The Needed Revival of the Northeast
I remember my installation service in October of 2017. James Thomasson, my pastor, mentor, and friend for the last seven years before my call to Legacy Church, gave my commissioning. In it, he said, "You will have sleepless nights, because of what the people in your church are dealing with, with what is going on in the church in general, and because God will give you a heart more like his as you shepherd his people." Every word of that has been confirmed, and then some. Being called to revitalization is a challenge, one that my close friend, former podcast partner, and brother Erik Maloy points out to me that he sees God has called me to and given me a mind to strategize with and for. So here I am, losing sleep as I see the current state of the Church in New England as we enter into the second month of 2022. It is hard to believe that the data I will go over has not been updated since 2019 because of the worldwide pandemic, but those are the latest numbers we have, and they are very telling for us to look at them. For those of you who do not understand that there are essentially three types of churches in Christendom, let me give you a brief primer.
Three Types of Churches
First, we have established churches. These are healthy churches that are doing the work of the Kingdom. They send people into the mission field, locally, nationally, and internationally. They may be planting churches, supporting missionaries, and doing local missions themselves. The churches may even be multisite, multi-service, or both, which may be the start. These churches have a history, and they continue to adapt to the times if they are healthy and sound. In parts of the country, they are willing and most likely send people to churches in need to help them get their footing back. Much like we see Paul sending men like Timothy, Titus, and Apollos to churches needing help. Many of these churches have their own buildings, and they are fully paid for, so what comes in for tithes and offerings goes into the ministry, and they tithe towards ministries and other needs in their hearts.
Second, we have Church Plants, and these are missions unto themselves. These churches are started where the church planter/missionary sees a need or lack of a Gospel witness in the area and creates a new work. These churches are highly attractional for the unchurched. They are not meeting in a traditional church building but usually meet in school gyms, hotel conference rooms, and movie theaters just for a start. Eventually, they may be in a storefront, industrial space, or even an old church building. They attract on various levels, and some are designed that, others it's a chance for people to be at ground zero and get a feel for what the Church must have been like at the start of the New Testament. They usually have a closer fellowship as they do church together, and the small groups feel authentic, raw, and honest. They learn to trust and rely on one another, among several other reasons.
Lastly, there is the revitalization and replants. The definitions are all over the place, but the short is this. These churches have been or are on a steep decline in membership have not learned to adapt to the times. Many are stuck in the past, unlike the other two examples. They lack things that the other two types have and they want to desperately get back, and many do not understand why they lack those things. People have left for one of the two types we've described, and people quickly blame other churches for their issues. They became more of a country club than an actual missional place of worship. Revitalizations, in my definition, are churches that make the conscious determination to change the status quo and pull out of the decline by adjusting for the times to be a healthy church back in love with Christ and on his mission. Replants is a hybrid of a church plant and revitalization in that the dying church realizes that they waited too long and all their efforts to change course were too late. Rather than close the doors forever, they gift the property and remaining finances to a church plant that merges with the church, and the new entity builds on the legacy while making a new one. It should be noted that 80% of the churches in the United States are in this place. Many are at the plateau stage, meaning they are not growing anymore, but people are leaving or not willing to change. Thom Rainer points out that many churches reach the "Death Spiral" and cannot pull themselves out and die. It’s suggested that every five years a church assesses itself, smart churches do this on a yearly basis.
The Current State of the Northeast
The last data we have is from 2019 was telling of what the Church is like, or the general landscape. Eight of the least churched regions were from the Northeast, seven from New England alone. That means that churches need to stop fighting and seeing one another as competition and as see each other as partners in the Kingdom. Looking at the data, it is no wonder why the North American Missions Board and networks like Acts 29, the Association of Related Churches, and several others see the Northeast as a mission field. There's about one church for every 58,000 people compared to the south, where it is 1/2300—adding pressure to pastors in all three types of churches in the Northeast to reach the lost. For the healthy ones, it's where they can start looking to plant a new church. In Gaining By Losing, JD Greear says that a strategy is sending people, even your biggest givers at times because they live closer to a church plant or, in recent times, a replant. The church trusts God to care for his children for their selfless sacrifice.
