My daughter found a fascinating website that chronicles the most popular girl baby names since 1961 in the United States. Since I live in Vermont, I was interested to see how often Vermont or New England set the trend for baby names.
New England has been setting the trend for the United States since before the states were united. Currently we would have to say that the Atlantic states: California, Washington and Oregon, and New England are setting the social trends for the United States. For instance, Vermont was the first state to embrace civil unions for gay couples in 2000, and most of the rest of the nation quickly followed. We in Vermont remember how emotional the arguments were and how many hours of testimony the statehouse listened to. But now it is old hat in Vermont; nobody discusses gay marriage anymore. The precursor to gay marriage in Vermont was the closing of the two gay bars five years earlier in Vermont’s largest city: Burlington. The reason for the gay bars closing? Firstly, nobody cared if you were gay or not; gay people were welcome in any bar in town, and secondly, if you wanted to meet other gay people, you could do so online.
Many states are still embroiled in the gay marriage debate, which is mildly puzzling to Vermonters. And which brings me to the topic of this blog: Evangelism in New England.
Each year about ten new evangelical churches are planted in Chittenden County, the most populous county in the sparsely populated state of Vermont, the least church-attending state in the nation. Fifteen years ago Vermont claimed to have a 14% evangelical population. The missionaries who come here are idealists from Bible belt states. The last evangelical church plant I was a member of had a pastor from Michigan. (Although Michigan is sometimes categorized with New England politically and socially, religiously it is much more like Greater Appalachia and the Midlands, dominated by evangelical churches and Christian Reformed churches, even hosting one of the largest evangelical book publishers in the nation.) The latest, hippest new evangelical church in Vermont has a pastor from Mississippi (the most church-attending state in the nation). Both of these pastors have a “This American Life” style of talking, and are interested in the hippest topics: one pastor is studying for his MFA in writing and started a writers’ club, his wife is a psychotherapist, the other pastor opened an art gallery and performance space in the coolest section of town.
The writing pastor from Michigan started his church 6 years ago, and it attracted young evangelicals who were frustrated with the stodgy evangelical churches in town. One of his focuses was the environment, and the nasty way food is grown and distributed in the world. Less church affiliated people who were converted lasted until they realized that there were several disconnects: one of which was that gay people were welcome, but not welcome. Gay people never served on the board, and never got married in this church. This wasn’t a hip church, it was a staid and stodgy church in hip disguise. Rightly or wrongly, these people did not stay around for a discussion of gay issues and the scriptures. That discussion was too far off limits, too close to being like the KuKluxKlan, an issue already decided. They grew up in schools where anti-gay language was forbidden, just like racist language.
There was also another disconnect: the ratio of native Vermonters in the congregation was about 5% (native Vermonters make up 54% of the city). So the people that were being converted, or at least who were attending, were the same people who would be attending in another more religious state. And the people who were not attending were the Vermonters. The new church plants were not having an impact on the state’s non-religiousness at all. Why not?
It wasn’t really the gay issue. (The church was careful never to talk about homosexuality, and when asked, the pastor said he was undecided.) The real issue was that the church had a mindset that didn’t click with Vermonters or New Englanders. The church wanted to discuss (or assumed) issues that Vermonters had moved on from and were no longer interested in: the concept of a personal God, the superiority of Christianity, and conservative sexual morals. The pastor was asking Vermonters to step back 20 years and talk about hot topics way back then. It was exactly like the fundamentalist churches I grew up in that insisted on talking about mini-skirts, evolution and dancing in the 1980s. As long as my pastor talked about current burning issues in Vermonters’ minds, he had an audience (of four or five). But as soon as he went back to burning issues in his mind (from church-attending Michigan), he lost them. So he finally focussed on his thriving church of out-of-staters and forgot about the Vermonters.
This illustrates one of my huge beefs about evangelism: it does not address the issues our society is concerned about.
First rule of evangelical evangelism: Ignore the open doors: preach about the things nobody is discussing anymore.
Second rule of evangelical evangelism: Assume people want to go backwards sociologically to the hot button issues of 30 years ago. Did Jesus or the apostle Paul talk about issues their audiences could not relate to?
Third rule: start a church (but that’s a topic for another blog). If Jesus came to Burlington, Vermont, he would not start an evangelical church.
Fourth rule: beg for money.
Take a look at Europe (from whence most Americans trace their heritage). Europeans don’t go to church.
Maybe 5% of Europe attends church per week, if that. That is where we are going, whether we like it or not. The oldest part of the United States (in terms of our current culture) is New England. Vermont has only 14% church-goers and most of those are over the age of 65. Within 20 years the rest of the United States will not be attending church. Nobody is going backwards. The hot debates that we have in our evangelical minds are not on the minds of anyone else in the United States. Think about the issues your grandparents were concerned about: birth control, abortion, patriotism, communism, unions, divorce–things that are no longer (or seldom) discussed.
So when we go to church and sing songs that are 20 or 40 years old, composed by people who grew up in religious households, we are enacting a ritual that cannot be connected with by people who have moved on (rightly or wrongly) and are wrestling with more current issues. Rather than worshiping God in the here and now we are just engaging in an exercise in nostalgia: Wasn’t it great when God answered our old questions for us?
So what are Vermonters interested in and concerned about? Rightly or wrongly: Marijuana will soon be legalized in Vermont, they are concerned about the overuse of petroleum, the environment (Vermonters have had weekly recycling pickups for the last 20 years), Buddhist philosophy, meditation, anarchy, small government vs. big government, the use of torture by the military, American imperialism, alternative communities, co-operative housing, alternative music, old musical traditions from various nations, empowering poor people, feeding the hungry, health care reform, and alternative education.