In a section of the northeastern U.S. that was once the cradle of American independence and the Great Awakening, religion is no longer part of the culture.
Instead, like the historic churches that sit empty and unused, the gospel is often viewed as part of a once-important past no longer relevant or necessary to modern life in New England.
For pastors trying to share Jesus in a spiritual darkness akin to modern Europe, the indifference and remoteness they face can be discouraging.
The idea of the pastor-to-pastor connection was first birthed in February when Hal Haller, associate executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, visited with South Florida Baptist pastors.
“We need your pastors to come alongside our pastors to encourage them and pray for them,” he said.
BCNE serves approximately 380 churches spread across Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and Haller already had a connection with Florida Baptists. He had planted Living Hope Baptist Church in Middleburg, Florida, in 2012 and worked in church planting with the Jacksonville Baptist Association.
Culbreth, who has embraced the partnership opportunity that would reach beyond geography and into the hearts of pastors and their congregations, gathered a team of pastors from his region and prepared them to go to New England.
“These Florida pastors had never met before, so we did several Zoom calls prior to the trip,” Culbreth said.
The Florida team, which included wives of some of the pastors, drove between churches, towns and communities throughout western Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
They visited small rural congregations, historic churches in Boston and a chapel near Yale University in Connecticut.
“The trip was about congregations encouraging congregations and pastors encouraging pastors,” Culbreth said.
“Our team met with 18 pastors over the week; we … got to pray with them and bless them with gift cards and meals.”
While encouraging the New England Baptist pastors, the Florida Baptist pastors returned home encouraged and inspired.
Daniel Helms, pastor at The Branch Community Church in Palatka, decided to go on the trip to capture the needs of the BCNE churches.
“The Lord taught me that I have a responsibility in Palatka to raise up disciples who are willing to go across cultures to spread the good news … even if that other culture is in New England and not Uganda.”
Clint Wagnon, pastor at CrossWay Church in Deltona, also sensed God leading him to go on the trip.
“Given the influence the region has on American culture and the need for gospel work in the region, we sensed God was leading us to go see for ourselves how we could join His mission,” he said.
Wagnon said they returned with a clear mission.
“The need and opportunity are tremendous, but the workers are few,” he said. “It made me pray for potential planters and pastors across the nation to hear the ‘New England call’ like Paul heard the plea from Macedonia in his midnight vision.”
Terry Dorsett, BCNE executive director, sees hope, opportunity and God’s hand at work in the developing partnership.
“Though New England may be one of the least religious regions in the nation,” he noted, “that does not mean God is not working. Pre-
COVID, we had record baptisms … and BCNE has joined with our partners to help … plant 169 new congregations in the past 15 years.”
Culbreth said the past two years have been hard on churches and pastors throughout the U.S., but more so in New England which spent a lot more time shut down than did Florida.
“It just reminded me how important it is to encourage and stay connected to our pastors. Our little statement, ‘Right Beside You’ (the Florida Baptist Convention tag line) is more important than it was when we came up with it seven years ago,” Culbreth reflected. “Seven years ago, it was cool; today, it is a necessity.”