New England is what I will concentrate on as I am a born and bred New Englander, a true Bostonian, and I understand what organizations see that are quirks and traits here that are good and bad for churches. New England is always seen as being ten years behind the rest of the country when it comes to churches. So, we are experiencing here that Southerners would say it is 2012 and not 2022 considering churches. Churches in New England are dying as fast as the rest of the country; 400 churches a week close forever in America. Add to that, about half the church plants in New England will not exist in five years because of the rocky ground here. I look at my home church; half the plants started in the last several years are now closed or have been absorbed into other churches. My former podcast partner Erik Maloy recently made the hard decision to close a nearly 400-year-old church and give its building and assets to a healthy church plant. Let's not forget that the pandemic has played a massive part in this, but we are still not like in the south. Let me explain.
In 2020, a mentor of mine, Mark Clifton, took over a church with three people left and asked his home church to give him people to help replant it. The church two years later has extensively remodeled the building and grounds, and they are nearly 100 people now. The 2020 Replant Summit was held at a church with a similar story. But what ties these all together is the churches were willing to depart with people to help spread the Gospel. We do not see that in New England. Last year we had a family with ties to the North American Missions Board, and the father's question to me was, "Why don't you just ask your sister churches to send you people?" It should be a no-brainer, but here in New England, everyone looks at each other through the lens of competition sadly, and not as co-laborers in the mission and ministry of God.
Some churches see a dying church as saying it should just close; others see an opportunity for a new campus and grow their church's name, not caring for the people inside and what is going on in their hearts and minds. Many pastors think you need to change this, do that, and make this a priority without knowing the context of where the church is and what roadblocks they are facing. Many pastors like Erik are burnt out from working bi-vocationally, knowing that the church needs a full-time pastor and not trying to split time three ways for work, church, and family. 1 in 10 pastors will finish their lives in ministry, and the remaining nine will leave it and never return. That says a lot, and it is one thing that I wrestle with as the son and grandson of pastors. So, what can we do?
Revitalization Needs Revival
It may seem cliché, but I am serious. The Great Awakening happened after people spent years praying for revival to happen, so why are we not doing this? It's time to put up or shut up, I hear pastors talking a good game of wanting revival, but I do not listen to them praying for it. I do not see churches holding a night of prayer as we do at Legacy Church, where we come to pray for it, for the church, community, region, state, and country. I don't say that to toot our own horn, and I say that as a challenge to you pastors reading this. Don't cry that the world is going to hell in a handbasket when you are not on your knees with your people praying for God to pour out his Spirit on your church, town, and region. Set the example and talk a good game; let us see you do battle on your knees in prayer.
Churches have gotten way from a time of prayer in their services, causing issues with discipleship and making disciples of the members. Churches need to refocus this in their services and during the week. Prayer is an essential part of our spiritual armor, meaning that we are opening up a weakness in our defense against the enemy without it. So, if we know that the area needs revival, why are we not praying for it? Why are we not inviting the Spirit to do what he has the power to do? Do we believe that he is God, or are we not convinced? Prayer is something we are told to do, and like a muscle, we need to flex it and stretch it and have it challenge us as we grow.
So, my challenge is this, pray. Pastor, person reading this, you need to begin to pray for revival. Not for my sake, but for the sake of the church that you go to, that you love, that you call home. Without it, it is open to the attack of the enemy. As my elder pointed out to me recently, my struggles trying to piece all these things together and feeling the immense weight of a teacher of the Word to a region, I was getting down, tired. I beat up because the enemy began to make me question my ministry and see our shortcomings as a failure. He was backed up by Erik and a few others who helped me; how? Praying with me right then and there to protect me. While I know that there is no perfect church, only the Perfect One we serve, my heart is not just for this church He has called me to, but the region. Legacy Church is in a rural town, but the towns that touch Sutton total about 105,000 people in the population. If the numbers are correct, about 2% of the people are Evangelical Christians, which means only 2,100 know the Lord, and 102,900 are going to hell.
My heart breaks for that, and I want God to use us here to plant churches and replant churches in this area. So, we have begun to pray as leaders in the church for revival and the critical regions we need help in to grow, and God to send us planters and replanters for this region and younger people, families, and lives to be changed for and with the Gospel. So join me in praying for revival in this area and partly because it seems like a monumental task, but our God is so much bigger and willing to pour himself out if we humble ourselves and pray for it.