TRENTON, Maine — John Linnehan Jr. doesn’t care whether people attend church. He does care whether they go to heaven.
Linnehan, 65, of Ellsworth is spearheading a census of Hancock County residents beginning this week to survey their opinions about heaven and what they think God requires of them to get there. His goal is to complete the survey by Christmas Eve.
“My intent is to tell people how they can know for sure they will go to heaven,” he said Sunday in his office at the Good News Center, which includes Acadia Christian School and the Good News Fellowship, in Trenton. “Then, when I know they are going to go to heaven, if they choose to affiliate with a church that’s fine. I’m not about building church membership. I’m about seeing people know for sure that when they die physically on this earth their spirit and soul can leave their bodies and go to live in heaven for all eternity.”
In addition to door-to-door canvassing, a mailer will be sent to all 31,000 households in Hancock County, he said.
Linnehan planned the survey long before Pope Francis announced last week that he would survey Catholic bishops and parish priests around the world on family issues. The poll findings will be included in a working paper for a meeting of the synod of bishops next October in Rome.
The idea for the survey came to Linnehan in May 2012 after the Bangor Daily News ran a story that Maine has fewer residents who claim a religious affiliation than any other state in the union. Linnehan said that through further research he obtained a county-by-county breakdown of the statistics gathered every decade by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
“My home county [Hancock] is the second least churched,” said Linnehan, who ran unsuccessfully for state senate in 2004. “Waldo County is first and Washington County is third. We actually live in the least churched area in the entire United States of America.”
Linnehan said that he was 26 years old, married with two small children and working in the family-owned car dealership in Ellsworth when he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He said Sunday that it turned out to be the most significant decision of his life because it gave him a purpose for living.
Although he attended Baptist churches much of his life, Linnehan helped found the Good News Fellowship, a nondenominational evangelical church, two years ago. Four years ago, he sold all of his business interests to evangelize full time.
While the survey includes at least four questions about entrance to heaven, it also asks for residents’ religious affiliation and how often they attend religious services. It also offers a cash incentive to participants but they must be present at a worship service, called the Good News Fellowship, to win.
“To show our appreciation for you taking this survey, your name will be entered into our free $100 cash weekly drawings at the Good News Fellowship and also our Grand Finale Christmas cash drawing of $1,000 on Dec. 24,” the script for census takers says.
The survey, which is being funded by the Good News Center and Linnehan, is not expected to be received with open arms by all residents. At least one group has expressed skepticism about how it will be used.
Hancock County is home to one of the state’s few organized groups not connected with a college or university that includes avowed atheists. The Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers meet the first Saturday afternoon of each month at an Ellsworth coffee shop to discuss ethical issues that often are in the news, such as physician-assisted suicide, evolution and crime and punishment.
The group has participated in the HOPE Festival, sponsored by the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine in Bangor, and the WERU-FM Full Circle Fair in Blue Hill. Members will have a float in the Ellsworth Holiday Parade on Dec. 7 and pass out information explaining the winter solstice, pagan celebrations of it, and a history of the Christmas tree tradition in America.
The vast majority of its members live in Hancock County and became aware of Linnehan’s planned survey through local media. On Saturday, the Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers issued a statement urging residents to think before responding to questions about their religious beliefs.
“Going door to door proselytizing is nothing new and is not illegal,” the group said. “Mr. Linnehan is free to spend his money as he wishes to increase his ‘flock.’ But a so-called census, creating a list identifying people by their religious beliefs, or lack of them, is concerning.
“Certainly Mr. Linnehan must be aware that such personal information has sometimes been used to target individuals who hold minority views,” the statement continued. “Anyone who cares about privacy and an individual’s right to his or her own beliefs, should consider carefully whether to participate in Mr. Linnehan’s census.”
While Linnehan may not be as interested in getting people into church as he is in getting them past the Pearly Gates, his pastor, the Rev. Kevin Jones, is committed to growth. Jones, 42, said Sunday that he sees the survey as a tool that could facilitate increased attendance at Sunday morning worship services and Wednesday night Bible studies.
“I am honestly interested in seeing where people are at so that I, as a pastor, can meet their needs,” Jones said after Sunday’s service. “I want people to attend services. I believe in the church and the fellowship it can offer people.”
Doreen St. Clair, 54, of Gouldsboro has volunteered to survey residents in her community. St. Clair said after Sunday’s worship service that she probably knows only about five percent of the people who live in Gouldsboro.
“I’m going to start with the people I know and ease myself into it,” she said. “As I’ve gotten old, my faith has gotten strong and it’s something I’m comfortable talking about.”
St. Clair said it was important to go door-to-door because “the county is so unchurched and it’s important to spread the word.”