(I wrote this article yesterday for Baptist Press. I thought my blog readers might be interested in reading it as well.)
I arrived in Vermont on a snowy afternoon in November 1993. I had left a church of over 900 members to become the pastor of a small mission church in a Vermont village of less than 1000 residents.
I had never lived in a rural setting nor did I know much about being a missionary. The church I served had less than 40 people on Sunday mornings and few of the other evangelical churches I encountered in nearby towns had many more than that. I found myself immersed in a completely different culture, but over the years I have grown to love my adopted state and am now so immersed in its culture and people that it is hard to think about living anywhere else.
Our little state has seen significant changes in the past 15 years. We finally have a Wal-Mart -- actually, we have four, spread strategically across the state. And though we are still a very rural state, cell phone service touches most areas, and cable TV has brought the “world” to Vermont.
The size of the evangelical Christian community is still small, but growing rapidly. I like to call it the "quiet revival." The Green Mountain Baptist Association, which is the Southern Baptist affiliate in Vermont, reports that it has grown from 17 churches to 37 churches in the past eight years alone. Records indicate that in 1999 less than 600 people worshipped in a Vermont Southern Baptist church on a typical Sunday. In 2008 that number had grown to nearly 1900.
Vermont was the last state to have a Southern Baptist presence, with the first church started in 1963. It took a long time for the fledging movement to take hold in Vermont, but now it is one of the fastest growing evangelical groups in the state. The Evangelical Free, the Assemblies of God, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance are also experiencing growth. One Christian and Missionary Alliance church in the Burlington area regularly has over 1,000 people in worship on Sundays. While that may be normal in other parts of the country, it is unheard of in Vermont, which was recently dubbed the “least religious state in America” in a January 2009 Gallup Poll.
Regrettably, even with all this growth in the evangelical church, that same Gallup poll revealed that 58 percent of Vermonters still don’t think of religion as being very important in their lives. That affects their decisions and the lifestyle choices they make. Nine years ago Vermont was the first state to allow same-sex civil unions. Though evangelical Christians opposed it loudly, they were unable to stop the liberal political machine from steam rolling over their objections. Then, on Tuesday, our legislators passed a bill legalizing "gay marriage." (The bill takes effect Sept. 1.)
There are times when those of us who are leaders in the evangelical Christian community become discouraged with the smallness of our numbers and the way that the mainstream liberal media marginalizes our efforts. But then we are reminded that the battle is not fought in the courtrooms or in the state House, but in the hearts of men and women who are in need of Jesus. I have personally witnessed the spiritual transformation of several homosexuals who are now living free from that emotional addiction. They were drawn to one of our Southern Baptist churches because the people in that church showed concern for them. Though that congregation did not agree with the homosexual lifestyle, it did agree that everyone needs a chance to be transformed through faith in Christ.
Through building relationships, Christians in that church were able to share the Gospel with their homosexual friends one on one. The result was a conversion from sin and a transformation away from an unhealthy lifestyle. For these former homosexuals, the spiritual war has been won, and the victory belongs to the Lord.
Few people outside Vermont have any idea of how the church is growing in our small state. Even many Vermonters don’t realize just how rapid the growth of evangelicalism is escalating. At only 1.8 percent of population, evangelicals may indeed lose a few more battles before our numbers are enough that people begin to notice. But in the end, we’ll win the spiritual war for the hearts and souls of our friends and neighbors, for we offer to them the only Hope that can change their lives.