ARLINGTON, N.Y.–“We are literally in the center of the biggest mission field in the United States,” explained Sean Pierce, director of missions in the Hudson Baptist Association of New York, citing statistics that show 2 percent of people in upstate New York and New England profess a recognizable Christian testimony.
“That means we would be as likely to run into another believer in most of China and almost all of Russia as we are here in New York,” Pierce said. “Church planting and making disciples is the very best way to reach the area with the gospel.”
The irony: it was once the American Bible Belt.
Within the 12-county area of the Hudson Baptist Association, a million and a half people populate the medium-sized cities and quaint villages that string their way along the Hudson River Valley from Dutchess County, about an hour north of New York City, up to the northern half of eastern New York state. In the Hudson Baptist Association, 30 Southern Baptist churches exist and other churches with a biblical gospel witness are rare.
There are a few Evangelical Free churches and Christian Missionary Alliance congregations, but the area is overwhelmingly irreligious despite generational Catholicism and tepid mainline churches that are often near empty.
Where religiosity is most fervent, it is likely to be rooted in occult practices or New Age mysticism. The largest New Age training center in America is in the area.
“We have Woodstock right up the road,” church planter Pete Shults said on a stop in Hurley, about an hour and a half north of New York City. “Of course the concert was held in nearby Bethel, but Woodstock became a New Age haven.”
Within 15 minutes is the town of New Paltz, home to a State University of New York (SUNY) campus of 8,000-plus students and a city where the mayor made news in 2004 by presiding over an illegal marriage ceremony for 30 homosexual couples.
Despite these factors, the people in New Paltz, Woodstock and other cities in New York state are receptive to the gospel, Pierce said, and we need more church planters to reach them.
As with large segments of the northeast region of the U.S., “the landscape is littered with old, mainline churches where the gospel is absent,” Pierce lamented. “There is more gospel to be found on the gravestones of some of the cemeteries than there is in the pulpits.”
Shults, a former businessman who grew up in Ulster County and was saved as an adult after attending a Bible study for three years and realizing he’d never personally acted upon the gospel message, has a heart for reaching his hometown friends and neighbors with the gospel and planting new congregations in cities along the Hudson Valley.
The church he planted three years ago, Cross Point Fellowship in the Hurley-Kingston area, rents an abandoned convent on the third floor of a Catholic High School. They are reaching people by faithfully teaching from the Bible and sharing the love of Jesus. Cross Point’s community service ministry has knocked down barriers, built bridges and is yielding increasing fruit.
Through Bible studies called “Discovery Groups,” the church started winning some converts. About 30 students show up for a weeknight Bible study; more than half are without a saving knowledge of Christ, and Shults told of one high school student who was surprised upon learning that the Bible was printed in English after thinking it was in Latin his entire life.
Shults described the church’s evangelism plan as “mining existing relationships” and building new ones. He also hopes to purchase a scanning device that would allow the church provide a service to homeowners by detecting heat loss areas in their homes, free of charge, that would cost homeowners several hundred dollars otherwise.
Heating costs are very high there, Pierce said, and the ministry idea of Shults’ could advance Southern Baptists’ outreach in the Northeast.
Shults noted that Cross Point has benefited from mission teams and financial support from Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jasper, Texas, as well as several other Texas churches in the Sabine Neches Baptist Area.
Cross Point is averaging 100 attenders in its worship services but is sacrificing one-third of its giving receipts to help start Lighthouse Community church in nearby Tillson with Rich and Melinda Wright, who were commuting to Cross Point, 20 minutes away. The Wrights live in Tillson and are holding services in a community fire house where Rich Wright had served as a volunteer firefighter.
Though not officially launched—they began holding weekly worship services in May—Rich teared up as he told of reaching some of his lifetime friends with the gospel after resisting it and even ridiculing it himself after his wife was converted. Frequent partiers then, Rich didn’t like his wife’s lifestyle changes.
“I was very critical; my heart was hard,” he said. Years later with three children in the house, Wright decided church might be useful. He started attending a Bible study and reading through Proverbs, discovering “His Word makes sense.”
“That encouraged me to read the rest of the Bible,” he said.
Wright told how God is orchestrating his leaving IBM earlier than he planned through a workforce reduction. He initially hoped to wait at least a year to 18 months while getting the church off the ground, but the workforce reduction may result in a severance package, which would expedite the process. The Wrights don’t know where the long-term income will come from except for a belief that they are in God’s will.
Another church planter Shults is partnering with, along with Hudson Baptist Association, is Derek Duncan, who came to the Poughkeepsie area, about an hour north of New York City, in August from Memphis, Tenn.
He and his wife, Dana, are in the initial stages of planting a church there. Dana Duncan has a music background and is volunteering with the marching band at a large high school where the Duncans’ daughter, who is a band member, attends. In desperately seeking a home to rent after a lease opportunity fell through, family in tow and living in a motel, Derek reluctantly called a realtor, who asked what the Southerner was doing relocating to the Poughkeepsie area.
“Not knowing what his response would be, I told him I was here to plant a church. He said, ‘I’ve been praying that someone would come and plant a good church here.”
Norm, the realtor, has become a great friend and supporter of the Duncans, Derek said.
Stopping at a pizza restaurant to meet a group of Texas Baptist pastors who were visiting with Shults and Duncan to learn of partnership opportunities in the Hudson Baptist Association, Norm paused briefly when asked what the greatest need in the area was, answering, “They need hope. There is just an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. And they don’t know why they are hopeless.”
The Duncans hope to present a passion play at Easter in 2011 as a community outreach; Norm serves on the board of a theater in the Poughkeepsie area that is the oldest theater in New York state, Derek said.
One obstacle in the Poughkeepsie area is a strong occult presence, said Derek, emphasizing his desire that Southern Baptists pray on their behalf as the church plant looks for meeting space and divine appointments.
Outlining his vision for helping plant more churches, Shults said Cross Point seeks to be “an engine and an incubator” for church planting in these surrounding cities and towns.
The association, with the blessing of the New England Baptist Convention, even helped plant a church, New Life Community Fellowhship, in the far western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield.
Pastored by Jeff Black, who came to the area 12 years ago from North Carolina, the church is attempting to plant a sister church 30 minutes north in North Adams, Mass.
Another missionary planter in the network of Hudson Association, Lyndrell Randall, is working to establish a new church, One Body in Christ Baptist Church, in an ethnically diverse area near downtown Albany. Currently meeting in the chapel of a newly built rescue mission, Randall was already a familiar face with passersby on downtown streets the day the Texas team of pastors visited him in late September.
Opportunities for Texas church to send short-term mission teams for service projects, Backyard Bible Clubs, prayer walking, sports camps and to provide financial help are ample and much needed, Pierce said.
For more information on the SBTC’s partnership with Hudson Baptist Association, e-mail Tiffany Smith at email@example.com or call her toll-free at 877-953-7282 (SBTC). Sean Pierce at Hudson Baptist Association may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Texans on the September vision Tour to Hudson Baptist Association included Terry Stockman, pastor of First Baptist, Colmesneil; David Miller, associate director of missions in Sabine Neches Area; David Nugent, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist, Jasper; Jeff Griffith, youth minister at Hillcrest Baptist, Jasper; and Drifty Cates, pastor of Pineridge Baptist, Sour Lake.