CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Religion

March 20, 2013

Southern Baptists expand north with church plants

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Pastor Tom Cabral still tells people to meet him at “the bar,” even though it’s his church now. Locals best remember his worn building as a former sports bar where a 19-year-old once walked in and shot three suspected rival crack dealers.

Eight years later, the mirrored walls, parquet dance floor and bar remain. But the worst trouble may be found around the Sunday school table, where kids try to heed a handwritten list of rules including: “We will walk indoors, not run.”

Redemption Fellowship of Fall River is one of dozens of churches the Southern Baptist Convention has planted around New England in the last decade with a multi-million dollar push into territory skeptical of the South and increasingly indifferent to religion.

Cabral seems unfazed. He’s “indigenous,” he explains, a native of nearby Somerset. He’s so eager to share his faith that he regularly carries a wood cross asking, “Are You Ready?” to a traffic island in this southeastern Massachusetts city and evangelizes to anyone who rolls down their window.

“I really believe that God wants to change this city,” he said.

Since 2002, the Southern Baptists have spent roughly $5 million to plant churches around the region, and have another $800,000 committed for this year, said Jim Wideman, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, the Southern Baptist’s regional church-planting arm.

They’ve started 133 new churches in that time, a nearly 70 percent increase that brings their regional total to 325.

No denomination is investing as much in New England church planting, though Hartford Seminary professor Scott Thumma notes that attendance isn’t growing as fast as the number of churches.

Thumma said the roughly 30,500 members the denomination had in New England 2010 is a 20 percent increase from a decade ago, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. That growth is about the same as another religiously conservative group, the Assemblies of God, which hasn’t emphasized church planting.

Thumma said Southern Baptists are drawing immigrants and new residents, but there’s little proof they’ve reaching area lifers, including the large Roman Catholic population and increasing numbers of secularists.

“I don’t see a third Great Awakening happening at the moment,” Thumma said.

A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study last year found that since 2007, the Northeast had the largest percentage increase nationwide of people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Meanwhile, a 2012 Gallup poll indicates the six-state New England region hosts the country’s five least religious states (Connecticut is No. 11).

Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant group with about 16 million members, have been trying since the late 1950s to build a northern presence. But their vigorous, recent church-planting is part of a broader, denomination-wide emphasis at a time when overall membership is declining.

Wideman said research indicates that the unchurched are far more likely to be drawn to a new church than one that already exists. And multiple church plants in neighborhood-centric urban areas, though unlikely to draw huge numbers, aim to create enduring Southern Baptist communities, he said.

A similarity among the New England church plants is that none of their names include the words “Southern Baptist.”

Thumma said it’s a clear effort to avoid some of the stereotypes about Southerners, such as negative perceptions of their racial views or reputed “damn-us-all-to-hell” fundamentalism. It’s not malicious, he said, but “they’re church-planting by stealth.”

Wideman said they never deny they’re Southern Baptist, but if it’s a barrier to sharing the faith, why broadcast it? The Southern Baptist Convention itself has acknowledged this problem by approving an optional alternative name last summer: Great Commission Baptists.

The main concern, Wideman said, is that Northerners will see the churches as excluding them. And he has a question for Southern friends who complain about the tactic: “How well do you think First Yankee Baptist Church would go over in Alabama?”

With a thick North Carolina accent, Lyandon Warren can’t hide his roots. But in seven years planting churches in West Pawlet and Poultney, Vt., he finds showing a commitment to the local community is more important.

Many New Englanders have zero familiarity with the Bible, so you can’t just throw open the doors of a new church and expect people to come in, he said. Instead, his group reached out with novel approaches like offering water and a diaper-changing station at a town-wide tag sale. In Norwich, Conn., Pastor Shaun Pillay’s group volunteers for various tasks, from filling sand bags to snow shoveling. It creates a foothold and trust in the community, if not converts, he said.   

“They say, ‘We like what you do, but we don’t like your God,”’ Pillay said.

