Joel Littlefield remembers it as an emotional moment.
He and his wife had moved to Maine in 2016 to plant a church, and it felt like an overwhelming task.
“We had no partnerships at the time — I was still learning about that,” he recalled. “In that process of planning and gathering our core team, the North American Mission Board made us aware of a gathering in Portland and said there was a church from down south that had come up to bless church planters.”
The church was Dawson Memorial Baptist in Birmingham which had brought around 100 students to entertain church planters’ children while they got a night out. That included Littlefield’s youngest child, who recently had been adopted and needed extra care.
It was the first time in a long time the Littlefields had a night off.
“Before they sent us out, the entire team of teenagers and leaders from Dawson surrounded us and sang a blessing over the planters,” Littlefield remembered. “The place was filled with tears. It was so moving and eye-opening to us that there were churches outside our state who were there for us and praying for us.”
“It really began to sink in that we weren’t going to be in this alone.”
That is exactly why Dawson chose in 2014 to get involved in the work, said Ben Hale, evangelism and missions pastor.
“We chose Maine for two reasons. [NAMB] had recently [redirected its] funding to focus on major cities, Hale explained. “The second reason is that they are one of the least-reached states, with less than 2% evangelical Christian.”
Tom Thompson, Dawson’s volunteer leader for the work in Maine, said their goal was twofold: plant five churches over five years and strengthen existing churches any way they could.
Littlefield’s congregation, New City Church in Bath, Maine, was one of those church plants. He said Dawson stepped in to help financially in a way that allowed him to quit his secular job and focus on the church.
“In the midst of that period there was all kinds of connection and support,” Littlefield remembered, “everything ranging from a need here and there to offering counseling and consulting to sending a team of people to help us put on a family and marriage conference.”
“Here we are nearly six years in. Having grown some, we’re now in the phase of ourselves looking to plant churches.”
Dawson is now coming alongside to help establish a church planting residency program to train planters to send out. The first will come from New City Church which started with a core team of 25 and now averages about 85 in attendance.
“It’s been a wonderful partnership with Dawson, absolutely wonderful,” Littlefield said. “I have no doubt New City Church is healthy and where it is because of Dawson’s help.”
Travis Bush, pastor of Summit Community Church in Gorham, Maine, said his experience with Dawson has been similar. While other churches visited and said they wanted to partner, Dawson was different. They “just kept coming,” he said.
“The difference between folks we had seen over and over and Dawson folks was Dawson kept coming and didn’t want to be an ATM, where they just sent funds. They kept wanting to send their people and meet needs,” Bush explained. “The relationship has kept going. The guy who leads our worship has a biweekly call with Dawson’s worship pastor to this day.”
Summit Community was one of the existing churches Dawson came alongside, except at the time it was SouthCoast Community Church.
“Dawson approached us with the question, ‘If you could do something in your community and had 125 sets of hands, what would you do?’ So we went to our school system, and there was a huge need for handicapped-accessible playground equipment,” Bush recalled.
The result was We Love Gorham Day in 2017 during which Dawson brought a team and pulled together other local churches to help build accessible playgrounds at three schools.
“It was a huge project,” Bush said, and it opened doors to show the love of Christ to the community.
After working together, one of the local churches that helped, South Gorham Baptist, approached Bush about a possible merger. Dawson helped the two churches think through the process and in January 2018 they combined to become Summit Community Church.
“Dawson has just been a part of the fabric of our church in so many ways,” Bush said.
Thompson added that the church is “just booming, thriving and growing.”
And Hale said the effort has been an encouragement to Dawson as well.
“Not only has our work in Maine supported the churches there as they reach people for Christ, but it has opened our members’ eyes to the lostness in our country and it has provided meaningful opportunities for our people to serve relatively close to home,” he said.