Saturday, December 7, 2013
By RICHARD PETERSEN
REFLECTIONS is a column written by members of Maine's faith-based community. Opinions expressed in the column reflect the author's view and not necessarily that of the newspaper.
I have been a reader and subscriber since the late 1950s, when I served my first pastorate in North Carolina. I saw the following article in the December 2010 issue: "19 percent of residents of Portland, Maine, describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, making it the least religious city in America" (Barna Research). Now I read that Maine has the lowest percentage of church members of all the USA.
Ouch! Is this what other Americans will think of our part of the country? After I survived the shock, I thought: Why should I be so surprised. I came to Portland in the late 1960s. When I became aware of the religious condition, I was discouraged. Then I thought: Maine is a mission area. We need missionaries. I decided to preach about the Apostles' Creed, John 3:16, and salvation by grace through faith alone.
In my first year, one of the members of the church I was serving told me he was involved with a group called Faith at Work. This was an international movement headed by Presbyterian pastors, the Rev. Bruce Larson of Seattle and the Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, a former chaplain to the U.S. Senate. My church member told our congregation about his enthusiasm for Faith at Work and suggested we establish a Faith at Work conference here. We did, and many people became excited about their new life in the Spirit.
Later I learned that Maine was second, only after Mississippi, in having people involved in Faith at Work. So I thought: This is how Maine folks respond to a revival meeting.
I served for six years as executive director of the Bible Society of Maine. During this time I had the privilege of visiting and preaching in churches all over this state. One of the most important things I learned is that there are many churches in the state that are alive biblically and doing a credible job as missionaries in Maine. Today the Bible Society of Maine continues to make Bibles available and to encourage people to read, study and apply biblical teachings to their lives.
We send missionaries to areas of Africa, Asia and South America, wherever the Gospel has not been proclaimed. They preach the Bible and the Good News of Jesus Christ. Believers receive the forgiveness of their sins and the new life as gifts from our loving heavenly Father as they accept Jesus as their own personal Savior and Lord. All this causes societies to change, to become more compassionate and just.
I'm thinking about the other 81 percent of residents of Portland and the other people in the rest of Maine. They are our neighbors and friends. Maybe some of them will respond positively to the preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification (Romans 4:25).
Truly we have a crisis here. The church is called by God to be "in but not of" the world. In too many instances, however, the church has become too worldly by accepting worldly opinions. Let us pray that our clergy will think of themselves as missionaries in a mission area, and that our laity will encourage their pastors to preach the Gospel. Our mission is clear. I thank the Lord for those churches where the Gospel is proclaimed.
The Rev. Richard H. Petersen, Ph.D., is a retired pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church.