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On a mission to save godless Massachusetts

Evangelical Christians are arriving from Texas and elsewhere to plant the seeds of new churches here.

Myke Wilkerson and Brandon Allison, pictured on Revere Beach, moved their families here from Texas to start a new church.

Porter Gifford

Myke Wilkerson and Brandon Allison, pictured on Revere Beach, moved their families here from Texas to start a new church.

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.

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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.

Rodolfo Neto

Allison, a 27-year-old evangelical Christian, delivers his new church’s first sermon at a Revere movie theater on Easter Sunday.

***

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.

Those numbers are for evangelical Christianity, but the rate of religiosity doesn’t seem to be much higher regardless of what (if any) faith New Englanders practice. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that the five least religious states in the country, based on the percentage of self-identified “very religious” Americans living there, are all in New England. Vermont is the least religious, followed immediately by New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. At number 11, Connecticut might as well be New England’s shining beacon of faith.

It’s no wonder church planters are eyeing the region. I spoke with a pastor who is at the center of the push for new Boston area churches — Joe Souza, who works for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. Five years ago, Souza says, 87 percent of new churches trying to reach wayward New Englanders failed. But thanks to a bold rethinking of their top-down strategy, 95 percent of today’s new churches are succeeding. “Basically,” Souza says, sponsoring denominations are “letting the guys in the field call the shots.”

When Souza began what he calls his denominational basic training in 2004, he was partnered with 15 other pastors who planned to launch new churches in New England. After nine years, his Celebration Church in Saugus is the last one standing.

Today, Souza is the go-to guy for potential planters interested in moving to the area. He’s a formidable presence,  a native Brazilian whose charisma and enthusiasm for spreading the Gospels fills a room. The website his organization manages, BostonChurchPlanting.com, hosts dozens of video testimonies from pastors who have partnered with the North American Mission Board to start churches in metro Boston — it’s basically the Who’s Who of the local movement.

On the site you’ll meet people like Virginia native Bland Mason, who leads City on a Hill Church in Brookline. “Oftentimes,” he says in a slickly produced video spot, “the people in our community groups don’t know another Christian at work, in their apartment building, or in their community.” The first job of these missionaries is to introduce New Englanders to what Christians can look like.

Souza is what church planters call a “catalyst,” meaning he’s a kind of missionary to potential missionaries. He makes frequent trips to universities, churches, and Southern Baptist seminaries to encourage planters to come to New England. On one such trip to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Souza met Brandon Allison, then a seminary student, now lead pastor of Revere’s TrueVine Church.

Twenty-seven-year-old Brandon and his wife, Miryam, 26, are in some ways a classic West Texas couple. They began dating in high school, attended church, and became committed Christians together. They were married in May 2008, a week after Brandon graduated from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Brandon became a geometry teacher at Permian High School, the setting for Friday Night Lights.

Porter Gifford

Allison hands out granola bars and church information at the T.

Brandon planned on becoming a football coach himself, until he felt called to ministry. He resigned his teaching job in 2009 and entered the seminary. The Allisons thought this calling would take them abroad, but then Brandon met Joe Souza at the SBTS Church Planting Emphasis Week. Hearing Souza talk about Boston’s need for “church planters” — a term he was unfamiliar with at the time — Brandon felt “God planted the idea of planting a church.”

Through meeting Souza and another pastor, Curtis Cook, who had started Hope Fellowship Church in Cambridge in 2003, Brandon and Miryam began to consider moving east. “God laid that passion on our hearts and we started praying about it,” says Brandon. Boston did have the two qualities that the Allisons were looking for in a mission field: It had to be a place with a large population of college students and other young people, and it had to have a great need for new churches. “God led us to Joe,” Brandon says, “and these were the exact things he hit on.”

The Allisons were only slightly daunted by what they knew of the high failure rate of new churches in New England. The vast majority, Brandon had heard, went under within the first three years. “We thought, ‘Are we willing to sell our possessions and leave our homes when we hear there’s a 90 percent failure rate?’ ” he recalls. But the Allisons say they kept returning to Jesus’s promise from the Book of Matthew, “I will build my church.” All they had to do was show up.

