In my previous post, I mentioned that though many churches are struggling to grow due to not knowing how to relate to postmodernists in our current culture, there are many bright spots on the horizon that show that growth is possible even in a less than hospitable culture. In this post I will share one of those bright spots.
The Green Mountain Baptist Association is an evangelical mission organization ministering in Vermont and aﬃliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Founded in 1982, the association is dedicated to strengthening existing evangelical churches in Vermont and starting new Baptist churches in towns that are underserved spiritually. According to a December 2009 survey published in USA Today, Vermont is the least-religious state in America, with the lowest rate of church attendance in the nation. Despite these less-than-stellar religious statistics, from 2001 to 2010, the Green Mountain Baptist Association grew from seventeen churches to thirty-seven churches, and attendance at Sunday morning worship services grew from just under nine hundred to over two thousand. Though statistically Vermont’s Christian community is in decline, the Green Mountain Baptist Association is rapidly growing.
Other evangelical groups in Vermont are also experiencing signiﬁcant growth. The Essex Alliance Church, which is aﬃliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, has skyrocketed in attendance. Fifteen years ago, it had a modest congregation of less than two hundred. In 2010 it is the largest church in the state of Vermont, with over one thousand who attend worship on a typical Sunday. Jeﬀrey McDonald, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, observed, “As liberal congregations die in a secularizing region, conservative churches with roots outside New England are replacing them with a passionate brand of faith that emphasizes saving souls-even in a land where many think there’s nothing to be saved from.”
Some disagreement exists about why Vermont is statistically the least-churched state in America yet still has such rapid growth in its evangelical community. The prevailing view of many evangelical Christian leaders in Vermont is that a large number of people who have called themselves Christians in the past did so out of tradition or habit, but many of those people never truly had a personal commitment to following Christ in their daily lives. This does not mean they were atheists; it just means that their Christianity was more a vague concept or in some cases was more akin to membership in a social club than having a deep personal faith in God. While such a commitment to Christianity has some social merit, it has signiﬁcant spiritual weaknesses. The primary weakness with this less personal form of Christianity is that when it is tested, it will almost always collapse.
This anomaly between the oﬃcial statistics about Christianity in Vermont and the actual experience of evangelicals who minister in the state is proof that while some churches may be struggling, other churches are growing. If this is true in Vermont, it also may be true across the rest of the nation. Therefore, real Christianity may not be in as much trouble as cultural Christianity.
Churches that are not growing need to learn from those that are and then apply what they learn to their context. Churches should not just imitate what other churches are doing, but they should learn what is working and then adjust those ideas to fit their own context.
Adapted from Terry Dorsett’s book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.