Most people, I think, look at churches as having always been there. They are part of the landscape, like rocks. They show up on street corners, on key urban lots. They sit in the midst of buildings that have been torn down and replaced, seeming permanent, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
Indeed, surveys of religious attendance in the United States tend to promote that view. This U.S. Census survey page from 2001 is typical. It lists respondent’s answers according to categories like “Catholic,” “Southern Baptist,” “Other Baptist,” and so forth.
Yet somewhere in the categories that add up from “Other Protestant,” “Other Specific,” and “Undesignated” (with a substantial admixture of Baptist and Pentecostal affiliates) lies a religious trend about which it is very difficult to get numbers.
I speak of “Bible churches,” those churches explicitly founded to restore religious teaching from the Bible. I have been able to find no census of such churches, probably because the congregations are independently formed and self-supporting, with no national affiliation. Most illuminatingly, you can put “Bible church” in quotes in a Google window and find the individual websites of, literally, thousands of them. Many Yellow Pages providers around the country — free enterprise forging ahead of government, no surprise — list “Bible churches” as a religious category right alongside “Methodist,” “Lutheran,” and all the rest.
PASTOR CHIP THOMPSON IS A LARGE, friendly man with a round, open face. Most Sundays, he wears the same thing, so much so that it has become a kind of uniform: gray slacks, a dress shirt and tie, and a sleeveless dark gray cardigan sweater. No sports jacket or suit coat. It lends him an approachable and familiar air in the pulpit, behind which he bobs and weaves and makes large, amiable gestures.
A gifted public speaker with a mellow voice, Thompson has the knack of blending colloquial storytelling with the highest concepts of Biblical scholarship. Most Sundays at his church, New England Bible Church in Andover, Massachusetts, he preaches for more than 30 minutes, and the time just whizzes by, even for a congregation well studded with jumpy adolescents and pre-teens. (Children up to third grade are dismissed from the sanctuary to a well-attended “children’s church” in an attached classroom and office building just before the sermon begins.)
Despite his common touch, Chip does not shy from explicating the thorniest passages of scripture. He is currently preaching on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and has said, “I don’t know when we’ll get done.”
THOMPSON GOT HIS CALL to the ministry when he and his wife lived in Santa Cruz, California. Thompson was at that time a professional surfer. His sponsor, the owner of a surf shop, invited Chip and his wife to his (the sponsor’s) wedding, which turned out to be officiated by surfer-preacher Jan Jedlicka of Scots Valley Free Methodist Church.
Jedlicka proved an attractive evangelist to the young couple.
“We were pot smokers, drinkers,” Thompson recalled. “But he was a surfer, so he had to be all right.” Jedlicka invited the two to his house to watch a Billy Graham crusade on television. They arrived too late for the sermon, “So Jan said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what the message was.’ We ended up kneeling on his living room floor, pledging our lives to Christ.”
Their lives thoroughly changed, Chip and Joan Thompson headed back to their home state, Florida, to “get some training in the ministry.” At Pensacola Christian College, in the early 1970s, they found a great many people like themselves, eager to bring the Good News directly to…well, it’s safe to say “audiences.” At graduation, the school urged its newly minted ministers to “go outside our comfort zone. Don’t stay in the Bible belt.”
The Thompsons picked New England.
THEIR MINISTRY STARTED, as all such do, with knocking on doors. “We wanted to share the love of God through the simple teaching of the scriptures,” Thompson said. “We’d let the doctrine unfold from there.” Their apartment complex gave them use of a meeting room. “The very first Sunday, we had nearly fifty people. Of course, we had three families, two of which had six children apiece.”
Thompson had raised some financing for his ministry in Pensacola. For the rest, it was self-supporting, and he worked part-time as a carpenter for five years. By word of mouth, the congregation grew to the point where cars and parking were beginning to annoy the apartment dwellers. After two years, the new congregation had to find a new quarters. They began actively shopping, both for a place to meet and for a place to buy.
For the next two years, the group bounced from a Knights of Columbus Hall, to an old industrial building in downtown Andover. “We tried very hard to buy that building,” Thompson said, “but it turned out to be a Super Fund site, and the liabilities would have killed us.”