The Berkshire Region of Western Massachusetts has for a very long time been an area in which the gospel has rarely been heard. The beautiful region of lakes, woods, mountains, and tunnels has, spiritually-speaking, much resembled upstate New York-a "burned-over" district in which the seed of the Word has difficulty taking root. The area is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, with liberal Congregationalist churches also having a huge influence. Many of the Congregationalist ministers are women; they welcome Gay Liberation Theology, and their attitude towards the Bible is that it is culturally-bound and dated. Cults, from Earth worship to the Yogi Center for Spiritual Awareness to pantheism to New Age, abound.
But some good seed has begun to yield fruit. Berkshire Presbyterian Church, a mission church of West Springfield (Mass.) Covenant Community Church, met for its first service of public worship on the evening of December 5, 1999. The daughter congregation is being pastored by the Rev. Stephen LaValley, who was ordained by Northeast Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to do this work.
The dream for this new venture in the Berkshires began about seven and a half years ago, when two families from this area started to attend the PCA congregation in West Springfield. The Session began a local Bible study in Stockbridge, which is in the center of the Berkshire Region. After four years, a call was issued to a man to plant a church in the area, but the timing was not right, and the group had to wait, patiently, for the propitious moment.
The group then approached Stephen LaValley to be the church planter. He was just beginning his theological training at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), Jackson, Mississippi, so he was not able immediately to move onto the field. But over the next three years, he and his family traveled back to Massachusetts at least three times per year in order to establish their relationship with the people and prepare them for the tough job of gathering a congregation.
Shortly after graduation from seminary in May 1999, the LaValleys moved into a house in Lee, Massachusetts. Over the past six months, the Lord has doubled the size of the group, to a total of 45. The average age is in the 30s, and there are plenty of children.
Over the next two months, Mr. LaValley expects to have Sunday morning worship. A goal for the end of 2000 is that of adding ten more families, as well as being able to organize as a congregation. Other goals include cultivating opportunities for the members to do evangelistic outreach, conducting strategically-located Bible studies throughout the Berkshires, and taking up the support of missions, both globally and locally. On the schedule for October 2000 is a Reformed Conference, with Dr. Derek Thomas of RTS as the featured speaker. Mr. LaValley explains that the conference is "in order to invite and educate new Christians and individuals from our area about the distinctives and beauty of the Reformed faith."
The commitment to having a theological conference so early in its history demonstrates the fact that Berkshire Presbyterian Church is unabashedly Reformed in its approach. The organizing pastor says that they are "committed to Reformed, Traditional worship of God, . . . the Westminster Confession of Faith in its entirety and without exception, but first and foremost Scripture, God's inerrant and infallible Word." A distinctive practice of the congregation is that of the weekly observance of communion-a practice which has gained some currency in the PCA and other Reformed bodies.
This new work in the Berkshires has indeed constituted a step of faith. And so far, the Lord has provided for all of the financial needs, including salary, advertising, rent, transportation, pew Bibles, chairs, communion set and linens, and signage.
However, some of those needs have been met because the LaValleys were able to depend on one-time gifts given to their ministry. According to Mr. LaValley, "we are currently very much in need financially for next year." He and his wife Kristine are the parents of four children: Matthew, 9; Jessica, 7; Alanna, 5; and Victoria, 3 months.
Besides paying necessities such as salary and rent, funds are needed in order to take advantage of various outreach possibilities. Pastor LaValley is hoping, for a nominal fee, to broadcast the worship services on a local cable access channel that runs "religious" programs. He says that the group also is "eager to begin some sort of local radio ministry as well."
Meanwhile, the group continues to develop, in the words of Stephen LaValley, "the ideas of community, fellowship, and covenant"-ideas which "are vital to our spiritual lives," and which the members of the group hold dear. "We have to be committed up here, since we're in the middle of a deeply 'spiritual' but deeply pagan culture."
Stephen LaValley believes that only the strong, consistent, gospel of Calvinism is able to overcome the paganism of the region, and to create fertile fields where once the Arminian message of Charles Grandison Finney burned over the district. It is not nineteenth century Finneyism and its revivalism to which Mr. LaValley looks for a model. Rather, he seeks to emulate the evangelistic fervor and theological orthodoxy of churchmen of the eighteenth century such as Jonathan Edwards, with a view toward a new Great Awakening in the present wastelands of Western Massachusetts.
It is most appropriate that Stephen LaValley work with this daughter church, in that he is the son of the Rev. Al LaValley, a man who was organizing pastor of the West Springfield Church. The elder LaValley has been pastor at the mother congregation since 1978.
Those who would like to support this mission work may contact the Rev. Mr. Stephen LaValley, PO Box 209, Lee, Massachusetts 01238; Stephen.lavalley@Juno.com; 413-788-8976.