AT QUARTER TO NINE in the morning on Easter Sunday, I drove into the sprawling parking lot of the Revere Showcase Cinema, a megaplex theater across the street from The Squire strip club. I passed an expanse of run-down carnival equipment and pulled in alongside the few other cars parked there that early. We weren’t there to see a movie; we were going to church.
Outside the main entrance, I was greeted by a man and a boy of about 10, both wearing black T-shirts bearing the words “TrueVine Church” in a simple white font — the hip-looking shirts might have just as easily been for the latest Apple product. I’d seen the logo for the first time a few days earlier on an advertisement on the back of a MBTA bus.
The man in the T-shirt smiled and opened the door, warmly welcoming me and directing me to the next clutch of volunteers, similarly T-shirted, who he said would continue to point me in the right direction. I walked past an auditorium that would later be showing Spring Breakers and into the theater that had been transformed into a church sanctuary.
As I helped myself to a free cup of coffee, others began to trickle in — about 80 people in all. Boys and girls in their Easter best climbed over the seats while their parents chatted between bites of pastries. Christian music played over the PA. Projected on the screen, as if it were the name of some summer blockbuster, was the title of this morning’s sermon, “Superstition: Uncovering the truth behind an American holiday.”
Then Brandon Allison walked down the handicap ramp and took to the makeshift stage. For a pastor, he looked surprisingly young. He was wearing blue jeans and an untucked plaid shirt. His hair was cropped close, and he had one of those tiny microphones sticking out from behind his ear, like Justin Bieber. He seemed nervous.
“If you have your Bibles with you —” he paused and looked up at his youngish congregation “ — or your phones, turn to First Corinthians with me.” With the TrueVine logo lighting up the big screen behind him, a church was being born.
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but this sort of thing is happening quite a bit in the Boston area. It’s called “church planting,” when evangelical Christians plant the seed of a new church in some unlikely place — a movie theater, YMCA, or a building abandoned by another denomination — and try to coax it to growth.
“Most of the churches are not the huge white building in the center of town,” says David Swaim, pastor of Highrock Church in Arlington. “Many of them are happening where there is a lot of ethnic diversity and in nontraditional church buildings.”
Back in 1999, Swaim’s Highrock Church began as a kind of combined Bible study and dinner party at a home on High Rock Street in Needham. When a pastor from California visited the group and saw how diverse it was, in age and ethnicity, he observed that hardly any other churches in the Boston area met such standards and suggested the members start their own. In 2000, the group asked Swaim, who had been serving at Park Street Church, to help it plant Highrock Church. The members met for a while in Cambridge and then in Somerville before moving to their current home, a former Greek Orthodox church in Arlington.
Highrock, which has an average Sunday attendance of 800, has had a hand in spinning off six additional churches since, and Swaim has become a kind of elder statesman of church planting in this area. Citing a statistic published by the Emmanuel Gospel Center, Swaim says that though the population of Boston has remained relatively constant between 1970 and the early ’90s, the number of churches — most of the new ones fit under the broad umbrella of “evangelical” — almost doubled. The Emmanuel Gospel Center called this Boston’s “quiet revival,” and it’s still happening.
For a certain kind of missionary, New England is as much the frontier as parts of Asia and South America; despite the growing number of churches, Massachusetts remains among the least religious states in the country. And though others have tried unsuccessfully to start churches here before, these new transplants are taking the time to understand and integrate themselves into their adopted communities. And they’re seeing success for their efforts.
ONCE UPON A TIME, Boston was a “city upon a hill.” Anyway, that’s what Governor John Winthrop told future Massachusetts residents sailing here in 1630. Evangelism practically started in this region in the 18th century, with Northampton’s Jonathan Edwards and his fiery sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yet today only about 11 percent of New Englanders consider themselves evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s compared with 26 percent nationwide and more than 50 percent in Bible Belt states.Continued...