Back in 2009, Gallup published its most recent “State of the States” comparison, showing the most and least religious of the fifty states in the union. As a church planter, I have to confess that it did explain a little bit to see my adopted state of New Hampshire finishing high on the list—of the least religious states!
When asked if religion is an important part of their daily life, only 42 percent of Vermonters answered positively, which was the lowest percentage for any state. The Granite Staters of New Hampshire came in next with 46 percent. By comparison, our neighboring states of Maine and Massachusetts seem to be overwhelmed with religious affections, for there a full 48 percent of the population said that religion is important in their daily life. The four least religious states in America are all crowded into one corner of the country! What’s in the water in New England?
The problem, of course, is not so much with the water as it is with the soil—spiritual soil, to be more precise. In Matthew 13, Jesus speaks of different groups of people being either spiritually receptive or spiritually resistant to the ministry of the gospel, and so, with this parable in mind, preachers have lamented New England’s “rocky soil” during much of the region’s history.
However, whether a region has rocky soil or fertile soil or any other kind of soil, the Lord Jesus sends his messengers out to proclaim the good news and draws men and women and children into his covenant people, the church, whether from the human point of view that message seems to be “in season” or “out of season.”
This is why the OPC is committed to biblical church planting in all regions of the country, not just where it will be an easy task. As an OP home missionary in Dover, New Hampshire, I want to describe my experience of the Lord’s faithfulness in organizing a new Presbyterian congregation in a challenging part of the country.
The first challenge one faces in planting a Presbyterian church in New England is the region’s lack of familiarity with confessionally sound Protestant denominations such as the OPC. A large number of Protestant churches in New England were influenced by liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the wave of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Quebec has added a strong Catholic flavor to the whole region. Many people have no idea what Presbyterians believe and practice.
However, this situation also presents a wonderful opportunity for church planting. When the Lord raises up people for a new congregation, they often come without any preconceived notions about how a Presbyterian church ought to function. This lack of preconceived notions was certainly the case from the beginning of Pilgrim Presbyterian Church.
Dover is situated in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, just across the river from southern Maine. During the fall of 2005 the session of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church began to explore planting a church in Dover, New Hampshire. When a series of radio advertisements for a new Presbyterian church began airing, a half dozen families quickly expressed interest. After an initial interest meeting in the fall of 2005, Pastor Greg Reynolds began preaching each Sunday evening in a rental facility. Only a few had any prior relationship with Presbyterian churches. The rest of the group knew just enough about Reformed theology to be very interested and very teachable. After many months of Pastor Reynolds’s preaching the session asked other Orthodox Presbyterian ministers such as Allen Tomlinson and Stephen Migotsky to help with pulpit supply. Then in May 2007 the presbytery approved the call for me to come and serve as the organizing pastor.
Thanks to God’s blessing and kindness, I have had a very enjoyable four years serving as the organizing pastor at Pilgrim. With wonderful support from my overseeing session and the Presbytery of New York and New England (PNYNE), I simply began doing what pastors do. Over time, the Lord has been bringing both numerical and spiritual growth to the congregation. Sometimes we have seemed to have seasons of rapid growth.
We have also encountered seasons when families left for work or other reasons. Since 2007, we have experienced steady growth. Some wonderful families and individuals have shown a great deal of commitment. As the result of a growth spurt earlier this year, attendance is currently averaging in the high forties. Our first officer-training course has begun.
If I seem to be describing this as a “success story,” many readers may wonder if attendance in the forties is really all that encouraging! To such people, I would simply respond that such numbers are not necessarily a sign of failure in church planting—particularly in New England. Evangelical churches in this region often remain smaller than one hundred people. The largest evangelical “megachurches” are no bigger than our largest OP congregations!
It is worth noting that smaller congregations have their strengths. With fewer people, one is much more likely to have significant relationships with others in the congregation. This fellowship seems to be made even sweeter by the difficult spiritual climate of New England. One is less likely to have Christian neighbors or Christian coworkers. When we gather for worship, we are all conscious of our heavenly citizenship as God’s people.
At Pilgrim, this has contributed to a very friendly and energetic congregation of new Presbyterians. It may take a little longer for our congregation to be established or reach other benchmarks of growth and ministry to the community, but it is certainly a great blessing to be apart of such a warmhearted congregation with a high level of commitment and a gritty Yankee determination to see this church survive and even thrive over the long term.
Pilgrim began receiving financial support from the OPC’s Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension in May 2007. We have just concluded our full four years of denominational support. This support has been a key ingredient of our financial stability during the past several years, and we are very thankful to all of you who support CHMCE and make this possible.
We are still falling a bit short of being financially self-supporting. This highlights another important blessing for doing home missions work in a tough region like New England: flexible regional support. It is not unusual for the Presbytery of New York and New England to help with budget shortfalls even into the fifth year of a mission work. This has proven useful many times in the church-planting efforts of this presbytery.
The final blessing to describe after four years of labor in northern New England is that the Lord has been so faithful at every step to hear and answer the prayers of God’s people. In Dover, we know that our efforts to preach and teach, and to evangelize and reach out, will be in vain unless the Lord blesses them through the Holy Spirit’s work in people’s hearts. We have therefore had no choice but to pray and pray and keep on praying.
God has answered many prayers in our young congregation over these past four or five years, and he continues to do so because he is jealous for his own glory to be manifested through the preaching of the gospel of his sovereign grace—in Dover, in New Hampshire, in New England, and to the ends of the earth.