I’m glad to welcome Dr. Terry W. Dorsett to Lifeway Pastors. I met Terry at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix as we walked several blocks together for breakfast. His experience in an area not commonly recognized as spiritually vital is worth reading.
Terry has been a pastor, church planter, denominational leader, and author in New England for more than 20 years. He is a happy husband, a proud father, and adoring grandfather. Terry is a cancer survivor who believes that God works powerfully through times of suffering.
I moved to New England in November 1993 after visiting Vermont on a one-week mission trip the same year. Back in those days the ministry in New England was small and scattered. Going to associational meetings was sometimes depressing because it seemed like the pastors all had celebrated “low attendance” day instead of “high attendance” days. At one point I was the chairman of the mission committee in one of our New England associations and for three years in a row every single one of our mission churches had failed to survive.
But those of us who were called to New England remained faithful. We refused to quit and today we are enjoying the fruit of decades of Southern Baptist labors in New England. In 2017 the BCNE is composed of 364 churches that worship in nineteen languages every weekend across all six New England states and a small section of New York. In an era of declining baptisms, we have seen record baptisms three out of the last four years. We are currently sponsoring 74 church plants and ministry on thirty college campuses. By God’s grace the spiritual famine is over and a time of reaping is upon us.
Southern Baptist work in the Northeast began in the 1960s when Southern Baptists moved to the area for jobs and due to military service. Finding no churches like they had back home, many of those Southern Baptists formed new churches. Those churches became a welcome home away from home for many spiritual refugees looking for something different than what the Northeast’s Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches could offer.
While those were exciting days for Southern Baptists, many of those early churches neglected to actually reach their neighbors for Christ. As a result, many churches rose and fell on the whims of whatever the hiring practices were of local industry. When the economy boomed, more southerners moved in and the churches grew. When the economy struggled, fewer southerners arrived and the churches struggled.
But somewhere in the mid-1990s the mentality of our Southern Baptist churches in New England began to change. Leaders like Jim Wideman, who at the time was the Director of Missions for the Green Mountain Baptist Association, but later became the Executive Director for the Baptist Convention of New England, began to emphasize the need to reach New Englanders with the gospel instead of just chasing southern license plates. Native New Englanders like John Tracy, long-time pastor in Vermont and David Saylor, long-time Baptist pastor in Connecticut, completed seminary and began to assume leadership in our churches and our regional ministries. Existing churches like First Baptist Church, Haverhill, MA, which was founded before the Declaration of Independence was signed; First Baptist Church of Wallingford, VT, the oldest existing Baptist church in Vermont; First Baptist Church, Sutton, MA, which was founded as a frontier mission near “Indian” territory in 1725; and First Church, Charlestown, MA, which boasted John Harvard (who founded Harvard University) as a pastor, joined the growing ranks of Baptist Convention of New England churches. Each of those helped the BCNE change its focus from being a collection of southern transplants to being a powerful force for evangelism in New England.
It is hard to pin-point exactly when the focus shifted, but over time it did. The Baptist Convention of New England came into its own as one of the largest evangelical organizations in New England. It has been exciting to watch the transformation happen over the last 24 years.
When people ask me what has caused the shift, I tell them it is realizing that we are not here just to reach people like ourselves. If Southerners only invite other Southerners to church, we are missing out on the opportunity to reach the majority of the population in our area who are native New Englanders. If we only reach Anglos, we miss out on reaching the 164 nationalities who live in New England. If we only reach older people, we miss out on the thousands on young adults who come to New England to go to college. We must open our eyes and see the people who live around us. Then we must be willing to extend a hand of friendship and tell them about Jesus.
Though programs and structure are important, they are not the most important aspect of growing churches in an area like the Northeast. The most important aspect is just one person telling another person how Jesus has impacted their lives. When that happens, then there will always be a spiritual harvest and celebration is in order. New England Baptists have come to realize this and that is why we are seeing rapid growth in an era of spiritual decline. I pray that we continue to see those who live around us and that we continue to find our voice as we tell them of the Savior’s love.