Feeble Knees

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

New Hampshire: Unchurched Wasteland?

My neighbors to the north are being targeted by evangelical groups and organizations looking to export their particular brand of middle-America gospel.
It seems that of all the states in the Union, New Hampshire boasts the largest number of unchurched people.

"We are the largest unchurched part of the United States. There are fewer people going to church here on a Sunday morning than any other place in the United States," said Nordhielm, 52, an Illinois native who specializes in introducing immigrant and multi-cultural groups to Jesus.

It would be nice if, instead of reading census data, these people might stop to take the time to figure out why, in this corner of the world, people have given up on church and deeply mistrust anyone coming in from the outside to evangelize.

It would be nice if people came here and stayed here because they had a heart for the place, and for this peculiar brand of people - not because of census data.

It would be nice if people in other states would sit their well-meaning behinds down and pray for God to raise up indigenous leaders here, rather than rush in with a mission statement and CEO pastor pushing for results and numbers.

I'm skeptical about how successful a bunch of imports would be here. That would truly require a miracle from God. If the imports are not led of God, but rather census data, they'll be sniffed out as frauds PDQ. I've been in a few of these churches. They reek of marketing slickness. Everything from the worship to the altar call feels manufactured, like a pre-fab house. They send out postcards. They have gimmicks. Cheesy gimmicks. It may go over great in the Midwest, but honey it just doesn't play well here.

My husband was born and bred in New Hampshire & is perhaps a classic example of the breed: very smart, pragmatic, free-thinking, and fiercely independent. They are naturally guarded, and friendly in a gruff sort of way. They don't cotton to people telling them how to live. Remember, we're talking about the folks who still have "Live Free or Die" proudly embossed on their state license plates.

We attended one of these church plants once. The worship team played electric guitars. People wore casual clothes. Communion was a bit of a free-for-all, somewhat devoid of the typical reverence to which we're more accustomed. Somewhere between the guitar solo and the "hip" talk of the pastor, I could feel Mr. Feeble squirm.

Whatever happened to churches that are unapologetically a house of worship, not a house of coffee and donuts? If we want coffee, we'll get our own. (There's a DD on every corner, it's not a problem). Does *anybody* think Christian karaoke music sung to a taped track is more reverent than a hymn sung to a piano or a lone acoustical accompaniment? And do you really think a group of folks who can barely express physical or emotional sentiment within their own four walls are going to jump up and do Holy Ghost calisthenics?

One thing I learned from my early exposure to Catholicism is that you do not mess with the House of God. Everything about a typical New England Catholic church is engineered to produce reverence and obedience. After spending years in a Pentecostal church that seemed perpetually in the midst of a hallelujah meltdown, I came to appreciate the quietness, reverence and respect that Catholics display in their services. Whereas I used to deride Catholic masses for being so "cold" and "emotionally dead", in a strange twist of events I found myself craving the quiet anonymity they had to offer. Being able to bow my head and pray to God without fear of a group of people coming to lay hands on me has a particular charm. Working out my own salvation with fear and trembling is preferable to being misunderstood by a group of well-meaning folks who don't know how to relate to my New Englandish tendency towards being reticent, private and somewhat aloof.

Outsiders should also be acutely aware of the fact that there is a great deal of hurt, anger, doubt, and mistrust here because of all the actual and alleged child abuse that occurred at the hands of priests in this area. No one should underestimate the impact that has had on people, and how deeply many distrust any form of organized religion, regardless of the denomination. They've seen lots of priests and ministers pass through and leave devastation in their wake. Folks here are very wary of what exactly it is you're trying to sell. If it's anything other than 100% undiluted and unadulterated Love and Righteousness of Christ, take a hike. With all due respect, we don't need you, thanks.

Does New Hampshire and New England in general need God? Absolutely. Is God aware of that? Without a doubt, He is. Will He leave us completely without a witness to Jesus? No. But forgive me if I'm skeptical that He'll use census data to work something out. I'll let Him do the calling and the ordaining. He knows just want is needed in a place like this.

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