New England gave some glory days to American evangelicalism. The First and Second Great Awakenings started there. From D. L. Moody’s Northfield (Mass.) conferences in the nineteenth century, the Student Missionary Movement arose with the goal of “evangelizing the whole world in this generation.” From its schools have emerged some of the great Christian thinkers.

But in recent times, New England has gained a reputation for being spiritually cold. Of its 12.5 million population, an estimated 3.5 million are unchurched—40 percent of all residents over the age of 18. Its people are known for self-reliance, but also for a stubbornness about spiritual things.

A number of New England church leaders would like to see another awakening of the Spirit across their corner of America. More than 300 of them, representing 34 different denominations and all six New England states (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), gathered last month in historic Sturbridge, Massachusetts—close to where, more than two and a half centuries earlier, parishioners had entered Jonathan Edwards’s Northampton church as sinners in the hands of an angry God and emerged burning with zeal to evangelize the New World.

At their three-day New England Pastors’ Conference, participants prayed for spiritual renewal in New England, and discussed strategy on how best to accomplish that goal. They passed a resolution setting aside the first Friday of every month for prayer and fasting for revival in New England. Then, to translate conference spirit into action, they authorized a committee to take responsibility for conference follow-up.

That so many evangelical pastors and church leaders had temporarily joined together was regarded by conference organizers as a major accomplishment in itself. There had been an attempt to “surface all the major evangelical leadership in a six-state area,” said pastor Gordon MacDonald of the large, nondenominational Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

While many pastors came to the conference not knowing what to expect, most expressed pleasure simply at making contacts and trading ideas with others of a like mind for evangelical ministry. Many said they felt isolated in New England as evangelical ministers.

Prayer dominated the conference. The pastors began and ended the event on their knees in private prayer, asking God to use them to bring spiritual renewal.

Church historian Richard Lovelace of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary reminded a workshop audience that Cotton Mather devoted 490 days and nights to prayer for revival in New England. Mather died in 1727—just prior to the First Great Awakening. But, Lovelace noted, “Where the prayer is, revival cannot be far behind.”

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The conference itself was the result of a prayer group. The so-called Lexington 9 had met one morning each month over the course of three years in MacDonald’s study. Besides MacDonald, the group included pastor Paul Toms of Park Street Church in Boston, executive director Donald Gill of the Boston-based Evangelistic Association of New England, and six other area church leaders.

MacDonald and several in the group had opposed Campus Crusade’s “Here’s Life” evangelistic program when it came to New England in 1976. In an interview, MacDonald said they believed the program was neither timely nor relevant for New England.

But although they opposed the “Here’s Life” approach, they desired its intended result—conversions to Christ and spiritual renewal—so the prayer group members asked themselves: “If not this, what? If not now, when?”

“At the time (1976) we were asking the hard question: Can the Gospel make it in New England?” MacDonald said. “Missiologically, it’s a resistant area.”

New England presents a unique challenge to evangelical pastors, said MacDonald, 40, who moved from southern Illinois to New England eight years ago. “New England is regionally defined unlike almost any area in the United States,” he said. “Literally, it is like another country.”

In interviews, pastors at the Sturbridge conference indicated their parishioners generally were more independent, more loyal to their home towns (and New England in general), more reserved, and perhaps more selfish (“You can see that by the way they drive,” said one pastor), than persons in other parts of the country.

Outsiders often have trouble gaining full acceptance in their community, said several. Pastor Mark Morton of Rye, New Hampshire, said he moved to the region 25 years ago and has accepted the fact that he will “never be a New Englander.”

As a result, pastors have been known to leave in frustration after a short ministry. Manuel Chavier of New Bedford, Massachusetts, lamented that New England pastors are averaging from one to three years in a pastorate before jumping to a different congregation, or moving out of New England entirely. MacDonald commented that it takes that long “just to learn the New England mind,” let alone establish an effective ministry.

From those informal meetings in MacDonald’s study (the group never had a chairman), the group established the purpose of maintaining and developing spiritually “healthy” congregations across New England. Their goal was, and still is, to identify within the next 10 years at least 1,000 “healthy, active, serving, witnessing, growing” churches in the region. These would be either new churches, revitalized ones, or congregations discovered that already meet the criteria of “healthy.”

