The Challenges in Church Replanting in New England
New England is now the least-churched, least-reached area of the United States, making it America’s most needy mission field. Yet missional church planters are not flocking here. There are likely some good reasons for that.
And I am loathe to ascribe it to lack of interest, necessarily, because every week I receive emails from men who feel called to minister in New England. Most of these do not believe they are called or gifted to plant churches. (I sympathize, because I am neither called nor gifted to be a church planter either.) So they ask about existing churches needing pastors. Are there churches here in need of pastors?
Yes. There are many dying or dwindling churches, and some just plateaued congregations dawdling around, that are in desperate need of gospel-centered shepherding. My church, for instance, has commissioned 4 of our men to provide pulpit supply for a growing number of churches in our area who are without a preacher. One of our guys was recently asked by two churches in the same town to be their regular preacher each week. And whenever I bring up the need for church planting in New England, I will hear from a few cautioning corners that the “real” need in New England is for pastors to take over existing churches. Just last week at the T4G Conference I received a message from a guy who was told by one of the exhibitors there that New England doesn’t need church planting, but pastors to take over pastorless churches. “Is this true?” he asked me. Well, no. We need both.
This is not an either/or situation. As in all areas of mission, we need the restoration/reinvigoration of existing communities of faith and we need fresh plantings of new communities of faith.
But while not a church planter myself, and while strongly in favor of pastors working in the revitalization of existing congregations, I nonetheless believe church planting may be more viable in New England right now for these reasons:
1. Many of the churches in need of pastors do not want an evangelical in their pulpit in the first place. I’ve seen this happen locally multiple times just in my 2 years here, and I have heard of this difficulty elsewhere. A friend of mine interviewing for churches in another New England state was very much liked for his preaching gifts, his personality, his experience, and his general presence. But he was ultimately rejected for holding to the exclusivity of Christ and the authority and infalliblity of the Scriptures.
It is just not as simple as saying, “Hey, there’s a bunch of churches who need pastors, why don’t you come to one of those?” The reality is that these bunches of churches don’t want the kinds of pastors who would be most likely to replant them in the gospel. Even if a pastor wanted to take one over, he would likely not be hired for his conservative beliefs.
2. Many of the churches in need of replanting would sooner die than change. The notion of replanting is predicated on a church that is eager for someone to lead it into the future of mission and gospel-centrality. But this idea is not only foreign to the theological liberalism and functionally social nature of churches here, it is foreign to the personality of New England, which for all its liberalism is a pretty traditional place. Churches don’t want to change. They want to keep doing what they’re doing but see different results.
Churches are married til death do them part to buildings they can’t afford, to denominational affiliations they don’t understand, and ways of doing church that don’t resonate even with themselves anymore. It’s just the way we’ve always done it, don’t-cha-know? And we are very suspicious of outsiders saying they have a better way. Consequently, it is often easier — which doesn’t mean better, of course — to start a new movement with a community of eager disciples than it is to gain traction in an historic congregation of 10 or 12 old-timers who won’t budge and whose vision is of the past, not the future.
3. Most of the churches in need of being replanted cannot afford to hire a pastor, nor are they able to assist him in the work of ministry. We are not talking about even mid-sized congregations. We are not talking about churches with ample resources just waiting for a great pastor to send in his resume so they can hire him. We are talking about churches that are small even by New England standards — and almost all churches in New England are small by the standards of the “Six Flags Over Jesus” Bible Belt south. They don’t have any money. They cannot pay to move your family here or bring you on full time. You will have to get a job, maybe even a full time job. One guy I know was sent by the North American Mission Board, and he’s having good success revitalizing a church near here in rural Vermont, but he still works on a dairy farm every day. And even if one of these dying/dwindling churches could afford to pay you, they would not have the people resources to come alongside your leadership in cultivating community, discipleship training, evangelism, and the like. You’d have to do it largely alone or recruit a team.
So in that sense, replanting here ends up a lot like planting from scratch. I tell any guy interested in coming to replant an existing church — at least, if he’s coming to my state and other areas in New England like it — that he will likely have to do the work of a church planter in raising financial support and recruiting a team to join him. But most guys who prefer to take over an existing church are not particularly adept at those things. (I know I’m not.)
This is not an effort to dissuade anyone. New England needs both planters and pastors who would like to assume the pastorates of existing congregations. And the ground is available for both. We just have to be honest about the opportunities and about the work involved in both. And keep in mind that there are always exceptional cultures within the ruling culture. Opportunities vary from state to state, and even within states, from rural to urban. So I am broad-brushing here, but I don’t think in an unhelpful way.
I am still committed to helping pastors find churches open to replanting toward gospel-centrality, or even solid evangelical churches already “there” who just need a new pastor. But hopefully the above points explain the emphasis many of us have on church planting.