In March 2011, the couple visited New England for the first time. They spent their days with Souza, mainly touring Revere, Lynn, Quincy, and Swampscott — all “target areas,” according to the North American Mission Board, because of their relatively sparse population of evangelical churches. In Revere, they don’t recall seeing a single non-Catholic church, and when they drove down by Revere Beach, Brandon began imagining the possibilities for outdoor ministry.

Porter Gifford

A prayer meeting at the apartment shared by the TrueVine Church team.

***

BACK IN TEXAS, Brandon and Miryam spent the next six months raising money by selling most of their belongings, including a number of wedding gifts that had great sentimental value. What they couldn’t sell, they donated to Goodwill. Then they hitched a 6-by-10-foot U-Haul trailer to Brandon’s truck, said goodbye to their families, and embarked on a six-day drive north.

Brandon and Miryam arrived in Revere around midday on August 3, 2012. Like many church planters, they came with a team that they had assembled from similarly mission-minded friends. Under the new paradigm, moving with a team is ideal, says Brandon, though not always practical.

The way the TrueVine team came together bears for Brandon the mark of God’s providence. He and Miryam briefly met another couple, Myke and Britney Wilkerson, when the Wilkersons moved to Forth Worth so Myke could attend seminary. They attended the same church for two weeks before the Allisons left to help plant a church in Arlington, Texas. Months later, the Allisons were praying for a team to join them in their mission when Brandon says he felt God lay “Myke and Brit on my heart.” He decided to text Myke to ask when he was graduating from the seminary. Myke replied, asking if the Allisons needed a team to join them in Boston. The two couples met at a Starbucks, discussed the plan, and three days later Myke called to say that they were in.

Like any good team of adventurers, each member had a special talent. Myke, a 24-year-old with a fauxhawk and a goatee, would be the youth pastor and in charge of the church’s up-tempo contemporary worship music. Britney, 25, planned on helping Miryam with children’s ministry, though she was three months pregnant with twins when the group left Texas. Rounding out the team was Ross Waddell, a 6-foot-2 outgoing twentysomething who “loves to share Christ with youth,” as Brandon puts it. He would serve as church intern, primarily reaching out to college students.

The five of them, and the two on the way, moved into a three-bedroom apartment off Route 16 in Revere that they found with the help of a realtor who also happened to attend a Bible church in Salem that supports missionaries. After narrowly avoiding several Craigslist scams, finding someone upstanding showed Miryam that “God was working through the whole thing.”

Although the group receives financial support from the North American Mission Board — enough to cover rent and utilities, Brandon tells me — the members believe it’s important to get out into the community and build relationships. They’re also active on Twitter, posting invitations to “Texas BBQ and Bible study” night, and re-tweeting inspirational quotes, such as “Don’t do anything without your battle buddy. Ministry is tough, it is even tougher to do alone.” (At one point, Brandon says that the culture here is not that different from Texas, and that it’s not as if Boston is like a foreign country. Miryam responds, “It’s pretty close.”)

Porter Gifford

Myke and Britney Wilkerson (holding their twin daughters) and Miryam and Brandon Allison

Within weeks of arriving, Miryam secured a job teaching science at a Revere public school. Britney would be a stay-at-home mom to the twins. And Brandon and Myke both got jobs working the 4 a.m.-to-noon shift at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the Revere/Malden line, just across the parking lot from the movie theater that would house their church’s Easter Sunday service.

That job choice “was strategic,” Miryam says. Even Texans know that Bostonians are crazy about their hometown coffee, so it seemed a natural way to get to know the locals. The same reasoning explains their weekly presence at trivia night at an Uno Chicago Grill in Revere’s Northgate Shopping Center. “That was our vision,” Brandon says. “Get jobs, get into the culture, understand the people, build relationships, and share Christ with them.”

