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.”
During that time, Thompson happened across the current 12-acre site, which was vacant, owned by a man named John Callahan. Callahan wanted half a million dollars for it, and the price was out of reach. But when Callahan died, his children, wanting to clear up his investment portfolio, found New England Bible Church’s name in his records. They got in touch and asked for an offer. The Thompsons could come up with $150,000. The heirs said yes.
It wasn’t simple consummating the deal. “We spent a long, long time in land court, arguing with the local powers that be. I’m sure they were concerned about taking twelve acres off the tax rolls, for one thing. But then the Greek Orthodox Church was built nearby, and a housing development.” And the local objections began to look weaker. Finally, in 1996, a judge looked over her bench at the city attorney and said, “Anyone knows a church can build in a residential neighborhood. So why are we here?”
WALK INTO NEW ENGLAND BIBLE CHURCH on a Sunday morning and you’ll be greeted with the sound of contemporary Christian “praise music,” played by a guitar-bass-drums-piano band on the dais, with the words to the songs projected on a screen behind them. Nothing could have seemed more outlandish to us, as Episcopalians. We first went at the invitation of friends of our sons, from their taekwondo lessons.
At the time, I had stopped going to the Episcopal church, and had retreated instead to daily Bible reading. The Episcopal service was heartbreakingly bifurcated, between blasts of orthodoxy from the prayer book and hymns, and the new age pabulum being preached by the clergy. The appointment of openly gay Gene Robinson to the bishopric of New Hampshire had been the last straw. I would find myself crying for the loss of a church. It was unbearable.
Sally, meanwhile, fed up with the pointless lessons our boys were getting in Episcopal Sunday school, had started taking the boys to 9 a.m. Sunday school at NEBC, then dropping them off with me and attending worship services at St. Paul’s for the music and the liturgy. For her, the break came when the priest at St. Paul’s, learning of her attendance at NEBC, asked, snarkily, “Do you have to check your brains at the door?”
NEW ENGLAND BIBLE CHURCH HAS THE LOOK of permanence about it. It is a low white clapboard building with a conventional steeple, built in an L-shape, with one leg of the L devoted to the sanctuary, the other to classrooms and offices, the both covering about 10,000 square feet. The church plans a 10,000-square-foot Family Life Center next door, which will have a gym and facilities for family recreation, meetings, and worship. Thompson estimates membership at 350-400.
The building lies a scant mile from Andover Country Club — a very nice neighborhood indeed. (Andover is home to the prep school President Bush attended.) A big rock sits smack dab in the middle of the church parking lot. On it has been painted: “New England Bible Church, established 1982. Teaching people to know and follow Jesus.”
The church operates on a faith budget. That means it relies on weekly collections and pledges, nothing more. NEBC could not get a construction loan with only land as collateral. So they sold church bonds, which will mature in 2009. An old-line denominational church can go along for quite some time with poor attendance and declining membership. A typical Bible church would die very quickly if people stopped coming.
Over and over again, Thompson uses a certain phrase: “speak to.” As in, “We tried to find a way to make the services speak to contemporary people.” It’s a Newt Gingrich-ism, to my ears. It works. Indeed, as Newt Gingrich pulled an unexpected revolution in 1994, Bible churches throughout the country, through grit, hard work, and good communications, are fueling a revolution in religion. Far from requiring that brains be checked at the door, Bible churches require a parishioner’s active participation.
People are hungry for religion, not spiritualism. Bible churches appear to have filled the need. It will be interesting to see how the movement fares in the years ahead.