FRANKLIN, Mass. — New England Chapel may conjure up images of a white steeple and impressive stained glass windows. But Scott Brown’s church is nothing special on the outside. It’s hidden in a drab industrial park in Franklin and only identified as a church with a plain sign that reads “New England Chapel.”
It’s what happens inside the warehouse that makes congregants excited.
“It is a church for people who have given up on religion but not God,” said Rob Penchuck, a neighbor of Brown’s and a church member. “People who still have faith that there’s a superior being and believe in God. But there are many people that are disenfranchised with the formalities and sometimes the hypocrisy of churches that have become clubs, in a sense.”
Penchuck said the service has a rock band, and no one looks down on you if you wear jeans. There’s a cross section of ages and people coming from other religions.
National church leaders said the sermon is the most important part of Sunday services. The chapel posts recent sermons on its Web site. One by Pastor Chris Mitchell encourages people to pray for Haiti after the earthquake:
“The best thing that we can do here is pray, and hopefully that you develop some kind of prayer trigger or prayer reminder in your life and if you didn’t, you can, you know, starting this week, you know, do something like take your watch off your normal hand and put it on your other hand and then every time you feel it, saying, ‘Well that feels weird over there,’ it reminds you to pray.”
Prayer, and the centrality of God, are some of the key components of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a Protestant Christian denomination. The church has fewer than 300,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, mostly in Michigan and Iowa.
New England Chapel, with 400 members, is one of four congregations in Massachusetts. Brown didn’t respond to requests for an interview about his faith and New England Chapel referred all media requests to the senator-elect. He did speak briefly to ABC’s Barbara Walters. “I believe in God and I am very thankful for the things that I’ve been blessed with,” he told her. “Is there a higher being that’s looking out for people? I hope so, I’m hopeful.”
“It is a church for people who have given up on religion but not God.”
Brown and his family left the Congregational Church in Wrentham a few years ago and joined the New England Chapel. The chapel was started 10 years ago in a member’s home as part of an evangelical movement to spread the religion.
Henry De Moor, a church member and professor at the Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan, said Brown’s chapel is an example of a church plant. “We have, of course, begun to reach out more aggressively to provide church homes for people all over North America,” De Moor said, “and we have planted — what we call planted — churches, or we have started to organize new churches within our denomination.”
New England Chapel breaks from the Christian Reformed Church guidelines because it follows a modern translation of the Bible called “The Message” as its primary text. It’s a paraphrase of the Bible that was published in segments, mostly in the 1990′s.
To give you an idea of how it’s written, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Genesis in “The Message”:
First this: God created the Heavens and Earth – all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.
“The Message” is meant to bring the New Testament to life for those who haven’t read the Bible. The church focuses on nurturing a personal relationship with God through Christ. Rev. Jerry Dykstra, the executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, said politically it’s a conservative church.
“On the spectrum, I think it probably falls in the middle area of Protestant churches in the United States,” Dykstra said. “In terms of being conservative or liberal, I’d say it’s on the conservative side but much more towards the middle.”
The church is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals and has taken positions on controversial issues such as abortion — it’s against it. And it believes capital punishment is permissible in certain circumstances. Brown hasn’t said if he will look to his church when formulating his political positions.
Richard Parker, of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said there are more than 1,200 Christian denominations in the United States. “This would be a denomination that officially, and I would imagine among its members preponderantly, would be Republican leaning,” he said, “would be considered conservative on what we call the social issues and conservative broadly on fiscal and governmental issues across the board.”
Although Brown and his family are members of New England Chapel, they have done work to support other faiths. They are helping the Cistercian Roman Catholic nuns at Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in his home town of Wrentham raise money to build a new candy factory.
Sister Katie McNamara, at the abbey, said the cloistered nuns pray for Brown and his family. “As we can attest to by experience, he generously rallies to the side of those who need his help,” Sister McNamara said.
Scott Brown does not wear his Christianity on the sleeve of his barn jacket. He didn’t thank God in his victory speech and rarely mentions prayer or church. Still, people will be watching to see how Brown votes on a number of issues and what, if any, impact his faith will have on his voting.
Correction: The broadcast version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Christian Reformed Church congregations in Massachusetts. The correct number is four, a church official said.