WATERTOWN, Mass. — It's hard to tell in the quiet of a color-splashed autumn morning, but Redeemer Fellowship Church is trying to set roots in a rough neighborhood. For churches, anyway.
Until this new church opened last month, its 19th-century Congregational church building in suburban Watertown was empty for nearly two years. Just across the street, a closed Baptist church is filled with condos. So is a former Catholic church a half mile away.
Dead churches are a familiar story in New England, which recent surveys indicate is now the least religious region in the country. But some see opportunity in a place where America's Christian faith laid its roots.
"You look at this area and it's a great area of potential, it's a great area of need," said Redeemer Fellowship pastor Chris Bass, a Houston native.
Several Christian denominations see New England as a "mission field" — a term often associated with unchurched, foreign lands. As they evangelize and work to plant new churches, they speak of possibility, but also frustration. The area's highly educated population is skeptical and often indifferent to their faith.
"About once every hour, I give up. It's tough, man," said a half-joking Joe Souza, a Southern Baptist missionary working north of Boston. "It's like, you found a cure for cancer and you want to give it away and nobody wants it."
Losing my religion
Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey released this year showed New England overtaking the Pacific Northwest as the least religious region in the country. Twenty-two percent of respondents here said they have no religious faith of any kind, highest in the country.
In a Gallup poll this year, all six New England states were in the Top 10 least religious in the country, with Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts claiming the top four spots.
New England's religious apathy has developed over decades, but it's striking where the Pilgrims landed seeking religious freedom and the great 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards helped spark the First Great Awakening. Stately churches near town centers all over the region are reminders of the central importance religion once held.
Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut do host the nation's heaviest concentration of Catholics, but those numbers have dropped substantially. In 1990, 50 percent of New England residents identified themselves as Catholic; by 2008, it dropped to 36 percent following the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston, according to American Religious Identification Survey 2008.
Several groups trying to re-ignite New England's faith are theologically conservative, such as the Southern Baptists, Presbyterian Church in America and the Conservative Baptists' Mission Northeast. They say a reason for the region's hollowed-out faith is a pervasive theology that departs from traditional Biblical interpretation on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality.
The Rev. Wes Pastor, head of the NETS Institute for Church Planting in Williston, Vt., said New England's liberal mainline denominations, such as the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, have been practicing a "different religion."
"I'm not saying it to be snooty, but they have a different belief system and that belief system ... is a profound departure from historic Christianity," said Pastor, whose group trained Bass and supports his Baptist church.
The Rev. Paul Nickerson, a church planting specialist at the UCC's Massachusetts Conference, said local churches declined because of a creeping insularity, not because "we're theologically inept." Progressive churches that refocus on the needs of the unchurched are growing, he said.
"The depiction that all the mainliners have lost the Bible, and are too progressive, and so conservatives have to come in and reclaim the territory, I don't buy that kind of stereotype," Nickerson said.
Growing up churchless
Theological differences aside, there's broad agreement that New England churches need to better serve people outside their walls and build the relationships that attract people to faith.
It's not easy among busy New Englanders who protect their time. Many lack even a basic knowledge of church life that's culturally ingrained elsewhere, said the Rev. Doug Warren of Christ the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Portland, Maine, which he helped plant in 2001.
"They didn't grow up going to church, their parents didn't grow up going to church and, in many cases, their grandparents didn't grow up going to church," Warren said.
Slow to bear fruit
That means outreach must be deliberate and personal. Souza and his associate pastor, Celio Freitas, both native Brazilians, helped start a public youth soccer league in Boston to meet people. Their witness, they hope, leads to curiosity about the faith that guides their lives, and perhaps a visit to Celebration Church, which began meeting in a Saugus office building in January.
The work is slow and its fruits can be scarce. Souza said people are generally polite, even interested in talking about spiritual matters. But they don't hesitate to reject invitations. He recalled a man with whom he recently shared his faith at the mall courteously declining to even take a card.
Warren said the Presbyterian Church in America plants 50 churches a year, but has started just 10 since the mid-1990s in northern New England. Bass said he knows "most church plants anywhere fail, certainly here in this area."
Some church plants begin with a core of families who transfer from an existing church. But Bass and his wife, Brandi, came alone to Massachusetts last year. A core of about six families formed as they repaired their building and met people in their daily lives. The church ran radio ads and placed door hangers around town. Success will ultimately depend on how well church members follow Biblical mandates to serve and love their neighbors, he said.
"It's nothing new," he said. "It's not like ... what kind of gimmicks can we come up with?"
On a recent fall Sunday, a younger group of about 50 people gathered to hear Bass's message of salvation. The hymn "How Great Thou Art" was sung to a contemporary tune and echoed through an airy sanctuary that could fit seven times more worshippers. During fellowship afterward, Watertown resident Ralph Filicchia said he was drawn by curiosity. He said local churches have been killed by the "poison" of liberal theology, and he was eager to support a conservative church.
But the 74-year-old said he's lived in New England long enough to avoid rosy predictions. Churches that preach traditional dogma, such as Redeemer Fellowship, can be branded intolerant.
"Up here, it's tough, it's tough," Filicchia said. "It always has been."
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