This past week was my first time in New England. I’ve never been north of DC, but on a spring break missions trip with the college ministry at my church I got to run around in Maine and Massachusetts working with two different church plants. First off, New England is beautiful. I keep joking with people that I don’t want them to visit Maine so that I can vacation there without it being overrun with tourists. Seriously it’s just a great place to be and get away from the fast pace of normal life. Additionally, as someone going into vocational ministry, this was a very valuable week getting to experience different churches at different stages of their establishment, but I think the lessons learned during my brief time in these places are valuable to any Christian trying to live out their faith.
The South, really the Bible-belt in general, holds onto the construct of cultural “Christianity” as a moral determinant. In Texas, it’s still weird if you don’t go to church and it’s rude if you tell somebody you don’t want to talk to them. This leads people to live with a mask. They go to church because that is the social norm for a Sunday morning. They fake politeness to avoid the judgement of others. They say they’re Christian because “everybody’s Christian,” it’s weird not to be, even if they don’t believe it or don’t know what that means.
In the Northeast, the culture is largely post-Christian. Religion is not gone, but people have settled for a vague spirituality, and honestly from talking to them, they don’t really know what they believe. Agnosticism is the dominant religion of New England. It is actually ok to be Christian there, for the most part they are not aggressively anti-Christian, the culture is just “live and let live.” Because there is no pressure to act like a Christian, people don’t put on a religious show there. Nobody is claiming to be Christian if they’re not because it’s not an expectation. In general, people in the Northeast tell you like it is. They are frank, and honest, and it is actually refreshing to not have to dig for the truth. At the same time, they do not respond well to inauthenticity, and will gladly blow you off if they see you are not being genuine.
Honestly, I wish people in the South were more like the people in the Northeast. One of the biggest lessons to be taken away from this trip is that authenticity is key in effective relational ministry. I think one of the biggest problems in the American church today is that cultural “Christianity” makes it easy for people to pretend to be Christian, but not actually know Jesus. It is the same problem that Jesus had with the pharisees in his time, people being religious for the sake of religiosity, but not actually knowing God, and if Matthew 7 is any indication, that doesn’t really work out well for those people.
Every Christian is a missionary in their own context.
This week was just a great reminder that the great commission applies to all who are under Christ, and that call is not always overseas, but is over all of life. The pastors we worked with this week are part of the communities they are missionaries in. They are passionately pursuing the salvation of the people in their own town and neighborhood. Beverly, Massachusetts, where we were working with Netcast Church, gave us the statistic that 2.5-3% of people in their area were evangelical Christian. Less than three percent of people there know Jesus as Lord, that’s less than some African countries and it is inside the U.S. borders.
We are so convinced we live in a “Christian” culture that we forget that there are people around us that may have never heard the Gospel. Some people are called overseas to be on mission for Christ, but everyone who is in Christ is called to be a missionary where God has them. Stepping outside of our Bible-belt bubble for a few days cleared the fog to the fact that even in the south, where there’s a church on every corner, people are lost and in need of the Savior.
Be led by the Spirit.
Both of the pastors we worked with told us stories of how they ended up as church planters, and though they were very different and ended up in different places, what they had common was the call of the Holy Spirit. Josh Phillips, the pastor of Pauper’s Chapel Church in Portland, Maine, told us the amazing story of how he and his wife felt the call to move to Maine and sold their business and everything they had with no direction but to go. He was not a pastor and doesn’t even have a college degree, but God chose him to plant a church and to do the work of reconciling people to Himself. God is moving through his church in powerful ways as a result of their obedience, and it was really cool to see their family’s faith through the hardship of the past 5 years planting in one of the darkest parts of the country.
The stories of these men reminded me of two refreshing truths: the Holy Spirit is still moving, and the Holy Spirit is moving through us, His people. In the South where the “Christian” culture still dominates the way people interact, it can be harder to see where God is moving because there is a large number of people pretending to be Christian for the sake of fitting in. In Maine, where vague spirituality and practical agnosticism dominate the culture, the Gospel moves powerfully to fill the void, and the Holy Spirit can be seen moving clearly and in power. What we as Christians forget is that we have that Holy Spirit living inside of us. We have the power of the living God in us to use us for His glory, and when we submit ourselves to His will, he moves.
Engage in your context.