The Allisons also started a Bible study at their apartment — most of the eight or so people who attend are Brandon and Myke’s co-workers from Dunkin’ (“pretty much the entire store,” Brandon says with a smile). The challenge now is to get those attendees to bring their friends, and then get those friends to bring their friends. That’s how you build a church under the new paradigm.

The vision of embedding in the local community distinguishes this latest crop of church planters from those that came before them, says David Midwood, North Andover campus pastor of Free Christian Church and former president of Vision New England, a regional association of evangelicals that will celebrate its 125th anniversary in October. “There has been a radical change [from the past],” Midwood says. “A revolutionary change.”

Under the previous model, church planters hardly ever took the time to get to know their community, Midwood says. “Somebody would come up from Alabama or Mississippi” with three to five years’ worth of funding. “And after five years, when the money dried up, they collapsed and went away.” But the new model — start small and build relationships — is organic, Midwood says. “People love the cultural context that they are ministering in. They eat with them, drink with them, spend time with them, and get out of the bomb-shelter mentality.”

Matt Chewning, another pastor featured on BostonChurchPlanting.com, has also seen the old methods fail. A New Jersey native who lived for a while in Greensboro, North Carolina, Chewning decided to return to the Massachusetts area, where he had attended college, to plant a church in January 2011. His Netcast Church in Beverly now has about 400 members.

“I’ve seen Southerners come into the area and then all of the sudden they’re in community with people who are dropping the F-bomb every other word,” Chewning says. “And a Southerner doesn’t know how to handle that. So they try to change [New Englanders’] attitudes, language, or culture without actually giving them an authentic relationship with the Lord that will change those things in time.”

Porter Gifford

Brandon and Myke got jobs at Dunkin’ Donuts because they figured it was a good way to get to know the locals.

***

DESPITE THE RECENT SUCCESSES of Boston-area church planters, there are still plenty of challenges. Some of them would be felt by anybody living halfway across the country from home; the Allisons describe hardships like being far from family, and particularly from ailing grandparents. Myke and Britney Wilkerson have grandparents who are experiencing health problems, not to mention parents who aren’t around to see their new twin granddaughters.

Other challenges, however, are unique to their mission. Ross Waddell, the church intern, moved south to spend the summer working for a Christian camp organization. “We all came up here together, all five of us, and a discouraging moment was when Ross made the decision to head back to Nashville,” says Brandon. “My experience with TrueVine was incredible,” Waddell explains, but he just felt God leading him in another direction.

Still, the rest of the group is determined to stay here for the longer haul, Brandon says. “We’re just small pieces in God’s overall plan. And we’re just honored and privileged to be a part of that plan.”

The TrueVine team has a few plans of its own. The Easter Sunday service at the Showcase Cinema was just a one-time “preview” service, but on September 8 they’ll start regular Sunday services in a dance studio on Washington Street in Revere that they’ve been able to rent for cheap. The team members are continuing to hold weekly Bible studies in their home. And in June, Brandon realized his vision for an outdoor ministry. The team put on “Kids’ Games 2013,” a free weeklong sports camp for local children that ran on Revere Beach. The theme was their simple message, one that the Allisons learned early on not to take for granted in Boston: Jesus is God.

The TrueVine team is steadily making an impression. Matt Kruse is what’s called an indigenous church planter. He grew up in Everett, has planted successful Seven Mile Road churches in Malden and Melrose and Restoration Road Church in Wakefield, and has seen lots of missionaries come and go. But this new group seems far better positioned for success. “They know this is not Texas, and effective church planting ministry is going to look totally different here,” he says. “When I met Brandon and his wife, I said, ‘OK, they moved up, he’s working at Dunkin’ Donuts, he loves lost people, and they’re all living in one condo.’ ” Kruse laughs. “ ‘That feels like Jesus stuff right there.’ ”

When discouragement comes, Brandon and Miryam remember one of their first Bible studies at their apartment at which a young couple made the decision to become Christians upon hearing their message that Jesus is God for the first time. “Since we’ve been here, four people have made the decision to give their lives to Christ,” Brandon tells me. “That’s what it’s about.”

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is the author of the e-book Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity Is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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