More change looms on the horizon. In 2013, northern New England will lose its only mainline Protestant seminary and accredited graduate school of religion when the Bangor Theological Seminary closes in May. Three months later, Southern Baptists will open Northeastern Baptist College – the first SBC-affiliated pastor-training college in northern New England – in Bennington, Vt.
"The old establishment is crumbling in the sense that fewer people are going to church and buildings are being sold off," says Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. "The old expectations aren't there anymore, and that creates an openness to new brands."
New England's changing religious character comes as religious ties decline around the country. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans (19.6 percent) now says he or she has no religious affiliation, up from 15 percent just five years ago, according to Pew Research Center surveys.
Faith remains strong: More than 90 percent of Americans still believe in God or a universal spirit, according to Gallup research, even as fewer claim a particular religious "brand" or identity. More people are opting not to align themselves with one religious denomination or tradition, but their interest in faith remains keen and creates opportunities for innovators.
"The way people are religious is changing," says Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. "And maybe what's happening up in [New England] is a good indication of what is happening or could happen elsewhere."