case. There’s no guaranteed formula in church planting and growth.
But as established denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention do their commendable work at evangelizing (or re-evangelizing) the Northeast, it is important to be mindful of the rapid growth of immigrant-led churches in places like Boston, as well. In many cases, the most effective strategy is to do what the historic Park Street Church did for the Chinese Evangelical Church above—help with resources where needed, but also be willing to get out of the way and let the new “locals” lead.
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