Maine church planters envision communities’ spiritual warming

Aroostook County, located in northern Maine and known to residents simply as “The County,” takes up half the state’s land mass but makes up only 5 percent of its population.

Vast tracts of open space and distinctly formidable weather make The County feel like another country when compared to the rest of the state.

“It’s not easy to live here,” said pastor and church planter Joshua Presley of Calvary Baptist Church in Caribou, a town six hours north of Portland that sits north of 40 percent of Canada’s population.

Presley, a 30-year-old east Tennessee transplant who also works as a banker in neighboring Presque-Isle, has now weathered three winters with his wife Kelsey, who grew up in Portland.

Joshua Pressley - Maine

Joshua Presley is guiding Calvary Baptist Church in Caribou, Maine, to “be the church” by leading members in biblical community and in engaging residents through service and community involvement. He is one of several new Southern Baptist church planters who are forging spiritual inroads throughout the state. (Photo by Adam Miller/NAMB)

“People who are from here have a sense of pride and independence because they’ve made it work despite the weather. They’re amazing people,” Presley said.

The County can be many degrees colder than the rest of Maine. But as long as the snow slows to 12 inches or less per hour, the roads stay open and life goes on.

“It’s a dry cold,” Presley said, trying to assure that the weather isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Remarkable forested landscapes, farmland and picturesque rocky shores make Maine a natural draw for tourists. Agriculture and natural resources are its top industries. Mail order outdoor adventure supplier L.L. Bean calls the state home.

But the 1.3 million residents are fiercely independent; a predominantly Catholic and mainline Protestant heritage have given way to skepticism or complacency toward faith.

More than 25 percent of Mainers claim no affiliation — 9 percentage points higher than the national average — according to Pew Research data, while 26 percent of Mainers identify as Roman Catholic, 25 percent as mainline Protestants and 15 percent as evangelicals.

A 2010 Gallup poll placed Maine residents third lowest in the nation for weekly church attendance at 27 percent, compared to 63 percent of Mississippians and 58 percent of Alabamans who attend services weekly.

But thanks to attention from Southern Baptists and partnerships with churches in the South, new flickers of faith are igniting across Maine’s rural landscape as well as in its more densely populated cities.

Dan Coleman - Maine

Church planter Dan Coleman (left) pastors Kennebec Community Church in Maine’s capital city of Augusta. The church holds three packed services a week and soon will move into a building once owned by the city’s most prominent Catholic church. (Photo by Adam Miller/NAMB)

As with Calvary in Caribou, churches engaging their communities throughout the state have turned the heads of skeptics and nominal Christians.

“Ministry in Maine means getting your hands and feet dirty as you get to know people and their families and live in community with them,” said Barry Murry, the North American Mission Board’s church-planting catalyst for Maine. “This is the only way to see lives changed by the gospel here.”

In the capital city of Augusta, two hours east of Portland, church planter Dan Coleman of Kennebec Community Church is seeing encouraging signs.

Kennebec Community has the potential to become one of the most vibrant churches in southern Maine as they move from three services in a crowded building into a space previously owned by the city’s most prominent Catholic church. It would not be out of the question to jump to 400 in attendance.

“It’s cool to see things you can’t deny as the power of God,” Coleman said. “And a lot of it has been God working through our availability and consistency. Consistency is huge around here. People say, ‘You guys are at everything.’ And that is exactly what we want.”

Les Dancer - Maine

Les Dancer (right), pastor of Sheepscot Community Church in Whitefield, Maine, is a Maine native. A few years after accepting Christ, he was sent by Kennebec Community Church as a church planter to reach his hometown, named for George Whitefield who preached during the Great Awakening. Dancer has organized block parties and other events to connect with the community. (Photo by Adam Miller/NAMB)

Kennebec Community already has sent out two church planters. One of them, Maine native Les Dancer is pastor of Sheepscot Valley Community Church, a growing church plant in the town of Whitefield, named after George Whitefield who preached in the American colonies during the Great Awakening. Dancer accepted Christ at Kennebec Community and was discipled there before beginning the church plant just 15 minutes into the country surrounding Augusta.

“Our churches were once full. We experienced the revival of the Great Awakening, but in Maine we’ve really lost the fire,” said Dancer, who is intent on seeing that fire rekindled.

Maine native Aaron Werner (@aaronjwerner), who returned to the state after 17 years away to start a church near his home in the Portland area, said many of the city’s Catholic buildings have become available as attendance has waned.

“We actually considered buying or renting one,” said Werner, whose church — Cross Church (@CrossChurchME) — launched Jan. 12 in rented auditorium space at the University of Southern Maine. “We woke up and there was ice on the road, and I said, ‘Oh, no,'” Werner recounted.

But more than 200 people showed up that morning. For a Maine-coast church launch in mid-winter, it was a success by any measure. And really, for a launch any time of year in any part of Maine, it was remarkable.

“The need throughout Maine and New England is astounding,” said Jeff Christopherson, vice president for NAMB’s Northeast Region. “But it’s also astounding how many hardworking and sharp church planters have taken up the task.”

— Adam Miller is a writer for the North American Mission Board.