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Their first strategy to meet that objective was a pastors’ conference: “We needed to create a condition in which God could speak to his leadership,” MacDonald said. The group most of all wanted to unite New England evangelical church leaders for fellowship and to lay strategy. They also planned workshops, which included case studies of various kinds of local church ministry in New England.

The Evangelistic Association of New England administered the conference, and modeled it after the Lausanne International Congress for World Evangelization. An invitation committee made sure there was an evenly distributed geographical and denominational representation. Gifts from local churches and the Day Foundation of Atlanta, Georgia, and delegates’ registration fees more than covered the $45,000 conference budget.

Despite talk about New England’s barrenness, pastors also indicated there are signs of hope. Harvey Meppelink, Assemblies of God pastor in Lexington, Massachusetts, said, “We have a greater spiritual awareness today in New England than we’ve ever had.” Several noted that the charismatic movement has brought a degree of revival to the region’s 5.5 million Roman Catholics, many of whom are unchurched or members of ethnic congregations.

Delegates noted pockets of evangelical strength, such as the nine evangelical seminaries in the region. They learned of a number of creative ministries: Boston’s Ruggles Street Baptist Church, for instance, is getting involved in a Christian restaurant and coffee house ministry near the Boston Common. A Congregational church in Collinsville, Connecticut, attributes its increased attendance to its mailing, free of charge, of a community newspaper with articles reprinted from Christian magazines and two pages of news about the church, nine times a year.

Don Gill said the Evangelistic Association recently installed a $45,000 computer, into which will be programmed extensive information about local congregations throughout New England—from the most evangelical to the most liberal. The computer will be a resource tool for local churches and the association, which has the goal, Gill said, of seeing New England “reached for the Gospel through the local churches.”

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The conference had its inspiring moments: speaker Leighton Ford; Washington, D.C., pastor Richard Halverson; and church historian Timothy Smith got plenty of amens from the audience. While former Gordon-Conwell Seminary president Harold Ockenga was comparing the spirit at Sturbridge to that evidenced during a momentous Billy Graham service in Boston some 30 years earlier on New Year’s Eve, a pastor interrupted to declare, “Dr. Ockenga, I was converted to Jesus Christ that night.”

The gathering gave the responsibility for conference follow-up to the Lexington 9, renamed the “Sturbridge Committee.” A larger 28-member advisory council was mandated to assist the committee.

Toward the close of the conference, delegates attended workshops designed to pull together ideas for follow-up. These included: new effort at communication—publication of a journal for New England pastors was considered; evangelistic outreach—they learned that Billy Graham is considering a New England crusade; and formation of local and regional pastors’ fellowship groups.

But the pastors also indicated that the burden for a great awakening lay, first of all, on them.

Gill noted in a closing workshop, “Lord help us if we don’t go away from here with something.”

The Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ)
Brotherhood and Blandness

Delegates to the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Saint Louis wore identification tags with their first names leaping out in bold letters. The gesture seemed to catch the spirit of this friendly, congregationalist denomination or “brotherhood,” as many Disciples say.

The brotherhood, some felt, had been severely strained two years ago by a traumatic debate on the ordination of homosexuals. That topic was on the agenda again. Others wondered if another specter from the recent past—the affiliation of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple with the Disciples—might somehow cast a pall or erupt into debate over laxity in ministerial certification. But neither emerged as crises. In fact, the October 26–31 assembly held no apparent surprises, and was so placid that a few delegates complained of the dangers of “a managed denomination.”

If not as spontaneous as recent assemblies, the Saint Louis meeting was “very successful” and revealed that for Disciples “the feeling of wholeness of the body is more important than controversies of the moment,” according to Kenneth L. Teegarden, president.

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The Disciples declared, in effect, that they had reached a consensus: the ordination of homosexuals was unacceptable, at least for now. But they reaffirmed the principle that final authority “with respect to the nurture, certification and ordination of ministers” will remain with the denomination’s 35 regional jurisdictions. The action came on a 1,809-to-1,228 vote on a report on homosexuality commissioned by the 1977 assembly.

Although noting diversity of opinion and the need for continued study of sexual ethics, the report concluded: “Recent studies have not convinced us nor the Church at large that the ordaining of persons who engage in homosexual practices is in accord with God’s will for the Church.”

