Down East 2013 ©
It is, in many ways, a picnic like any other. Men hover over a grill, and a group of teenagers hangs in wait of burgers. Children run around in a play area. “Careful!” admonishes a man as a girl jumps from her swing to land at his feet. Inside the nearby gymnasium, kids bounce in a moonwalk while adults in the bleachers consume plates of chicken. People raise their voices to be heard above the din.
The scene shifts mid-afternoon, when a man in cargo pants puts down his food, strides to the front of the room, and hops onto the stage in a single bound. The place hushes. “Sing with me,” the man says, beginning a hymn. People join in a cappella, and the gym is transformed into a church sanctuary — Calvary Chapel in Orrington, led by Pastor Ken Graves. Details emerge: the cross behind Graves, the tattoo-inscribed Godsword on his arm, the baptismal tub at his feet.
“Do you believe Jesus Christ died for you? And that he rose from the dead?” Graves asks a woman who is the first in a long line of people to join him onstage. The woman nods. “I do.” She swallows, clearly moved. Graves and an assistant immerse her backwards into the tub. She emerges, dripping. The place erupts in cheers and applause. Cameras flash. Graves’ wife, Jeanette, embraces the woman with a towel.
The next morning the sanctuary is packed again as Graves — Springsteen-like in jeans and boots, with guitar in hand — delivers a sermon based on John 1, in which Jesus of Nazareth acquires disciples. “Let me make sure you understand this culturally,” Graves says, looking up from the Bible he stores in a satchel strapped to his hip. “To them, it was like hearing, ‘It’s Jesus of Lewiston.’ I mean, ‘Can any good thing come out of Lewiston?’ ” he says, re-phrasing a statement made in the passage by a skeptic. He smiles as the congregation laughs. “Nazareth was redneck town.”
The three Sunday services at Calvary Chapel regularly draw more than two thousand people. Turnout is similar ten miles away at Bangor Baptist Church, which has on its grounds two radio stations and the largest Christian school in the state. A few exits down Route 95 in Waterville, Faith Evangelical Free Church — originator of a popular YouTube series of skits based on the TV show The Office — also draws large crowds. Indeed, attendance at the state’s evangelical churches has swelled in recent years as mainline denominations have continued to struggle. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 37 percent of those Mainers who identify as Protestant now consider themselves evangelical.
The numbers, say religious experts and church leaders, suggest a surge of interest in Bible-based Christianity, particularly north of Portland. “It appears that there’s some sort of revival going on in central Maine,” says Ves Sheely, district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Church in New England. Sheely, who travels the state as he makes the rounds of the association’s sixty member churches, has observed new churches opening and attendance at existing ones rising. “I see an increased openness to spiritual life, here more than in other parts of New England. I see evidence of a new interest in Jesus.”
Others concur. “There is a trend of people going back to church here, especially to the more literally Bible-based churches,” says Jerry Mick, pastor of Bangor Baptist, where the nine hundred-person average weekly attendance reflects a 20 percent increase in two years. In the Bangor area alone there are more than forty churches, close to half of which are evangelical — including Nazarene, Baptist, Assembly of God, and non-denominational. Such religiosity is all the more notable given that the Pew study showed only 59 percent of Mainers are “absolutely certain” God exists, compared with 65 percent of those in the Northeast and 71 percent nationally.
That Sheely and Mick define the trend in terms of Jesus and the Bible comes as no surprise. Evangelicals have long held that the liberalization (some would say secularization) of mainstream denominations contributed to their demise. Bill Cripe, pastor of Waterville’s Faith Evangelical, summarizes that perspective: “In an effort to appease cultural pressures, the mainline denominations have strayed from taking a high view of the scriptures, seeing them instead as a compendium of good thoughts that you can take or leave at whim,” he says. “There’s irony in the fact that the more churches have drifted from viewing the Bible as the inspired, infallible, inerrant, authoritative word of God, the more attendance has dropped.”
Central Maine’s economic vulnerability may contribute to the heightened religiosity. Says Mick: “People are realizing you can have a good job and a solid bank account one day and the next day have neither. Evangelical churches teach that the only thing that really matters is eternity.” To Cripe it’s even simpler: “People feel the rightness of the Bible especially when times are tough.”
It’s possible, too, that people are more tangibly experiencing the assistance that churches can provide. Such was the case for Mike Boutin, who became homeless in November after the house where he was living burned. That event worsened an already bad situation — Boutin was unemployed and drinking heavily. Mostly on a whim, he says, he went one night with a friend to a service at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Skowhegan. After that first time, he kept being drawn back. “I just felt something,” says Boutin.
