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In North America’s oldest city, efforts begin to share the Gospel

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland, Canada (BP)–Mark Puckett is working to establish a spiritual beachhead in North America’s oldest city.

St. John’s, Newfoundland, seasonally inhabited by European fishermen from 1497 until the arrival of permanent British settlers in the mid-1700s, has a longstanding religious heritage, said Puckett, a North American Mission Board Mission Service Corps missionary and church starting coordinator for the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists as well as pastor of King’s Way Christian Fellowship, 1,000 miles away in Montague, Prince Edward Island.

Today in Newfoundland, Puckett said, most people under 50 “have little interest in spiritual matters at all.”

Describing the Canadian province as “one of the darkest spiritual areas in North America,” Puckett said, “There is very little concept of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Those who consider themselves religious are primarily basing their faith on an institution and a works-based theology.”

With a population of 170,000 -– about one-third of Newfoundland’s total –- Puckett believes St. John’s, the province’s capital where there is no Southern Baptist church, is strategic in reaching the rest of the island with the Gospel.

Of particular strategic value is Memorial University in St. John’s, Puckett said, describing it as “the center of influence for the province.”

“Virtually every business person, teacher, leader and person of influence passes through that institution,” Puckett said. “With 17,000 students, there is great regional potential for the Gospel and also a great need for it.”

Assisting Puckett in reaching out to Newfoundland, 19 volunteers, including 13 students from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., traveled to St. John’s for several days last May, making more than 200 contacts and inquiries as they walked the streets of North America’s easternmost coastal city, praying, meeting residents, striking up conversations and learning the culture, attitudes and opinions of Newfoundlanders, from street people to police officers, tour guides and university students. Some of the volunteers also ventured out to small fishing villages.

“Following the example of the Apostle Paul in Acts 16:11-15, we were given the task to look for ‘Lydias,’ or persons of peace, who would be the initial people in the first churches,” said trip leader J.D. Payne, assistant professor of church planting at Southern Seminary. “Our time in Newfoundland was the first in a series of stages in a much larger CCSB strategy for planting churches in St. John’s in particular and across the province in general.”

Payne, who also directs Southern’s church planting center, said he was “amazed at the great need” spiritually in Newfoundland. “You think on this side of the world that [kind of need] doesn’t exist. But it just exists in a different mode. We’re looking at a post-Christian area [that is] extremely lost.

“Though the provincial motto is ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,’ and though scores of beautiful historic Anglican and Catholic church facilities dot the landscape, there is very little witness for Christ,” Payne said.

Team member Sam Dyer added, “I’ve never been to a place in my entire life that people didn’t know what Baptists are.”

In undertaking their scouting work, team members fanned out over the city. “Everywhere we went we were intentionally trying to engage people,” Dyer said.

They talked to hundreds of people, shared the Gospel and left many tracts, and gathered valuable cultural data for use in the CCSB church planting strategy.

After visiting in various parts of the city, team members were able to identify a handful of receptive people with whom they will continue communicating via e-mail over the next few months in hopes that they may be interested in a Bible study and possibly the first Southern Baptist church in the province.

“The prayerful expectation is that over time they will become more open to whatever takes place when the Canadian [Baptists] come in,” Payne said.

Overall, the team found many people there to be accepting, even eager, to hear the Gospel. But their reactions to church and the entrenched mainline Christianity of Newfoundland were more lukewarm.

“They have a history of the Gospel that has been there. But over the years, it has accommodated to the culture and has become sidetracked. And the generations that are living there now are very much exposed to a false Gospel, to a false understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ.”

Most of the people the team encountered were “so steeped in religion that they had no interest in a relationship with Jesus Christ,” Puckett said. “Older adults believe their Christianity is based on church membership and baptism, or a works-based faith. Younger generations had little interest in such matters and held a general perception that religion was little more than a code of rules.”

Payne hopes the door will remain open for future trips to Newfoundland -— possibly even next summer. Indeed, the team’s work in May was only the first step of many that will be needed to reach the province.

“If students are looking for a good opportunity to be a part of pioneer work in North America and history-making work in Southern Baptist life, this is it. It’s hard to find a more pioneer area than Newfoundland,” Payne said.

At week’s end, the team had developed a list of cultural values, as well as barriers to the Gospel, and even bridges for the Gospel in the greater St. John’s area. They also compiled a list of desired traits in prospective church planters and geographic areas of priority for future work.

Puckett said the first step, however, will be to “first raise awareness that a lost island needs a spiritual beachhead.”
The North American Mission Board is organizing an Oct. 3-7 tour of Newfoundland for churches, associations and state conventions interested in potential partnerships in the Canadian province. Contact Mark Puckett for more information, [email protected].

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