Author's note: Since moving to New England four years ago, I have been intrigued by the mentality of some evangelical Christians who see this region as a great, unchurched "mission field." To hear them talk, you might think they were missionaries from the 1800s, intent on imposing their understanding of Christ to the remote regions of the world. Somehow, we have become the target of their newest conversion attempts. This is my open letter to those "missionaries."
Dear "evangelical" Christians who see New England as a mission field,
We're good, thanks.
I know you think you know us. You think we are up here in our blue state kingdom, letting the gays get married and hating the Christians. We've strayed so far from our Puritan forebearers who established their churches and built schools like Harvard and Yale for the formation of ministers. Now we are godless heathens on a destructive path.
I know. I've seen your websites and books. A lot of churches, particularly from the South, are paying to send people to "plant" new churches here. They've sent you, and a bunch of money, and told you to start new "evangelical churches." We here in New England are the new mission field. You quote statistics about the very few (usually only a few percentage points of the population) who are "real Christians" here, and you bemoan our embrace of all people. And you will save us. You are going to save our souls and bring us Jesus.
Except here's the thing: Jesus is already here. He has been for a very long time, and we already knew him, long before you came.
I know, I know, I'm one of those Northern elites with the fancy seminary degree and no use for the Bible. (And, yes, I know you think going to seminary is a "waste of time.") What do I know?
But here's another thing -- I'm not. It may surprise you to know I'm a Southerner too. Born and raised. I went to seminary in Atlanta in a Reformed setting. I studied the Bible. I cared about it so much I learned to read it in Greek and Hebrew, so I could truly understand it. I also studied theology. Not the fluffy stuff I'm sure you think I read, but Calvin, Luther, Barth and a host of others. We seminarians believed our calling from God was so important that we didn't simply swagger off John Wayne style into the "frontier" of New England. For three years we lived in community and studied and prayed and were formed into being pastors.
And this may surprise you even more: I'm an evangelical. That's right, even us mainline folks can be evangelical. The thing is, we claim that word in the way it was originally intend. The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek meaning "good news," and we believe in the "good news" of Christ. It wasn't about a litmus test of beliefs. It was about a test of love and grace. We believe that Christ calls us into radical love for our neighbors and propels us into missional work. We believe that God is still present in New England because God has never left. God has been working here to make this the sort of place it is. A good place, with good people, many of whom know a whole lot more about Christ that you realize, and most of whom could probably teach you a thing or two about faith.
So before you come to New England, thinking you are bringing us Jesus, you might want to look around. Jesus has been here for a long time, and Jesus will be here long after any of us are still breathing. We are not the mission field. We are evidence of what happens when good people listen to God's still speaking voice and attempt to build that "city on the hill" that our Puritan forebearers envisioned.
You are, of course, welcome to join us. But don't come here telling us we are not really Christian, or spreading falsehoods about the state of our beloved churches, or calling our neighbors sinners. We don't like that.
And neither does Jesus.
A Southern evangelical Christian pastor in Vermont
Follow Rev. Emily C. Heath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emilycheath