As it happened, the pastor of Trinity — an easygoing, lifelong Mainer named Richard Berry — had recently begun using the church as a shelter for men who were homeless or newly released from prison. It wasn’t long before Boutin was signing a contract that would allow him to live there, too. He had to agree to stringent house policies — secular and religious: no drugs or alcohol on the premises; 9 p.m. curfew; daily 7 a.m. prayer and 7 p.m. Bible study; and four weekly church services.
For Boutin, abiding by the contract turned out to be straightforward. “They have a program that really works,” he says. “It’s not about rules and regulations. There’s a family atmosphere here. We eat together, we pray together, we sleep together. For me it’s been, well, Jesus Christ took the desire to drink right out of my mind and my soul.” Thus underpinned, Boutin has gained steadiness in other parts of his life. When his mother died a month after he moved into Trinity, he was able to remain on the wagon, turning to Berry and another pastor and his housemates for support. He now teaches an evening Bible study class and recently became the shelter’s supervisor. He is, he says, a changed man.
That change is evident one afternoon as Boutin, burly and soft-spoken, helps lead a tour of the place. He grows uncharacteristically animated as he shows the room he shares with two other men, diagonally across the hall from the sanctuary. The beds are made, the shelves tidy. Boutin’s gesture takes in a large window and a television. “We are very comfortable,” he says. There are other bedrooms across the hall and downstairs, as well as a large kitchen and common area where the sixteen residents eat their meals. The shelter has a homey, if utilitarian, feel. To say that it operates leanly would be an understatement. Heat and hot water are provided by an outdoor furnace fueled by donated wood. The bunks are salvaged. A local grocer provides most of the food, which the men take turns cooking.
Sheely says outreach — emotional, physical, and financial — characterizes many of the evangelical churches that have taken root in central Maine in recent years. “People are doing what Jesus would have done — opening their hearts and lives, even their homes and churches, to those in need,” he says, adding that the Bible mandates application of its principles to daily life.
Providing assistance does seem to be a prominent aspect of the region’s Christian presence: Calvary Chapel’s bulletin listed among its ministries a medical response team, adoption and orphan care, a nursing home team, and prison outreach. On a recent Sunday the food pantry was issuing a request for peanut butter, vegetables, tuna fish, and baby food. The church also runs two residential programs for people with “life-controlling” issues — Blessed Hope for women and Seven Oaks for men. Bangor Baptist operates similarly, with various outreaches along with support groups for those coping with grief, divorce, and addiction. The outreach is not intended to curry favor with God. Underscoring the born-again emphasis on salvation through grace rather than through action, Graves tells his congregation: “We were created for good deeds and good works. Any good deed you do, you do because of God’s grace, not to earn it.”
The pastors, for their part, seem unabashed that assistance usually comes with a dose of scripture. “That’s the most important part of the package,” says Berry, entirely without apology. He acknowledges that “it doesn’t work for everyone. We’ve had people come and stay, and people come and leave.” On the topic of what happens to those who stay, Berry becomes earnest. “The transformation is incredible,” he says, recalling what happened when a man found his way to the church one night while both pastors were away. After the man dropped to the floor in despair, the residents got down beside him. They prayed, then they emptied their pockets of money for him. Berry’s eyes fill with tears. “They wanted to help because they’d been helped,” he says. “They came in with needs, and now they were meeting needs.”
Not everyone comes to an evangelical church from a place of physical or emotional want, of course. Beth Boutot and her husband joined Calvary Chapel ten years ago, when it was meeting in a much smaller facility in Bangor that held about two hundred people. The couple has three children, all of whom are home-schooled, and Calvary Chapel now forms the center of the family’s life, Boutot says. She pauses. “Well, no, church is not the center of my life,” she says. “God is.”
Many evangelicals express similar feelings: one of the appeals of Bible-based Christianity seems to be the focus on a personal relationship with God, with a de-emphasis on doctrine, ritual, and the need for a minister as spiritual intermediary. Cripe estimates that about half his congregation is former Catholics, and many others come to evangelicalism from more liturgically oriented Protestant traditions.
Even so — and perhaps paradoxically — many of the region’s pastors draw the crowds they do at least in part because of their personal qualities. Mick projects warmth that puts those around him at ease, and Berry’s eyes light up when he greets a stranger. Graves is eminently likeable, disinclined toward overt proselytizing — coming across as more likely to go out and shoot some hoops than to discuss the resurrection. The men from the church’s Seven Oaks residential program clearly regard him as a guys’ guy, which no doubt contributes to his success in getting them to occupy the front rows of the sanctuary at every church service.
