by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)
The Associated Press released a notable story on the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) efforts to plant churches in New England. The SBC has spent roughly $5.5 million to plant churches in the northeast United States since 2002 and have another $800,000 already invested for this year. The report quotes Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary to say that, in 2010, there were approximately 30,500 members New England. This is a 20% increase over the decade (a membership increase shared by the area’s Assemblies of God).
As a highly secular portion of the nation, New England is generally perceived as infertile soil for church planters thanks to a jaded non-believing populace. Indeed, Southern Baptist planters have dropped their usual moniker for the alternate label of “Great Commission Baptist” to avoid unnecessary cultural stigmas. Professor Thumma urged that Southern Baptists draw immigrants and new residents, but there is little indication of high success among natives, including the large Roman Catholic population. Nevertheless, as immigration continues throughout the United States, it seems the mission field is coming to New England whether “enlightened” secularists want it or not. Better times may yet await for evangelicals in America’s “least religious” region.
Liberal mainlines fail to exhibit such sacrificial attempts at growth in the once WASP-y New England hamlets. While the statistics for all the conferences were not available online, the United Church of Christ (UCC) does not seem to be performing well. The heirs of Congregationalism—a New England staple—the UCC mirrors the steep drops of their oldine compatriots in the available data. The Maine conference dropped from 23,982 members with 9,044 weekly attendants in 2001 to 18,858 members with 8,622 weekly attendants in 2011. Interestingly, the New Hampshire conference went from 27,836 members with an average 8,582 attendance to 21,482 members with an average 9,265 attendance. Average attendance in that conference seems to fluctuate quite drastically.
The 2012 New England Annual Conference for the United Methodist Church showed that membership stands at 93,658, down 2,209 from the previous year. Actual worship attendance is more revealing: 32,664, down 1,033 from the previous year.
The Episcopal Church’s 2011 numbers fir its New England dioceses seem slightly less anemic: 189,187 baptized members with a 56,316 average Sunday attendance (a 20 percent membership loss and 26.4% attendance drop over the decade).
In the coming decade, New England may be an area to watch for unexpected theological shifts. With the commitment of Southern Baptists and influx of immigrants, Christianity may once again bring light to the haunts of the Puritan forebears.