By Sara Shelton
The world is watching the Northeast. Home to the nation’s capital, the Ivy League of universities, Wall Street, Broadway, and many of our nation’s most significant historical landmarks, when it comes to what’s “in” with culture, politics, fashion, finance, education—the world is looking North.
With the region taking in almost 51.2 million visitors each year, it is poised to hold the title of global influencer for some time to come. Imagine what the nation might look like if the most influential area of North America found its greatest influence in Christ. This is the motivation driving missionaries and church planters to reach the Northeast for Christ.
“Planting in the Northeast holds tremendous potential for impacting the advance of the kingdom worldwide,” says Steve Allen, church planting team leader for the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association explains. “Church planting here enables us to reach those with influence because cities here are shaping centers of culture, fashion, finance, politics, entertainment, news and education. Planting churches that influence these world influencers is huge for the spread of the gospel.”
When considering where to put down the roots of their church plant, Nathan Knight and Joey Craft set about to intentionally find a home for Restoration Church that had the potential to make the biggest national impact.
“We knew it would be a place marked by diversity… surrounded by intellectual leaders and a place in desperate need of a thriving local church,” Craft says of the decision to plant in Washington, D.C.
The need for Craft’s kind of intentional evangelism is heavy in the region. With a total population of 66 million, the majority of this number (some 82 percent) is considered lost or unreached. Those serving there recognize that perhaps the unique challenges facing evangelism in the region are what hold back others from stepping into service in the Northeast.
Pastor Won Kwak serves at Marantha Grace in New Jersey, a church planted in the Fort Lee area under the leadership of North Shore Baptist Church located just over the George Washington Bridge in New York City. They work to serve a dense and diverse population, currently operating out of Fort Lee High School. Kwak faced the initial trepidation of planting a church in the large and often impersonal environment of the region.
“Life is extremely fast-paced and the roads and living situations are always congested,” he says of the Northeast. “This makes even the desire to do community tiresome and intimidating for some people because everything is so cramped.”
This crowded environment is typical of the region and the sheer size and nature of it can be overwhelming. The Northeast alone holds 20 percent of the total U.S. population but only 2 percent of the land.
Kwak and his team have worked to combat the congested and impersonal feeling that comes with such a figure by implementing smaller community groups around the city. This has helped in coming alongside people in the community who, like many in the Northeast, are “slower” in receiving the gospel.
This slower receptivity is perhaps the greatest challenge planters in the Northeast face. Urbanites are typically more closed off, making evangelism no quick effort. Church planters in the Northeast have come to see that building relationships is the key to seeing evangelism efforts pay off. For this to happen, however, they have to make a more arduous commitment to dig in their heels and be patient in the slow process of church and community growth.
“Receptivity toward the gospel is not lower in our region—just slower,” Allen explains. “Church plants in the Northeast designed to reach more than just Southern Baptist transplants to the area will typically require more time to develop.”
Freddy Wyatt, pastor of the growing Gallery Church in New York City, echoes this sentiment: “It’s tough. The Northeast often requires years of investment to draw the same size crowd that a really good mail campaign might draw in the South.”
Church planters, like Craft of D.C., have to work a little longer to gain the trust of their neighbors and communities before they can see evangelism spread. Craft and his team attempt to combat this skepticism toward religion by offering events in the community rather than in the church so people may be more likely to attend.
This is also a challenge for planters of the suburban Northeast. Though the areas are not as crowded, the people still come with skepticism toward organized religion.
“People here have a strong, independent spirit,” says Larry Thiessen, director of missions for the Keystone Baptist Association of Pennsylvania. “Building relationships, and subsequently trust, is key. But relationships take time and membership growth is slow.”
John Smith of First Baptist Church Essex, Md., is working in his church to better present the gospel to the members of his Baltimore suburb who come to him with a lack of trust.
“I have encountered more unbelievers here than anywhere else I have ever served,” Smith states. “But I love their willingness to take a straight answer, to disrespect spin. It challenges us to present them with the truth of the gospel, no sugar coating or emotional spin allowed.”
The Northeast is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse regions in North America. In New York City alone, more than 170 languages are spoken. But metropolitan areas such as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington/Baltimore boast large populations of internationals as well.
Samuel Cho, a North American Mission Board missionary and church planter, is trying to reach the more than 3,500 Nepali and Bhutanese refugees living in Baltimore. In 2008 he started The Bhutan Baptist Church, just two years after starting The Nepal Baptist Church. Both churches started as small groups meeting in homes in the apartment communities where incoming refugees first settle. Cho often goes to the airport to meet incoming families and invite them to church.
Though the challenges are unique and the hearts are often hard, the church planters in the Northeast recognize the potential of harnessing the influence of the area and working diligently to move the needle back to Christ. Just imagine what might happen if a region once known for many other things became known as the region that influenced the nation toward the gospel. OM
Sara Shelton is editorial assistant of On Mission.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC