It has been widely known for some time that the six States of New England are amongst the least-Churched in the country; here religion (specifically Christianity) seems to be withering away. Per a 2009 Gallup poll (visit http://www.gallup.com/poll/114022/state-states-importance-religion.aspx ), the “top 4″ least religious States in the nation are:
2. New Hampshire
(Plus Rhode Island and Connecticut help round out the “top 10″). I recently interviewed Pastor Steve Jesmer of the Dialogue Church (www.theDC.tv) to find out his thoughts about this sad statistic, and what specifically he and his church are doing to improve the situation and to preach the Good News. (The Dialogue Church is part of the New England United Network; see below.)
Why do you think New England is the “least-churched” region in the country? Was it always this way?
- Some would say New England is post-christian like much of Europe. That means it was exposed to christianity earlier, but now no longer has its social norms rooted in christian morality or Scripture.
- So ultimately, how did we become the least churched? I have to bring it back to the church and our responsibility. We (speaking of churches over the past 100 years) haven’t done an effective job in reaching the culture. Many mainline denominations (I am a baptist) were focused on preserving traditions over preaching truth and making it relevant to the culture. So we lost our pulse on the culture, and therefore could no longer effectively communicate to and reach into the communities around us. We have the most important message in the universe but haven’t always known how to communicate it in culturally relevant ways.
- I believe there is a real movement of churches and church plants taking root in New England that are focused on reaching unchurched people and doing whatever it takes to lead as many people to Christ as possible.
- In the past 30 months we’ve seen 300 precious souls invite Jesus as their Forgiver & Leader at The Dialogue Church (www.thedc.tv), and we’ve baptized 96 of them already! That is a miraculous move of God right here in the middle of New Hampshire!
- We have simply held tightly to our mission of leading unchurched people to become hardcore followers of Jesus. We don’t try to compete with other churches, we try to complete other churches and stay focused on reaching the unreached, not swapping members with other churches.
How can that status change over the next decade?
- I believe the status is already changing. I believe there are networks growing all over New England, much like neunited.net that are planting new churches and revitalizing old or struggling churches.
- In order to bring it to a whole new level we must get back to “our main mission” of reaching lost people. In order to do that we can’t be afraid to be messy, get in trenches with people, and love them to Jesus.
- The vision from God is always given to a leader. The lead pastor must have a vision from God and the church must be structured in such a way that the leader can lead. If the pastor is hog tied by the constitution and by laws then the church will never grow and reach its full redemption potential.
- The culture of the church is also critical. What you value determines how people view everything in the church. you can have the best vision in the world, but with a toxic culture in the church or on the staff you won’t go anywhere. The leaders must work hard to define, communicate, and defend the culture God wants. Some of our values are: honor, excellence, unity, vision, and the one (it’s all about the one lost sheep).
- If you can’t lead your church to be all about the one sheep, if you can’t personally as the pastor be all about the one, if you can’t inspire your staff to be all about the one, then YOU WON’T REACH THE ONE! Our church has tripled in size in the past year and we’ve just purchased a 600 seat cathedral in downtown Manchester to allow for continued growth
How specifically are you reaching out to young people/ young adults? How does that differ from what they would find in other denominations/ congregations?
- I am young. I am 33 and I am the lead pastor. I have a young wife and two little girls, so I will naturally attract young people (while I am young). If a pastor is older then he has to be much more intentional if he wants to reach young people.
- My staff is young. I intentionally hire staff that are young and can still be molded, but I also make sure they are the best fit for the job. Every lead pastor has to be intentional about who he surrounds himself with. If you want to reach young people then you have to be willing to surround yourself with some young people. It takes an entire team committed to reaching young people.
- We intentionally produce programming within our weekend services that attract a younger crowd 25-35 years in age with young children. A lot of my messages include teaching directed toward that audience because I am currently at that age, however we are also purposeful in connecting with everyone in our audience/congregation.
