Although I moved in early 2015 to the Midwest, I left a big piece of my heart back in New England, the least-churched region of the nation, which, interestingly enough for a guy born and raised in the Bible Belt of the South, was the first place I really felt “at home.” I still hear regularly from folks interested in the future of church planting, revitalization, and gospel ministry in the New England states. Some have history with the region, some don’t. (I did not when I moved up to Vermont a little more than six years ago.) The following ten items are meant to help those praying and planning adjust their expectations in one respect or another.
Of course, some of these “realities” will seem as they if they go without saying to many, and none will be any surprise to native or long-time New Englanders. But I do think being advised against any ill-conceived preconception could be helpful to many. So, in no particular order:
1. There Is Really No One New England Culture
A lot of us are talking about “New England culture” in broad-brush terms—and I’m going to do some of that in this very post—but while there are some traits that tend to characterize the people of the region generally, there is really no one specifically definable “New England culture.” Coming from the South, I have a pet peeve when people talk about a “Southern accent.” There’s no such thing as a “Southern accent.” Do you mean a Georgian accent? Tennessean? East Texas? And so on. In the same way, the six states of New England host distinct state cultures and even distinct subcultures within states. There are urban New Englanders (think Boston, Massachusetts, or Portland, Maine) and there are rural New Englanders. Mainers and Vermonters are a lot alike, but there are also some significant differences.
Even within the state I lived, the culture of my church town—rural population of 700—is much different from the culture of metro Burlington up north—more urban, roughly 200,000. So it behooves missioners to New England to learn about specific areas of ministry, distinct regions, and prepare not for “New England” but for whatever specific area they may be moving to.
2. New Englanders Are Not Rude
Okay, well, some are. But no more than they are in the South or the Rust Belt or Pacific Northwest or whatever. When I was preparing to move to Vermont, I met with someone in Tennessee who was going to prepare me for life in the great Northeast. “The people up there are rude,” he said. “But they’re honest.” Well, the last part was true. I have found the first part vastly overstated. What many mistake for rudeness is usually simply quietness, introversion, or privacy. New Englanders—and here I’m broad-brushing, because I have to—are not an effusive people. They are not an extroverted culture like, for instance, “Southerners.” But they are not rude. They may be “hard” in many ways. But they are typically hard-working, own-business-minding, live-and-let-live people. And they are straight-shooters and (typically) suspicious of outsiders. But they are friendly in conversation, especially when out and about in rural areas, and willing to help anybody any time for any reason. The phrase you might best use to characterize the typical New Englander is summed up in that handy colloquialism “salt of the earth.”
3. New Englanders May Be Godless, But They Aren’t Unhappy or ‘Immoral’
This is a mistake evangelicals make in thinking through evangelism in almost every place, not just the Northeast. We assume that lost people feel lost. That they walk around with a God-shaped hole, sensing something missing, dealing with a vague sense of unfulfillment that the gospel is the answer for. But while this is sometimes true, it isn’t mostly true—not in my experience, anyway—and it is certainly not true in the Northeast where you’d most expect it to be the case.
If New England is the least religious, least churched region in the nation, you’d expect it to be the least happy, wouldn’t you? Well, you can rethink your assumptions. New England states regularly rank near the top of “happiest states” surveys, as well as in “healthiest states” surveys. There are a lot of miserable lost people here, sure, but in general, people without Christ are doing pretty well for themselves and don’t sense anything missing in their lives. And most of them are good—as I said, “salt of the earth”—people. The “Godless heathens” in my neck of the woods were kind and polite and pleasant, and they homeschooled their kids and didn’t let them watch television, and they pursued justification by recycling and solar energy, and they looked after their neighbors, and so on. If you’re thinking Christian mission is essentially about behavior modification, you need to think differently.
4. New Englanders Are Not Averse to Spiritual Conversations
There are many throughout New England who are hostile to Christian theology or Christianity, mostly because they equate it with being non-intellectual or with right-wing politics. Just read some of the comments on New England online newspaper stories about churches or church planting. But one to one, relationally, New Englanders generally speaking are not hostile to having spiritual conversations. Many have a great affection for spirituality, even if they are not religious or churchgoers themselves. On a cultural level, you may feel hostility to the presence of churches or “Christians,” but relationally, you will likely discover that folks will be interested in knowing more about your theology. And of course you will invariably discover that most have never heard the gospel and assume the message of Christianity is “be good.”
5. New Englanders Are Not Turned Off By Tradition
Generally speaking, the natives and long-timers in the region do not have the same hang-ups about “traditional church” as many in the Bible Belt do. They may not be interested in attending your church, but it’s probably not because you’re in a traditional building with a steeple and what-not. In fact, they probably like that about your building. But their hangup about church has nothing to do with architecture. And should they ever actually darken your church door, you will probably find that many expect it to be somewhat traditional in atmosphere and music, and so on. Most will not care. Most don’t know any different.