Persistence is critical, said Pillay and Warren, who emphasize showing up at the same place, at the same times, with the same Christian message, like Cabral with his cross at the Fall River intersection.

Cabral’s consistency paid off with Angelique Vargas, who was so drunk she didn’t remember the first three times she met her future pastor. But on a sober day, the 39-year-old was surprised when a stranger called her by name as she crossed the street. She listened to his message, Vargas said, “for the simple fact that he remembered me on my darkest day.”

On a recent February afternoon, horns honked and a middle finger flew as Cabral walked the traffic island. Drivers also kept engaging him, trying to answer the question on his cross, which he’d explain meant, “Are you ready to face God when you die?” Cabral would share how he knew that he was, then hand out a card with a gospel message and his church’s address.

“God bless you!” he’d call as the light changed. “I want you to go to heaven!”

Cabral’s church has 35 members, barely enough to cast a decent shadow in the annex of larger Southern Baptist churches.  But Cabral says he’s not going anywhere. He says he wants to love people, give them a chance to let God change them and see how this church plant goes.

“It’s like growing a garden,” he said. “You’ve got to plant the seed, you’ve got to water it and you’ve got to be faithful.”

 

1
Text Only
Religion
  • SH blessing of throats.jpg Sacred Heart holds Blessing of the Throats

    Members of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Cullman took part in the annual ancient tradition of the Blessing of Throats recently following the morning masses.

    February 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • SH Boy Scout Troop 321.jpg Sacred Heart's Boy Scout Troop honored

    Members of Boy Scout Troop 321 from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church were honored during Mass on Scout Sunday recently in Cullman. The troop has been supported by the Church since it's inception in the early 1950s and takes part

    February 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Methodists in crisis over gay marriage, church law

    The dispute among United Methodists over recognition of same-sex couples has lapsed into a doctrinal donnybrook, pitting clergy who are presiding at gay weddings in defiance of church law against proponents of traditional marriage who are trying to stop them.

    February 6, 2014

  • St. B. March for Life.jpg St. Bernard students attend March for Life

    St. Bernard students joined with the Diocese of Birmingham and 400,000 other pro-life supporters in Washington DC for the annual March for Life during the last week of January, capturing the attention of media mongrel CNN.
     

    February 5, 2014 1 Photo

  • computer.jpg Pope sees Internet as 'gift from God'

    Mark Pope Francis down as an Internet optimist. He declared his unambiguous support for the Web as a tool that brings humanity closer together in a papal statement Thursday.

    January 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • White Jesus The race of Jesus: Unknown, yet powerful

    For two thousand years, he has been worshipped and adored. Multitudes look to him each day. And yet nobody really knows the face of Jesus.

    December 27, 2013 1 Photo

  • SH Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration.jpg Sacred Heart Church's Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration

    Hispanic members of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Cullman enter church dressed in ceremonial garments of their native homeland and carrying mosaics of their patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

    December 18, 2013 1 Photo

  • SH Christmas program.jpg Huntsville Collegium Musicum Christmas Program at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church

    Eight members of The Huntsville Collegium Musicum presented an acapella concert at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church recently featuring a musical depiction of the Christmas story. Using music dating back to 1420, the program featured works by Cristobal Morales, Jean Mouton, Gustav Holst and Johann Walther as well as the words of American poet Joshua Smith from the eighteenth century.   

    December 18, 2013 1 Photo

  • OCC shoeboxes.jpg Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Ministry

    Another record has been broken by local contributors of gift filled shoeboxes to the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Ministry Project. The OCC Collection Center for Cullman County at Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church collected 6,352 shoeboxes, breaking the previous record of 5,335 shoeboxes collected last year.
     

    December 10, 2013 1 Photo

  • Christ Lutheran Church and its tornado cross.jpg Processional cross returned to Christ Lutheran Church

    When the tornado tore through Cullman April 27, 2011, one of the many buildings destroyed was Christ Lutheran Church. Stunned residents throughout the city came out of shelters moments after the tornado hit and were awed by the destruction.
     

    December 10, 2013 1 Photo