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Megachurches in New England

Megachurches in New England
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For evangelical pastors, there’s a paradox: To facilitate what congregants consider an open, nonhierarchical link to the divine, the pastor himself must have sufficient presence to keep people coming week after week. And commanding the attention of hundreds or thousands of congregants requires more than old-fashioned charisma. Many pastors make frequent, widespread use of artifacts from the secular world: physical props, popular songs, dramas, and video footage from contemporary movies. For inspiration they may go online– and are two popular sites–and most belong to a variety of resource associations such as Willow Creek.

Yet, even though they share a common theology and similar practices, evangelical churches vary widely in terms of their styles of worship and the populations they draw. That style seems foremost to reflect the pastors themselves: extroverted and hip at Faith, for instance; more understated at Grace; exuberant yet somehow formal at Jubilee. In part, what accounts for the seemingly broad, even disparate, constituencies of New England evangelicals is that along with location, the collective personality of a church vectors it toward a given population: Caucasian and Asian suburbanites in the case of Grace; urban African Americans at Jubilee. A pastor’s own sensibilities factor in, as well. Faith’s former Catholics might be less drawn to the place if Santora–who himself was raised Catholic–didn’t understand their perspective.

Perhaps New England is ripe for a new kind of evangelicalism precisely because it’s New England. Douglas Hall, president of Emmanuel Gospel Center, argues that the region always has been a hotbed of religious change–beginning with the Puritanism that prompted the first governor, John Winthrop, to inform settlers of Massachusetts Bay that they had taken out a divine “commission” to make their New World society a godly “city upon a hill,” visible to the entire world but also a beacon for lost humanity. When Unitarianism began to take hold in America at the end of the 1700s, traditional Christians responded with a flurry of church plantings of their own.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, evangelical Christianity experienced several regional resurgences, most famously including the First and Second Great Awakenings, under the preaching of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s-1740s, and Lyman Beecher in the 1820s, respectively. “New England has been the base of national and international revivals for centuries,” says Hall. “As parochial as we think New England is, it’s often a center for the outreach of Christianity.”

It’s clear in any case that New England’s evangelicals consider themselves a breed apart. Mike Mancini, for one, doesn’t even like being called an evangelical. “That term brings to mind so many stereotypes–Southern, hard-hitting, holier-than-thou–none of which expand the kingdom of the God of love,” he notes. Elizabeth Clark, too, prefers to dodge the label. “Just call me a Christian,” she says. Felicia Brown, who attends Jubilee South in Stoughton, Massachusetts–an outgrowth of the main Jubilee in Boston–also prefers to be known simply as a Christian. “I’m not sure I want to be associated with everything that comes with the term ‘evangelical,'” she says.

Labels aside, Brown, who works at a pregnancy resource center, is certain about her path–one that was foreordained by God, she says: “Counseling is my calling. I want to cause change in others’ lives … to watch them blossom when they come to experience Jesus Christ.” Ultimately, she intends to be a life coach, she says: “I know that’s my purpose and my destiny.”

Not long ago, Brown attended a leadership conference at Grace Chapel, taking notes as Harvard Business School professor Bill George addressed the crowd via a simulcast from Willow Creek Community Church. “Mmmmm,” Brown murmured when George posited that leadership is about responsibility rather than fame or power. “We’re servant leaders,” George told the audience. “People are not there to serve you. You’re there to serve them.”

“That’s right,” said Brown. “Amen.”

Three days later, Brown sat in the sanctuary at Jubilee South. Again she reached for her pen as Pastor Troy Goode preached from John, chapter 20. “Even though God has wired you for greatness, even though God has wired you to lead,” Goode said, “unbelief is always there.” Brown nodded her head: “Amen, yes.”

Toward the end of the service, Goode urged congregants to step forward physically, “into a new realm” of deeper faith. Brown zipped up her Bible and moved to the aisle. “We’re breaking down fear,” Goode said. “Where there was fear, there is courage.” With the aisle filled behind and in front of her, Brown stepped forward once, then again.

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7 Responses to Megachurches in New England

  1. Sylvia Kinne January 15, 2009 at 10:01 am #

    You may have overlooked a wonderful church in Vermont, the Essex Alliance Church, which is the church my daughter’s family attends and loves – very family nurturing w/ programs for folks of all ages. I believe they have a membership of 1500 plus. Their “Christmas Spectacular” music program is filmed so far-flung family members who are unable to attend can enjoy it also. As I understand it, this church began as a small store-front gathering and has grown as mentioned above. Worth a look?

  2. Robert Faubel February 2, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    I just wanted to say thank you for doing this article. I’m one of the original members of the Faith Church which started as a small Bible study in the back of a doctor’s office. Having gone from an atheist cop to a police chaplain has surely changed my life. I have seen countless lives changed from people who really wanted to know the truth about God and I’m one of them. Our church is not the only one that is growing in this area. People are coming out of mainline denominations because these don’t see change in their lives and realize that religion is not the answer to life’s problems. It’s a relationship with God who created them!

  3. Denise Chamie February 5, 2009 at 3:09 pm #

    Amen to that Robert

  4. Jenifer Lewis February 10, 2009 at 3:20 pm #

    Anything that helps folks in their faith journey is to be celebrated. Interestingly, according to a recent article in “The Christian Century,” the migration can sometimes be from a megachurch to a more traditional one as well. A megachurch draws them in, and when they feel a craving for a more intimate worship experience, they find another church that provides it. This is particularly true for those who appreciate liturgy and classical music. Whichever way, it’s all good IMHO.

  5. Eura Olsen February 14, 2009 at 4:13 pm #

    I think this is a good thing. I attend a small church Open Bible We have a great pastor, people come and go ,some people can’t stand to hear the truth. I believe when you accept Jesus Christ, you are a new person andhave a hunger for his word,which speaks to youand gives you a joy you never knew.

  6. Kimberly LaCamera February 15, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    I think Yankee magazine should do an article on Bethany Assembly of God in Agawam, MA. It may be a megachurch, but with a small town feeling to it. The church has programs for everybody, from the nursery to the seniors. All the kids know each other, so the parents know each other, if only to smile and say hi to. What a great church.

  7. Don Bayliss April 4, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    One of the largest churches in New England that no one knows about is in the heart of Boston.

    It is located in Mattapan. I had the opportunity to visit this church once with my wife before we were married many years ago when it was called New Covenant Church. They have over 5000 people that attend their services weekly.

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