Of course, this is another truism that may differ area to area. In more urban areas, a more modern atmosphere may make more sense. But in many other places, the locals have such an affection for the history of their place, they have an admiration and affection for the religious spaces, even if they don’t participate in them any more. A friend of mine planted a church in a rural area of Vermont a while back and hosted their worship gathering in a variety of spaces from town buildings to a local bar. When they finally moved into an abandoned church building, they saw more unbelievers show up. Why? Some said it was because they weren’t sure what the church was before. They thought maybe it was a cult. Somehow being in the church building let them know it was a church. New Englanders have hangups about religion, but your traditional church building probably isn’t one of them. Similarly, having a “rockin’ band” is less important here. In fact, having one may seem like trying too hard, appearing too produced, showing off. On that note:
6. New Englanders Like Authentic Authenticity
It’s weird to qualify it that way, but in many church strategies, authenticity is produced. It is seen as a “style.” Which of course makes it inauthentic. But real authenticity just is. New Englanders, generally speaking, see through production really easily. This does not mean they like cruddy stuff. It just means they value realness—in a worship service, for instance—more than a tightly scheduled, expertly conducted production. Showing up in town with what looks like a show will likely be a huge turn-off. These are some of the starkest differences between church ministry in the Northeast and church ministry in the Bible Belt. And again, there are places where this is more or less true, but New Englanders tend to value simplicity and authenticity.
7. New Englanders Are Already ‘Doing Community’
In many places, churches establish small group programs of some kind to facilitate community experience among Christians. In most of those places, the program is meant to actually create the desire for community that the program is meant to satisfy. This is why most churches struggle with small group programs. The program cannot create the desire; it is only meant to channel it. Kinda like the trellis and the vine. When I moved to Vermont I wondered about community group programming for our church, but I quickly realized I didn’t need a program to make the locals do “life on life” with each other. Because they were already doing that! They were already up in each other’s business on a nearly daily basis. Christians with Christians, Christians with non-Christians, and so on.
This is another truism that may be less or more true place to place in the region, but in rural areas and smaller towns especially, you will discover that the value of community already exists. The shaping of suburbia with its values of comfort, convenience, and control hasn’t taken place. (Of course, self-interest is still a problem, but it manifests itself differently.) So many church planters will need to understand that the value of community doesn’t need to be invented, but more spiritually shaped.
8. New Englanders Are Not Averse to Sermons
Again, we are speaking generally here. But from the urban areas where the personality may be more “intellectual” to the rural areas where the personality may be more “traditional,” if people do come to your church, they will not be automatically turned off by the sermon element. I know dialogue is in fashion in many missional movements, and the sermon is seen as an outdated mode of information relay, part of the bygone days of Christendom, but this is not a view to hold too tightly in planning for mission in New England. Now, people may be turned off by the content of your sermon; but they won’t often be turned off by the presence of a sermon itself. (And this is also setting aside bad preaching from good preaching. I’m speaking only about preaching as a mode of discourse.) You will likely find that many don’t mind the genre of sermon and in fact expect it.
And in plenty of areas, good preaching—compelling in content and excellent in delivery—will be fairly attractive to even outsiders who are invited or otherwise get wind of it, even though you will have been told by many that the “old way” of doing church doesn’t work any more.
9. Mission in New England Costs More and Takes Longer
It’s hard soil and an expensive one. This is an important point especially related to fundraising outside of New England for fundraising in New England. I attended a speaking appearance by Tim Keller in Nashville, Tennessee, a few years ago where the pastor host of the event was remembering being on the board that helped send Keller to Manhattan, lo, those years ago. He said one person spoke up in objection at one point, saying essentially, “I could plant ten churches in Birmingham, Alabama, for the cost of this one church in Manhattan,” to which this pastor said, “We don’t need ten more churches in Birmingham; we need one in Manhattan.”
Now, of course, Birmingham and every other town needs more gospel-centered churches, but his point was that mission should not be thought of in terms of “bang for your buck.” Manhattan isn’t in New England, but the financial realities are similar. My friend Stephen Um once said he reminds outsider funding soures that church planting in New England takes twice as long and costs twice as much. Those planning to bring gospel ministry for the long term, who plan to invest and put down roots—which is the only way to do mission here—need to prepare for this reality. You don’t just hang up a sign, send out a postcard, and throw a band on stage. You die.
10. Native Christians in New England May be More Hostile to Mission Than Unbelievers
This may be the hardest truism to handle. You come expecting brotherhood, unity, kingdom-mindedness. You have dreams of cooperation and collaboration. You expect hostility from the lost. But not from brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, this a huge generality and is not necessarily typical in every place in the region. But you may discover, church planter, that much of your opposition in ministry comes not from the lost locals—who may not be interested at all, or who may consider your endeavor a curiosity, but who otherwise don’t care what you do—but from (1) the false converts of Christless churches who oppose conservative evangelicalism, (2) the bigoted congregants of liberal/progressive churches who oppose conservatism, the “neo-Reformed,” charismaticism, or whatever your brand of evangelicalism may be, or who just oppose something new and seemingly attractive in their old and crusty environment, or—most sadly—(3) other evangelical churches who feel threatened by the newness of your ministry or its appearance of success. Some of your own brothers and sisters may begin to give you cold shoulders or spread gossip because of a sense of “turf” or a fear of losing congregants. This is a hard reality. So stay humble, stay faithful, stay lowly and meek, and of course—don’t recruit from other churches.
In addition, if you go to lead a work of revitalization in an existing church that is dying or plateaued, many are the tales of chewed-up-and-spit-out pastors to serve as warnings to come with a thick skin and a resolute spirit.