CASTLETON, Vt. (BP) — Moving to New England had never crossed Branden Rogers’ mind when he returned to his Mississippi hometown as a pastor after attending seminary.
Then his brother moved to Burlington, Vt., for a short-term assignment as a nurse.
Shocked at the difficulty his brother had in finding a Bible-believing evangelical church, Rogers’ firsthand awareness of the lostness that exists outside the Bible Belt became a life-changing experience.
“God planted a seed in our hearts to come to New England and begin planting a church in New England,” Rogers said.
By any measure, the six states that comprise New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont) have some of the lowest percentages of religious believers — including Southern Baptists, evangelical Christians and people who adhere to any religion — in the United States.
While these statistics may seem discouraging, a surge in church planting is beginning to make a difference for individuals who are hearing the Gospel as well as for the Baptist Convention of New England. More than 115 of New England’s Southern Baptist churches have been planted since 2010 — a full one-third of the total Southern Baptist churches in the region — and many more planters are in the process of initiating church plants.
Unlikely church planters
Alex Vargas, a fulltime head custodian at a school, never intended to become a church planter. He already had his hands full in prison ministry and teaching Sunday School at Iglesia Bautista Emanuel in West Hartford, Conn. But when Vargas was approached by North American Mission Board church planting catalyst Greg Torres about leading a Bible study for Quechuan immigrants from Ecuador in the nearby town of Waterbury, he agreed to take on this additional role in 2011.
The group began meeting in a church basement and faced many initial challenges, including language differences (the Quechua are an indigenous people group who speak Spanish as a second language) as well as cultural differences (Vargas is originally from Puerto Rico) and religious context (most of the immigrants came from a nominal Catholic background).
Vargas went through highs and lows, particularly in the first year, but continued to believe that God works in people’s hearts “when you teach the Gospel … that Christ is the only one.”
Little by little, as Vargas communicated biblical truth, people either committed their lives to Christ or left the group. Before long, Iglesia Cristiana Bautista Jesus de Nazaret was organized, which now runs around 75 in Saturday evening church services, including about 20 children and 15 young adults.
“Patiently teach the Word,” Vargas noted, “and the Word will … bring us to the light of Christ.”
Buddha Rai, pastor of Grace United Church in Burlington, Vt., has seen the same principle at work. When Rai moved to New England from Nepal seven years ago, his family worshipped together at home because they didn’t know any Christian believers. But as they became more connected, God gave them a vision for reaching their community — starting at the airport.
After learning through word of mouth or through a relationship with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program when new immigrants were scheduled to arrive from Nepal, Rai and other believers began waiting at the airport to welcome them and provide help.
“We follow up with them and help them apply for citizenship and apply for different programs,” Rai said. “If they don’t have a ride, we help them with going to the hospital and shopping, things like that.”
Though many of the immigrants have been raised Hindu, the Nepalese Christians always make a point of telling them about Jesus’ love and inviting them to meet for Bible study.
“When we invite them, they come and they listen,” Rai said.
Now that Grace United Church has grown to a membership of about 125, more of their outreach takes place at church-sponsored cultural events and through individuals sharing the Gospel at work and through relationships in the community. And God is using this approach; last year, 29 people — mostly adults — were baptized as Grace United Church has become Burlington’s third-largest evangelical church.
“In the beginning we had a few people, but now we are growing up,” Rai said. “We really believe that God is helping us to multiply, to [see people saved] who were not saved before.”
Rogers also has seen the importance of relationships in sharing the Gospel, particularly in New England. After moving to Castleton, Vt., as a North American Mission Board church planter in May 2014, Rogers and his wife Hanna connected with members of Foundation Church, a two-year-old church plant in a nearby town, to organize a Backyard Bible Club as one of their early initiatives. Thirteen children attended the first sessions.
“We would meet the adults in the parking lot, and the adults wouldn’t even come inside,” Rogers recounted. “We had workers ready to meet the children … so other leaders would stay outside and talk to them.”
After some time, Rogers saw parents starting to warm up and become more receptive. As relationships developed, more people were willing to attend weekly Bible studies. Faith for Life Church began holding official services in October 2014 and has grown to a steady congregation of 40 in less than two years, baptizing 10 people last year alone. Meeting in a rented classroom at Castleton University, the church also has found connection opportunities among collegians.
“I really believe that what God has done is all through relational disciple-making,” said Rogers, who encourages church members to invest in the lives of people around them to look for opportunities for conversations about God and about church.
New believers often are especially enthusiastic, such as one of Hanna’s friends, a hairdresser who sometimes persuades people to attend church by offering them a free haircut.
“It’s amazing how many people have come … just because of this lady,” Rogers said. “We’re definitely seeing the effects of one inviting one … that’s the refreshed vision God has given me this year — each disciple making a disciple, at least one.”
Vision & cooperation
The church that Vargas leads, Iglesia Cristiana Bautista Jesus de Nazaret, has a vision of reaching out to 50,000-plus Spanish-speakers in and around Waterbury. Additionally this summer, Vargas said their plans include feeding and ministering to the homeless and eventually having a Spanish-to-English translator because they “don’t want to segregate to just one language.”
A desire to reach local communities, a common thread in most church plants, is making a difference across New England. Churches planted since 2010 baptized more than 700 people last year alone — nearly 40 percent of the total for the Baptist Convention of New England — with most being adult converts. Church plants, in fact, are a large part of the reason the BCNE has had record baptisms three years in a row.
But this kind of work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Last year Iglesia Cristiana Bautista Jesus de Nazaret baptized nine people — most of whom are adults now serving in leadership positions, giving Vargas an understanding of both the excitement and the challenge of leading a church almost completely composed of new believers. That’s one of the reasons he led the church into cooperation with the New England convention and the local Baptist association.
“Explaining to the church what the BCNE and WCBA [Western Connecticut Baptist Association] do for us — the coaching, the training, the materials … it took a little bit to understand, but they agreed,” Vargas said.
Being an active part of the denomination allows churches that may be new, small or rural to access resources and participate in leadership training that they would not be able to afford on their own. In addition, by giving through the Cooperative Program channel of missions support, every church has the opportunity to broaden their reach in local, national and international outreach.
Rai was not familiar with Southern Baptists or the Baptist Convention of New England until he met Dan Pokhrel, a NAMB church planting catalyst who connected with Grace United Church and shared the BCNE vision of multiplying Christ-followers through partnering, equipping and encouraging.
Believing that “it’s good to join and have relationships with other churches,” Rai led Grace United Church into cooperation with the BCNE and Cooperative Program giving.
“We love giving things to people, and here in this case we thought that it is really beneficial to give…. If every church gives a few dollars, then together it will be more,” Rai said. “We believe that a small investment in the Kingdom of God will multiply.”
And that investment is multiplying. In total, about four out of five new churches contribute to the Cooperative Program, providing more than 25 percent of BCNE Cooperative Program giving.
Faith for Life is one of these churches. Whether in Mississippi or now in Vermont, Rogers has always led his churches in Cooperative Program giving.
“I’ve seen the Cooperative Program at work, and I believe we can accomplish more together than individually trying to do missions. We’ll be more effective,” Rogers said.
Just as he was able to move to Vermont to start Faith for Life Church with Cooperative Program assistance, Rogers likewise hopes to invest in other church plants.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to give back because I am a NAMB church planter. I feel a sense of responsibility to help the next guy coming behind me,” Rogers said.
For Vargas, who received a one-time NAMB church planting grant, “Hopefully in time we’ll be able to do the same — plant churches in other places,” he said. “God is so good. He guides us where we have to go.”