As expected, the assembly easily approved a six-year covenant to intensify unity efforts with the United Church of Christ. The pact calls for interfaith study and experiments with the view to determining whether sufficient common ground exists on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the nature of ministry and mission, for the two bodies to consider merger sometime after 1985. UCC president Avery Post told the Disciples: “No two churches in America have ever started down this road in this intentional way before.”

Disciples executives made no attempt either to highlight or to hide the Jim Jones matter. Jonestown was mentioned in a multimedia presentation. And in the assembly program, among about 300 other names in the necrology, was this: “Jones, James Warren—Jonestown, Guyana—November 18, 1978.” One delegate, Douglas Moore, pastor of Crestwood Christian Church near Louisville, objected to Jones’s name being included. But even Moore said later that he did not want the Disciples to tamper with their traditional policy of congregational autonomy, which eschews hierarchial controls.

Earlier this year Teegarden, who was relected to serve a second six-year term as president of the 1.2-million-member body, had recommended to the administrative committee of the general board that the denomination take “no action that would involve passing judgment on a congregation’s minister.” The fact that Jonestown hadn’t emerged, Teegarden said at the close of the assembly, indicated that most Disciples felt the church had handled the matter “appropriately” and had put it behind them.

Delegates voted down a resolution asking that the church suspend its financial support to the World Council of Churches. The First Christian Church of Charles City, Iowa, had proposed the resolution out of disapproval for the WCC’s 1978 grant to the Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe through the Council’s Program to Combat Racism.

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Delegates debated scores of other issues, but the sharpest exchanges, and the most pointed criticism of the general board, came when conservatives pushed for a proposed resolution on Christian morality that contained a list of sins from the Bible, including adultery, fornication, and homosexuality. The board’s substitute resolution had deleted the list. “I know where this assembly stands on about everything, but not where it stands on personal morality,” complained a Virginia pastor.


Leroy Jenkins: Doing It Whose Way?

On his syndicated television show, faith healing evangelist Leroy Jenkins sometimes sang his own version of the popular “I Did It My Way,” substituting, “I did it Thy way.” Subsequent events raise questions about the rewording.

In May a South Carolina jury found Jenkins, 44, guilty of conspiring to burn the homes of a state highway patrolman and a local businessman and of conspiring to assault the officer and a newspaper reporter.

Since that time, Jenkins has been jailed in Manning Correctional Institute in Columbia, South Carolina. His attorney, an associate of controversial lawyer F. Lee Bailey, sought Jenkins’s release on bail through an appeal to the Fourth U.S. District Court of Appeals. In the interim, Jenkins’s Greenwood, South Carolina, organization was being administered by business manager June Buckingham.

Most of the 67 television stations nationwide that carried his program have cancelled.

Jenkins began his preaching ministry in Delaware, Ohio, after his conversion at a Georgia revival meeting led by flamboyant faith healer A.A. Allen. At one time he had gubernatorial aspirations in Ohio; a campaign slogan reportedly went: “If you can’t trust a minister, who can you trust?”

The Anderson, South Carolina, Independent newspaper carried a seven-article investigative series earlier this year about Jenkins’s evangelistic association, after it had moved from Ohio to nearby Greenwood. State editor Randy Loftis said the investigation revealed, among other things, that Jenkins had taken out a major insurance policy on his Holy Hill Cathedral in Ohio, shortly before its mysterious bombing in 1978. Reporter Rick Ricks, who coauthored the series, said that Jenkins once sent a letter to his followers asking for contributions to cover a $300,000 debt, then two weeks later bought himself a $250,000 home. Ricks said Jenkins’s association had a $3 million income in 1977.

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The newspaper articles apparently angered Jenkins. He was convicted of conspiring to assault Ricks. Jenkins also was convicted of conspiring to assault and burn the home of law officer C. R. Keasler, who had arrested Jenkins’s 21-year-old daughter for speeding and several related offenses, to which she pleaded guilty and was fined $100.

Jenkins’s supporters had planned a fund raising service in Boston last month. And the undaunted Jenkins announced he would move his organizational headquarters back to Ohio—after he is allowed to leave the maximum security prison in South Carolina.

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