- We market and reach out to a certain target. We want to reach everyone and everyone is welcome in our church. However, we also know that God has uniquely shaped us to reach certain people better than others, so we play to our strengths. In no way do we want to exclude any age group, but we also understand that a rock and roll concert during our worship service may not attract a lot of senior citizens (however many senior citizens attend our church and love it because they have a heart to see their grandchildren come to know cCrist)
- We do a sermon series called HOW TO HUG A VAMPIRE or NIGHTMARES BEFORE CHRISTMAS and then talk about what the Bible has to say about very important life issues. We speak to people’s real needs straight out of the Bible. Every age group needs that. However we purposefully create series titles that will attract a younger UNCHURCHED audience.
- We do music that will relate today’s culture. We will often open our service with pop culture song that people are hearing on the radio and draw out a spiritual application. It’s not a worship song, but we can use it to create a mood that we want or point people to a spiritual truth that we are focusing on for the day.
Does anyone tell you or claim that your church is not as “traditional” or “structured” as it should be? Why have you sought to escape the in-place church “feeling” and structure?
- Yes, people tell us all the time we are not traditional. Some people even leave our church at times because they want something more traditional. However, the people who leave are ALWAYS, 100% of the time people who left another church to come to ours. I tell those friends right up front that we are pro church; we don’t allow anyone to talk negatively about their last church; because they will eventually be saying it about our church if we let it go on.
- We know the DC isn’t for everyone. If you aren’t pumped about seeing lost people accept Christ every single weekend and learning to apply what the Bible says to your everday life issues, and repenting of sin, and reaching out the hurting and broken then you simply won’t like our church. Some people unfortunately get married to an idea, program, or tradition more than Jesus.
- I don’t know as if we sought to escape anything. I have a vision in my heart from God and we are pursuing that. If it ends up looking like a traditional church then so be it. If it doesn’t look anything like a traditional church then ok. We are more focused on the vision God has given to us and doing whatever it takes to reach this culture.
Which churches in your area are experiencing the most growth? The most contraction?
Churches that are growing have the following traits-
- churches that have a laser-like focus on doing whatever it takes to reach the ONE LOST SOUL.
- churches that celebrate reaching the one.
- churches that are led by leaders who are personally reaching the one.
- churches that are baptizing the one.
- churches that are discipling the one.
- churches that are willing to cut away all of the programs and traditions that aren’t reaching the one and growing that person into maturity.
- churches that spend resources are reaching the one.
- It has nothing to do with denominational affiliation or style of music. It has to do with your focus on fulfilling the great commission in the 21st century. If you do church like they did 50 years ago, you are only going to reach people who were alive 50 years ago!
- Be relevant. Be real. Understand who you are best able to reach and focus on that (especially for small and young churches)
Churches that are shrinking or dying have the following in common-
- They have a small vision. They serve a small god. They don’t believe in Ephesians 3:20 (or if they do they NEVER take a step to act on their belief). We must attempt great things for God and expect great things from God (William Carey)
- Care more about losing their traditions than lives being transformed.
- Don’t spend resources on outreach (community outreach projects as well as marketing)
- Their weekend worship experience is not ALIVE and full of energy.
- The message should be relevant to their lives, not something a seminary student writes in his closet for his professor. Nobody cares about that. They care about their marriage that is failing, or their teenager who cuts themselves to feel better, or their brother who is hooked on heroin, and their sister who uses sex to make money. That is what they care about. They care about paying their bills and having hope for something better.
- They attack other churches, and compete with other churches.
- They are more concerned with condemning people than carrying people with grace to the Savior.
New England United Network is a network of 40 independent like minded churches, some of which are multi-site. They work together to plant churches and resource pastors, but their focus is facilitating relationships between pastors in New England.
NEUN have 4 big events a year in conjunction with smaller less formal gatherings: 2 day pastors retreat, 3 day men’s conference, 1 day volunteer leadership seminar, and 3 day women’s conference.
(NOTE: Writer is not a member of, and has not yet attended, the Dialogue Church.)