By Scott Christiansen
In mid-2015, members of the leadership team in the Northern New England Conference (NNEC) were pondering the sober realiza- tion that every one of the major population centers in their three-state territory showed up on the list of the top 10 most secular cities in the United States. This realization further stoked their desire to proclaim the Word of God and build His involvement, mass mailings, church planting, public-access television — a fairly basic hurdle emerged: they just didn’t have much demographic data to work with. And without such data, determining the merits of various ideas and approaches was difficult. For instance, should they tailor outreach efforts to millennials or empty-nesters or retirees? Or should they tailor their efforts to minority data, but also knew they could not afford to commission a custom GIS (geographic information system) study.
They solved the problem by adopting existing corporate GIS data from one of the biggest and most sophisticated users of GIS data in the country — Walmart. Walmart spends millions on building a store that they then cannot move, so they take great care to place it at a distance, that would constitute a gap in coverage.
To the astonishment of the team, 17 gaps were found — four in Maine and 13 in New Hampshire. Some of the gaps have such a significant population that multiple church plants are in order. A good example of a gap is Littleton, New Hampshire, a town that serves as a commerce and health-service hub for northern New Hampshire.
But what was the best way to achieve that objective? What would work with a group of people who had rejected Christianity, religiosity, and a church-centric life? Fundamentally, how does a church reach out to people who have rejected the very idea of church?
This former church in Maine was converted into a surf-board shop. Across the region, shrinking congregations have left a landscape littered with underused and unused churches, leading to creative recycling and repurposing efforts as places of worship are converted into places of commerce or entertainment.
Photo from the Atlantic Union Gleaner
As the group grappled with various ideas and responses — which included a Revelation series, community populations? An even bigger question was the viability of using existing churches as a platform to reach people. Many churches in the conference were very old; historic, in fact. Had populations shifted away from the existing churches? By using existing churches as evangelism platforms, would they be missing significant populations?
The team knew they needed advanced demographic crossroads where maximum populations can reach it.
Using this information, the team created a map of existing churches across the conference, then overlaid a map of existing Walmart stores, and looked for gaps. If there were areas where Walmart had chosen to invest millions into a store (in the middle of a population center) and yet there was no Adventist church within a reasonable Littleton has a regional hospital and thriving business, tourist, and outdoor-adven- ture sectors, but it has only four Adventists. The closest Adventist church is some 20 miles away.
With the gaps identified, the leaders decided on a two-prong strategy that would attempt to increase evangelism activities in existing churches while the gaps would be addressed by a separate, long-term, church-planting initiative. The rationale underpinning both was summed up by conference president Bob Cundiff. “What we see across Northern New England is a population that has rejected a church-centric culture and has rejected religiosity. But they do not seem to have rejected a spiritual life and are therefore still open to the urgings of the Holy Spirit. And as long as people’s minds are open, we will proclaim the Word of God and work to build His community of believers.” The choice of church planting as the primary emphasis was strongly influenced by Ted Huskins, executive secretary of the conference and an expe- rienced church planter. “Church planting is one of the most difficult and com- plicated efforts a conference can undertake. It is also one of the most effective things we can do. It brings people to Christ, and that makes it worthwhile to undertake.”
The NNEC church-planting effort is based on carefully putting church-planting teams together, one at a time. Each team will consist of volunteer missionaries who move into the area and become part of the community. Each team will have three to six members, each with specific skills. The team will slowly and patiently raise up a community of believers over a period of years.
The church-planting effort will have some unique aspects and features. Because the post-Christian society in Northern New England has rejected a church-centric life, emphasis will be on new believers meeting to learn and encourage one another and in doing so, to define what their “church service” looks like. The new believers will be creating their own group and worship style, but not their own theology. In other words, the preconceived notions of “church” that post-Christians have rejected won’t be a stumbling block in the process of build- ing up communities of sin- cere and committed believers.
Recruiting, training, and supporting the teams of missionary planters will be a major, multi-year effort, according to Huskins. “We’re looking for people who are on fire for Christ and who want to dedicate part of their lives to building a fellowship for Christ on a tent-making basis. We’ll be able to give them training and logistical and spiritual support, and we’ll give them mentoring and some minor financial support. Team members are the front-line workers in this critically important effort, and it is they who most fully engage in the battle for souls. When we put these teams together we’ll be trying to do so in a way that helps people to joyfully, productively, and effectively engage in this important work.”
When asked to describe what a team would look like and how it would function, Huskins has a ready answer. “Three to six young men or women in their twenties or thirties who are passionate about Jesus and the Adventist message. We are looking for teams that, in sum, have a full complement of the gifts necessary to successfully plant a church.” If you’d like to know more about NNEC’s church-planting project, contact Ted Huskins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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