Graves, for his part, says he was not particularly happy when he found himself being called to the ministry. “I shrank from the idea,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a nerdier thing.” Equal parts woodsman, pop idol, and straight-talker, he’s about as far from any kind of effete ministerial stereotype as anyone could be. Still, his followers see him first as spiritual. “Ken is obedient to what God tells him to do,” says Beth Boutot. “He’s very faithful to the truth of God’s word, and very sincere.” Jeanette Graves credits much of Calvary’s popularity with the fact that Graves goes through the scriptures verse by verse. “It’s all about the fact that Ken teaches the Bible. People are hungry to learn,” she says.
Whether it’s the scriptures or pastors that are pulling people into central Maine churches, the sell is not always an easy one. “Maine can be a dark place spiritually,” says Cripe, who says he was “blown away” by the “blatant and open hostility not toward Christianity but toward Bible-believing Christianity” during his long stint writing for the region’s newspapers. “There is a spiritual oppressiveness here. Intellectualism is part of it, and so is isolationism. Individuality breeds a kind of contempt — there’s no one to answer to.”
Another point of resistance may be the association people make between evangelicalism and hard-core fundamentalism. Yet, if the region’s old-style Bible-based worship was undergirded by Puritan fire and brimstone (and implicitly by a wrathful God), the new evangelicalism views Christianity mostly through the lens of the New Testament and Jesus, who is portrayed as a merciful manifestation of God. The emphasis tends to be on love, forgiveness, and God’s affirmation of human worth. Skeptics may see ulterior design in such a perspective, and, indeed, from the sermons they preach to the kinds of outreach they offer, pastors seem mindful of conveying upbeat messages in order not to alienate their flocks. “Our time together really is one of celebration and instruction,” reads a statement on the Faith Evangelical Church Web site. “We enjoy an uplifting time of workshop, teaching from God’s word, and ministry.”
Like some of the best known evangelical churches — such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois — many of the newer places of worship in central Maine are based on the “seeker” model. As the name suggests, such churches target the unchurched and the spiritually hungry, but they also take on the challenges of everyday life. Bangor Baptist, for instance, has an online directory called “Business With Believers” that encourages members to list their enterprises and to do business with other Christians. It also urges people to join “community groups” intended to deepen spiritual understanding, foster “authentic relationships,” and connect each person to an “umbrella of care.” The message is clear: Join us, and we will look after you.
Indeed, in a place where the closest neighbor may be a mile away, the offer of ready-made community that evangelical churches offer can be compelling. To stand inside the entry at Calvary Chapel as people are entering on a Sunday morning is to watch friends greeting one another and catching up on news: How does Michael like camp? Did David find a job? How are you? The overhead video displays an image of Mount Katahdin, and the bulletin announces an upcoming outing to Popham Beach as well as a community breakfast. The eight women and men of the worship band joke as they ready their equipment.
But while such friendliness is authentic, and while outsiders may see the region’s evangelicals as insular, the community like any other has factions. There are unresolved issues, both between and within congregations: the role of women, for example, and the compromise between Biblical purity and the pop psychology that sometimes accompanies the seeker model. There are political divisions, too — particularly between older Christians and the young, who are apt to be less conservative and compelled by the same causes that interest their secular peers. “It’s not that I don’t care about abortion and gay marriage,” says one young woman, “but I’m more interested in our stewardship of the earth.”
Ask Bill Cripe about the current hot topics in evangelicalism, and his voice grows lively: Calvinism, he says, and the limits of God’s power in people’s lives. “What,” he asks, “is the extent of man’s free will versus God’s sovereignty?” It’s easy to imagine him posing such a question over coffee at a church conference, holding forth among those who agree with his views and those who don’t.
At Trinity, Richard Berry has experienced a divisiveness that cuts closer to the bone. From the start, the shelter has been beset by difficulties. Money has been scarce, and the state fire marshal threatened to shut the place down for code violations. Worse, half the church members left because “they didn’t want to worship beside ‘people like that,’ ” says Berry, referring to the shelter residents. He is outdoors when he tells this story, looking out over the site where ground is being broken for a new shelter facility. “People like that. It could happen to anyone,” he says. Not that it really fazes him. The upgraded facility will be built, Berry says, and the funds will be provided. The banner at the top of the Trinity Web site summarizes his stance: “Faith Without Works Is Dead.” There’s another mandate, too. “I’m just doing what the Lord led me to do,” he says. “Others who feel the same will join me.”