YARMOUTH, Maine — Whether its genesis is divine, driven by demographics, or the result of religious sibling rivalry, a new church is opening its doors next week – the first area congregation founded in more than a decade, and the first in Yarmouth since 1973.
The Royal River Baptist Church will hold an inaugural prayer rally Sunday, April 26, in rented space at Yarmouth High School. A “grand opening” service is scheduled for the following Sunday, May 3, at the school, according to the church’s website.
Royal River hopes to ultimately find a permanent house of worship in the town, but has no plans for one yet, church pastor the Rev. Brooks Suttle said in an interview April 18.
“We’re coming here because we believe God called us here,” he said. “This is not a test run. We’re supposed to be here, and we’re going to be here.”
Meanwhile, the church has been promoting its arrival via the website as well as advertising, brochures and a glossy flier mailed to 25,000 homes.
Suttle won’t say how much the marketing and other start-up work cost, but funding comes from donations raised through Anchor Baptist Church & Ministries, a religious group based in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina.
Suttle, 47, a former painting contractor from Swannanoa, North Carolina, is one of several dozen Anchor missionaries who serve in countries including India, Pakistan, Mexico and the U.S. He moved to Maine last December with his wife and five sons.
Need a ‘second’?
Royal River’s space at the high school is less than a mile from First Baptist Church of Yarmouth, a 126-year-old structure at 346 Main St. The First Baptist congregation was founded in 1797, and worshiped for nearly a century at a Hillside Street building that also served as the Town Meetinghouse.
The new church is also less than 10 miles away from another “first” — First Baptist Church of Freeport, founded in 1807. Royal River is about the same distance from West Falmouth Baptist Church, which dates to 1829.
The Rev. Ric Ochsner, pastor of Yarmouth’s First Baptist, said he was surprised to learn of Royal River after recently receiving the flier promoting its traditional style and beliefs.
“When Royal River popped up, I had to take a breath … it’s that competition thing,” he said. “There was a sense of ‘uh oh, here comes another church.’”
Ochsner said he discussed the church challenge at Sunday’s service in response to questions from parishioners, about 90 percent of whom had also received the mailing.
“Obviously, there were a lot of questions, phone calls, people asking what this means,” he said. “I addressed it by saying we want to pray for this new church … there’s so much work to do.
“God’s going to bless whom he wants to bless, and the important thing is that his kingdom grows. That’s far better than competition.”
Ochsner and Suttle have not met, both pastors said. But based on what he’s read of Royal River, Ochsner believes it’s “a little different” from his church.
“[Royal River] has a niche, and how they want to reach people seems to be slightly different,” he said.
The Rev. Sandy Williams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Freeport, agreed.
Like Ochsner, Williams learned of Royal River from the flier he received in the mail, and has not talked with Suttle.
“My guess is that we would agree on orthodox Christian beliefs, but on secondary matters, they may have beliefs we might not necessarily share,” Williams said.
Among those differences are Royal River’s insistence on using only the King James version of the Bible, and a belief “that God created the world in six literal, 24-hour periods,” according to the church website.
“Those things make [Royal River] a little peculiar,” Williams said.
Williams expressed willingness to help Suttle’s church get started, but admitted the differences might be an obstacle.
“We wish them well, and we’d have no trouble cooperating with them, but I’m a little suspect about whether they’d want to work with us,” he said.
Royal River’s opening comes as churches throughout the country, and especially in Maine, face more and more empty pews.
Maine is home to the second-lowest percentage of weekly church-goers, according to a nationwide poll in February by research firm Gallup. Other studies have shown a similar lack of participation in organized religion.
Roman Catholicism, the state’s most popular single religion, now numbers roughly 187,000 members, down from 234,000 a decade ago. The state’s Catholic diocese has closed more than a dozen churches since 2007, is trying to sell more, and has scaled back services.
In Yarmouth, the Church of the Nazarene closed its doors in 2012, and ground was recently broken on the site of the former church to convert it to a commercial building.
Nevertheless, six churches remain in the town. Four, including First Baptist, were built along Main Street in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. An Episcopal church, St. Bartholomew’s, was erected on Gilman Road in 1988, 15 years after the congregation’s founding. A former Baptist chapel, built in 1877, houses non-denominational services on Cousins Island.
Another non-denominational house of worship, White Pine Community Church, has been holding services since 2001 at school buildings in Cumberland and North Yarmouth. The church also has offices in North Yarmouth, on the former site of Faith Baptist Church, which closed nearly 10 years ago.
Despite the demographics, the current Baptist congregations in Yarmouth and Freeport are holding their own, according to their pastors. First Baptist in Yarmouth averages about 120 people at its Sunday service; the Freeport church sees about 100.
Tracking the number of Baptist believers or even Baptist churches is difficult, because the churches are highly autonomous. Unlike Maine’s Catholic diocese or the organizations of many other denominations, Baptist churches share only loose affiliations, or none at all.
The churches in Falmouth, Freeport and Yarmouth are members of American Baptist Churches USA; Williams is a past president of the organization’s Maine branch.
Royal River describes itself as an independent Baptist church, like its missionary sponsor, Anchor.
Views on the pews
The difference in affiliation may account for some of the differences in belief.
“An independent church, like ours, typically ranges toward being more conservative,” the Rev. Randy C. Barton, Anchor’s pastor and leader of its missionary arm, said in a phone interview.
The independence extends to geography. Suttle explained that his church was free to open anywhere God led it — even a short walk from another Baptist church.
“I don’t answer to First Baptist, and they don’t answer to me,” Suttle said. “We’re not here to argue with anybody.”
Whatever their differences, Suttle, Ochsner and Williams agree that shrinking church membership is a problem. Maine, according to Ochsner, is “known as a difficult area” for church recruitment.
But the entrance of a new player in Yarmouth doesn’t help.
“In some respects, we probably don’t need another building,” Ochsner said.
Suttle looks at empty pews in another way.
“It’s very obvious from being here that there’s a multitude of people who aren’t attending anywhere, who don’t know the gospel message,” he said. “We’re here to reach people who haven’t been reached.”
That need is emphasized in a YouTube video produced by Anchor and profiling Suttle.
“Despite having a history of being one of the places where the gospel was born in America, today Maine and all of New England have become one of the most spiritually dark areas in America,” the video’s narrator says solemnly.
Anchor is well-prepared to support missionaries like Suttle in shedding light. Besides its original church, the organization’s resources include a radio station, a Bible school, a warehouse and truck fleet for emergency food distribution, and several planes that fly out of Sanford.
No financial information about Anchor is publicly available, but Barton is quick to point out that all of the funds donated to support its missionaries go directly to those missionaries.
“All the money that’s raised in Yarmouth will stay in Yarmouth,” he said. “It’s not as if someone is coming to siphon money from Maine.”