By Kelly Carr
“We cannot ignore going to where the people are.” That is Eric Lee’s succinct summation of the current urban church-planting focus of Restoration House Ministries in New England, where he is executive director.
A focus on urban areas was not a stated goal when RHM started, Lee notes. When former executive director Dan Clymer founded RHM in 1996, the aim was simply to plant where there was a dearth of churches. It’s estimated that only 5 percent of the just under 15 million people living in the six states that comprise New England—Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island—are believers.
RHM planted churches in rural and suburban areas, but as the years progressed, leadership found themselves considering more urban plants.
“We’ve gone where we see opportunity and need,” Lee says.
In a 2017 study titled Cities, Barna listed the most unchurched or dechurched “post-Christian” cities in the United States, and five of the top six are in New England. Clearly the gospel is needed in these urban regions, and RHM is filling this need with planters who are passionate to go into cities.
“I grew up in the Midwest, so my first visit to New England was love at first sight,” says Jared Cowgur, an RHM church planter who serves as leadership and teaching pastor with BridgePointe Christian Church in East Providence, Rhode Island.
“I longed to be a part of making the gospel attractive and accessible to this part of our country that so desperately needs spiritual renewal. I am convinced the change that begins in the cities will eventually pervade this great region of our country.”
Reaching Countless Cultures
People far and wide head to big cities in New England for educational opportunities, so RHM church plants have diverse outreach opportunities within their grasp.
“New England is one of few places in our country where you can fulfill the Great Commission without leaving your backyard,” says Chris Hall, lead pastor with Reunion Christian Church in Boston. “We’re near Berklee College of Music, and students come from all over the world. They also plan on going back, so we have the opportunity to share the gospel in this limited season. It’s like being missionaries all the time, and it’s a cool place to be.”
Drew Thurman, the newest RHM church planter, serving with Renaissance Christian Church in Waltham, Massachusetts, agrees.
“The immediate houses around ours represent four continents, and a simple walk around our neighborhood will fill your ears with countless languages and cultures. As you might expect, the socioeconomic gaps are immense too,” he says. “We have a neighbor who drives a Tesla and several others who attend a local food bank where we serve. As difficult as it is to do ministry in a place where traditional forms of church have little social standing, the idea of impacting such diversity can be challenging, to say the least.”
As with all church endeavors, trial and error has worked best in New England. For example, RHM planted culturally specific churches for a time, with all services conducted in a foreign language to meet the cultural needs of a specific region. But these churches saw little growth.
“Monoethnic forms of churches, with the best of intentions, have not . . . been highly successful,” Lee notes.
They discovered that the founding families in these churches love to worship in their native language and to use practices from their home countries, but younger generations of those same families prefer to attend an American church.
Therefore, now, rather than launching an entirely separate church aimed toward a specific group of immigrants, several RHM churches have created culturally specific community groups that offer people from other countries a chance to have weekday gatherings in their preferred language, yet still participate in the main worship services and remain part of the body at large.
Overcoming Distrust and Transience
A huge hurdle New England churches must overcome is distrust of organized religion that permeates the area. RHM church planters must approach ministry from creative angles to fit their ministry context.
In Massachusetts, Renaissance launched its church with a grassroots approach of community gatherings rather than one large weekly worship service. Thurman describes these as microchurches.
“These are not small groups,” he explains. “They operate as a spiritual family in the day-to-day of life and live out God’s mission in a shared capacity. We decided that the best way to disrupt culture wasn’t through an attractive worship gathering, but by placing a network of faithful, spiritual communities all across our city that are embedded in the daily rhythms of life.”
People in Waltham who are resistant to joining a traditional church prefer to begin their faith journey at Renaissance small gatherings. As the community meetings continue to gain traction and people begin to develop deeper trust, Renaissance’s goal is to bring everyone together for worship in large monthly gatherings.
“We’re willing to try new approaches to have longer-lasting and greater results in urban settings,” Lee affirms.
Hall and the Reunion team in Boston face another urban challenge: transience. About every three years, they find the entire congregation has shifted because people come in for jobs or education but then leave. “It makes it tough and sad because just about every year you’re losing (or really sending out) a good percentage of the community you have come to know and love.”
For a while even Reunion’s worship space had a feeling of transience. Their first affordable location, a Hilton hotel in the Back Bay area near Fenway Park, didn’t allow much time for set-up and tear-down. Plus, it attracted a good number of vacation travelers, but that “made it hard for people who were living in Boston to see us as a safe place to connect,” Hall says.
Reunion eventually turned to Blackstone Elementary School, which they had partnered with on previous projects. A new and beautiful relationship began. Reunion installed sound, lighting, and other technical equipment permanently for worship services. Blackstone uses the equipment for the school’s theater and dance programs. The church is blessed with no more set-up and tear-down, while the school is blessed with resources to boost their limited budget.
Creating a Ministry Network
RHM does more than help churches begin—it connects churches to sustain ministry.
“Some of the hardest work of planting is sending a team into an area that doesn’t have many churches,” Lee admits. So, he tries to connect leadership of new plants with veteran RHM planters who have faced similar situations.
The RHM team has group gatherings for their church planters twice a year, one in northern New England and the other in the southern region. The purpose is to lift up one another and celebrate spiritual victories. RHM plans discussions and brings in speakers to challenge everyone’s development.
Hall appreciates that he can bring his whole team to the gatherings to learn both from church planters and seasoned pastors.
“It’s a great chance to get to know other leaders and other churches in the area and share best practices,” Hall says. “I can’t speak highly enough of the need to have a network of people who are trying to do the same thing you’re doing. RHM has been that for us. You can’t do it alone, and you can’t just be with the people who plant with you. You need other people you can talk to and learn from.”
Cowgur has found that partnering with RHM brings long-term blessings.
“Church planting is hard in every context. This is even more true in the cities of New England. I directly attribute the stability and sustained growth of BridgePointe to the pastoral, financial, and missional support provided by RHM in the early years of our church.”
Taking Light to a Dark Place
Lee remembers venturing into New England for the first time while on a mission trip from his former ministry in Texas.
“I fell in love with the region as I saw the need,” he says. “Here in New England there are lighthouses everywhere, so it makes for a good illustration to say we’re out there trying to be a lighthouse in a dark part of the country.”
And so, though the cost of doing urban ministry in New England is especially high, Lee and the team at RHM, plus the church planters they support, continue to press onward—shining the light of Christ in an overlooked region of our country—because that is where the people are.
Kelly Carr, former editor of The Lookout, enjoys sharing and shaping people’s stories as a writing and editing consultant in Cincinnati, Ohio (EditorOfLife.com).