This is the second in a series of articles entitled, “Band of Brothers: A Case Study of Church Planting in Boston.”
In the city of Boston there is a 2.5 mile long red stripe that runs through the city, down sidewalks, across roads, and past historical landmarks. It’s called the Freedom Trail. The Freedom trail passes 16 of Boston’s oldest historical landmarks, including Paul Revere’s house, which still stands just as it did over three hundred years ago, and the Old North Church where the lanterns were hung that signaled Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride.
Boston’s Dense and Diverse Religious History
The city is full of history at every turn, and the religious history of Boston runs deep. Puritan settlers first settled in Boston in the 1600s to pursue their religious freedom and founded what they called “the holy commonwealth.” It was to be a “city on a hill,” an example of religious life and practice for the world. By 1750, there were over 15,000 people living in the city and it was a center of trade and export.
In the 1730s and 40s, a revival of Protestant churches known as The First Great Awakening, started outside of Boston in Northampton, Massachusetts. Then the Second Great Awakening swept through America in the late 1700s through the 1830s. It was fueled by more of the equality ideals that drove both the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution. Women and African Americans participated widely in the Second Great Awakening, with the largest number of converts being women.
The religious atmosphere in Boston was affected by both of these movements and the number of different protestant denominations in the city grew. Inspired by equality, the 2nd Grt Awakening incorporated women and African Americans. Click To Tweet
In the 1800s, immigration from Europe increased and brought large numbers of Catholic and Jewish immigrants to the city. The potato famine in Ireland sent thousands of Irish Catholic immigrants to Boston. Since the boom in immigration during the late part of the 19th century, the population of the city remains largely Catholic today.
“Godless, Liberal Boston?”
Despite Boston’s rich religious history, there is a narrative among American evangelicals around the city, and much of the northeast, that paints it as a godless, unchurched region. A Barna study from 2015 ranks Boston among the “least churched” cities in the United States. The Pew Research center lists four New England states, including Massachusetts, among the least religious states in the country.
The Southern Baptist Convention paints a bleak picture of the Christian landscape in Boston, stating on the website of their North American Mission Board that there is a tremendous lack of churches in Boston, and that there is a great need for gospel-centered churches. They back up their assertions with the fact that there are only 115 SBC churches in Boston, with a population of 5.9 million. They also claim on their website that 98% of the people who live in Boston are unchurched.
I recently met with a Southern Baptist church planter, who is also connected with the Acts 29 church planting network. He insisted that there are almost no churches in Boston, and that the few churches that are present don’t teach the gospel. He described the people of Boston as only seeking after wealth, knowledge, and worldly things, while completely lacking Jesus.
I was surprised at his assessment of Boston as such a Christian wasteland. While there may be seeds of truth in the idea that many Bostonians are unchurched, his general assessment seemed to be largely based on assumptions. Also, if only Southern Baptist churches count as legitimate, “gospel-centered” churches, that will certainly skew the statistics negatively in the northeast.
But he is not alone. A number of church planting networks are targeting Boston based on this understanding. And one of the driving factors is a perception that any churches that do exist in Boston are liberal and unbiblical, especially those that are egalitarian. As a result, these planters are not only here to share the gospel, but to emphasize their complementarian gender theology as well. Planters come to Boston, not only to share the gospel, but their gender theology as well. Click To Tweet
Godless Target or Revival Center?
As shown in the previous article and in the image below, the response to the “godless liberal Boston” narrative, has been to import this specific brand of evangelical Christianity from other regions of the country. They are not simply in Boston to plant churches, but they are in Boston specifically to plant complementarian churches.
The graphic below depicts the seven networks specifically targeting Boston and the approximately 50 churches that have been planted in the city since 2005.
Despite having a reputation for being godless and unchurched, Boston has been undergoing what has been called, “the quiet revival” for nearly 50 years. According to Jeff Bass of The Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), a local faith-based non-profit that researches religion in Boston,
The quiet revival is the unprecedented growth of Christianity in the city of Boston over the past 40 years.
It is a revival that flew under the radar, because it did not happen with a charismatic leader, and it did not happen in English speaking churches. The vast majority of new churches in the city, some 90% or more, are immigrant, non-English speaking communities.
The number of churches in the city has grown steadily for the past 50 years. In fact, church growth in Boston over the past five decades has outpaced population growth. Despite a 'godless' reputation, research shows Boston is in the midst of a 50-year revival. Click To Tweet
Boston’s Thriving Religious Landscape
While many in the city are unchurched, including a large percentage of the quarter of a million students, the immigrant population is growing churches in record numbers. The picture is significantly less bleak than what has been generally presented. Where we may have been looking for traditional church growth, and a certain type of evangelical presence, God has been steadily moving, and working his own plan in the city.
At the same time, some of the largest English speaking evangelical churches in the area have moved to include women in pastoral leadership in the past decades, and they are also vibrant, growing, and biblical churches. Included among these churches is Park Street Church, which is a stop on the historic Freedom Trail. Park Street is anything but a Bible-belt church plant. It has stood at the corner of the Boston Common since 1809, and still hosts thousands in attendance every Sunday.
Boston-grown church planting movements, like the Highrock churches, have also been highly successful. They are not only egalitarian in their theology, including women at all leadership levels, but they focus on and value other types of diversity as well.
While it is an exciting time in the history of Boston with the church showing record growth, it is also troubling to see that the city is being targeted by many denominations and networks that are specifically pushing their complementarian gender theology. While God has quietly been doing his own work through the Christians who live in the city, through the immigrant communities, and the Boston-grown churches and organizations like Park Street, Highrock, EGC, and others, men from other regions of the country have been working to push their gender agenda on the northeast.
The emphasis on the necessity of limiting women in churches is a stumbling block to many in Boston who have witnessed first-hand the furtherance of God’s mission through the service of female church leaders. It is not only set against the ideals of many Bostonians, but more importantly, against the redemptive story of Jesus Christ, which brings all people into full equality. Limiting women goes against the indigenous work of God in Boston and Jesus' kingdom vision. Click To Tweet
I am thankful for the Boston-grown organizations that are working to grow and equip local churches and Christian organizations! I pray to see more churches rising up from within the city, embracing equality, and moving the church forward in Boston. Unfortunately, attention needs to be paid to the influx of complementarian church plants. God has been doing a great work in Boston, and these church plants must not be allowed to set the evangelical church back a century, and remove women from the pulpit.