Another lesson we learned at both church plants was the importance of engaging in your context as a Christian. This is much easier to see in a church plant because they are still trying to establish themselves, so if they do not engage, the church dies. One thing we often miss as Christians in the South is the urgency of the Gospel message. Because going to church is a cultural thing in the South, and Christianity has an established name in society, there is no sense of urgency for people to be on mission here. In our minds everybody already goes to church, or is already Christian, but that’s not how it is in the North. These two church plants both have to be constantly working towards establishing themselves in the community and building good relations with the people there, or the mission could be lost altogether. This was the primary function our group served outside of just learning.
While in Portland, we split our group in half and each spent 5 hours in a laundromat just paying for people’s laundry and talking to them. If we did that in Texas, people wouldn’t think twice about it, churches do stuff like that all the time, nobody would be shocked. In Portland, people didn’t know how to respond. Josh, the pastor there, said it this way: “Because there’s no Gospel there, people don’t have any concept for unconditional love, so random acts of kindness blow their minds.” I didn’t realize how true this was until we got there. People were confused as to why we would just do something for them out of kindness. Several people thought we were trying to work an angle. One woman tried to donate to us. There was a guy who just stared at me with a flabbergasted look thanking me repeatedly because he just did not understand. Several good conversations happened, the gospel was shared to receptive ears, and one man even showed up to the church that night. Because people there do not know what Christians are like, we got to give them a glimpse of the unconditional love of Jesus and help Pauper’s Chapel build their reputation with the community there.
In Beverly, we had a few opportunities to do the same sort of thing. One day while we had a couple of hours free, we went to the mall and just had conversations with people. We learned about them, what they believe, and about the culture of Massachusetts. Another day we had two people in our group dress up as the easter bunny, and we went into the community doing random acts of kindness and handing out easter eggs with free meal coupons inside. The bunnies wore Netcast shirts, and it even made the city newspaper. After being “generous bunnies,” we went and served at a YMCA camp helping rake leaves and doing whatever manual labor they need done (and getting ticks, less fun). Though this kind of service didn’t see anyone saved, it did help to build the church’s relationship with the YMCA and the director of that camp. In the Boston area, the YMCA is still a very established social part of the community, and so having that relationship helps them to reach the community more effectively. In addition, the camp director emailed one of the pastors after we left, raving about us, and that has opened the door to better reach him for the gospel in addition to conversations that happened while we were there.
The lesson to be learned here is that this work is not limited to any one location. The advancement of God’s work though relationships and engaging with people is something that we can do in our every day lives. We just need to be reminded to look up from our cell phone screens, and see the people around us as souls to be won for the kingdom.
Get to know people, don’t just learn about them.
This was a lesson that Matt Chewning at Netcast taught us in the few hours we spent with him, and I expect it to be something that affects my relationships and the way I interact with people for the rest of my life.
When I talk to people I ask questions. It keeps the conversation going and in my experience people just like to talk about themselves, but in an exercise where I was essentially set up on a date with one of the girls in our group with commentary from Matt, the way I get to know people was blown up and I realized that my approach is surface level at best most of the time. I was shown that my questions are always searching for facts about people, but most of the time I’m avoiding the questions that really get to the heart and show who people are. By listening to the answers to the fact questions, and asking about affects on people instead of effects, Matt showed me that to really know someone, you have to go past facts about them, and learn about their heart, how they feel, how they think, how they react to things and people. Things got weird, and emotional, and a little uncomfortable for everyone involved, but in the end I knew the person I was talking to more than I know some people I’ve known for years.
The goal of this exercise was to learn three things: what people believe, why they believe it, and how those beliefs have affected or changed them. Through normal conversation, we learned that these things can come out with out awkward or inauthentic probing, but simply through getting to know somebody. The catch is that this technique requires actually caring enough to get to know people. I loved this lesson because I have long believed that relational ministry is the best way to show people the gospel, but without getting to people’s hearts and really knowing them, it is difficult to speak truth into their lives. Learning the real difference between heart questions and fact questions is going to change the way I do ministry, as well as the way I do relationships in general.
Would you join me in praying for the people at both Pauper’s Chapel in Portland, Maine and Netcast in Beverly, Massachusetts. Pray that God would continue to do work through them and advance his kingdom to the unreached in the U.S. and around the world.
Check out their websites here: