FALL RIVER, Mass. — Pastor Tom Cabral still tells people to meet him at “the bar,” even though it’s a church now. Locals best remember the worn building as a former sports bar where a 19-year-old once walked in and shot three suspected rival crack dealers.
Eight years later, the mirrored walls, parquet dance floor and bar remain. But the worst trouble might be found around the Sunday school table, where kids try to heed a handwritten list of rules including: “We will walk indoors, not run.”
Redemption Fellowship of Fall River is one of dozens of churches the Southern Baptist Convention has planted around New England in the last decade with a multimillion-dollar push into territory skeptical of the South and increasingly indifferent to religion.
Cabral seems unfazed. He’s indigenous, he explains, a native of nearby Somerset. He’s so eager to share his faith that he regularly carries a wood cross asking “Are You Ready?” to a traffic island in the southeastern Massachusetts city and evangelizes to anyone who rolls down their window.
“I really believe that God wants to change this city,” he said.
Since 2002, Southern Baptists have spent roughly $5 million to plant churches around the region and have another $800,000 committed for this year, said Jim Wideman, the executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, the Southern Baptist’s regional church-planting arm.
They’ve started 133 new churches in that time, a nearly 70 percent increase that brings their regional total to 325.
No denomination is investing as much in New England church planting, though Hartford Seminary professor Scott Thumma notes that attendance isn’t growing as fast as the number of churches.
Thumma said the roughly 30,500 members the denomination had in New England 2010 is a 20 percent increase from a decade ago, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. That growth is about the same as another religiously conservative group, the Assemblies of God, which hasn’t emphasized church planting.
Thumma said Southern Baptists are drawing immigrants and new residents, but there’s little proof they’ve reached area lifers, including the large Roman Catholic population and increasing numbers of secularists.
“I don’t see a third Great Awake-ning happening at the moment,” Thumma said.
A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study last year found that since 2007, the Northeast had the largest percentage increase nationwide of people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. A 2012 Gallup poll indicates the six-state New England region has the country’s five least-religious states (Connecticut is No. 11).
Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant group with about 16 million members, have been trying since the late 1950s to build a northern presence. But their vigorous recent church-planting is part of a broader, denomination-wide emphasis at a time when overall membership is declining.
Wideman said research indicates that the unchurched are far more likely to be drawn to a new church than one that already exists. Multiple church plants in neighborhood-centric urban areas, though unlikely to draw huge numbers, aim to create enduring Southern Baptist communities, he said.
A similarity among the New England church plants is that none of their names include the words “Southern Baptist.”
Thumma said it’s a clear effort to avoid some of the stereotypes about Southerners, such as negative perceptions of their racial views or reputed “everyone’s going to hell” fundamentalism. It’s not malicious, he said, but “they’re church-planting by stealth.”
Wideman said they never deny they’re Southern Baptist, but if it’s a barrier to sharing the faith, why broadcast it? The Southern Baptist Convention itself has acknowledged this problem by approving an optional alternative name last summer: Great Commission Baptists.
The main concern, Wideman said, is that Northerners will see the churches as excluding them. And he has a question for Southern friends who complain about the tactic: “How well do you think First Yankee Baptist Church would go over in Alabama?”
With a thick North Carolina accent, Lyandon Warren can’t hide his roots. But in seven years planting churches in West Pawlet and Poultney, Vt., he finds showing a commitment to the local community is more important.
Many New Englanders have zero familiarity with the Bible, so you can’t just throw open the doors of a new church and expect people to come in, he said. Instead, his group reached out with novel approaches including offering water and a diaper-changing station at a town-wide tag sale. In Norwich, Conn., pastor Shaun Pillay’s group volunteers for various tasks, from filling sand bags to snow shoveling. It creates a foothold and trust in the community, if not converts, he said.
“They say, ‘We like what you do, but we don’t like your God,’ ” Pillay said.
Persistence is critical, said Pillay and Warren, who emphasize showing up at the same place, at the same times, with the same Christian message, like Cabral with his cross at the Fall River intersection.
On a recent February afternoon, horns honked and a middle finger flew as Cabral walked the traffic island. Drivers also kept engaging him, trying to answer the question on his cross, which he’d explain meant, “Are you ready to face God when you die?” Cabral would share how he knew that he was, then hand out a card with a gospel message and his church’s address.
Cabral’s church has just 35 members, but he says he’s not going anywhere. He wants to love people, give them a chance to let God change them and see how this church plant goes.
“It’s like growing a garden,” he said. “You’ve got to plant the seed, you’ve got to water it and you’ve got to be faithful.”