So many folks have commented on my entry about the Bible Belt last year. I’ve even had some folks begin calling me the Bible Belt Man. I’ve been composing my theme music and am trying to license an action figure as we speak.

I think the reason that a chord has been struck is not because I’m brilliant (please quit nodding your head), but more because I’m actually saying things that so many are already thinking but have yet to find expression for their thoughts or feelings. This may be in large part for fear that other church-goers might consider them heretical or "out of God’s will." It’s no fun to be a prophetic voice in today’s Christian t-shirt subculture. While we remain buckled into our seats in stained-glass sanctuaries, the wind of the Spirit is blowing outside. While we remain strapped into systemic, programmed religious activites, we have an uneasy feeling that the greatest activity of God is happening outside our church walls, away from our holy Sunday/Wednesday schedules. On occasion, we happen to see the leaves swaying and feel cool whispers of a gentle breeze across our face, but our "Christianity" has become so scheduled and confined to a "church" that we have no idea what life looks like when lived by the Spirit.

I ran across a great comparison of Biblical Christianity vs. Bible Belt Religion the other day and wanted to link it for your consideration and comment.

In addition to the author’s observations, I’d like to log a few myself. Since starting a new church in a rural town in the South, I’ve encountered a fair share of suspicion, detraction, and skepticism. It’s apparently fine with most churches to start a new church elsewhere. Just don’t start one in their area. There is, unfortunately, an attitude of there only being enough (lost people?) to go around. The reasoning goes something like this… if you start a new church, then my existing church will not be able to have as many new people… and so on. Let’s just call that line of thought what it is. Ungodly.

I think "frustration" is the best word to describe living and ministering in the Bible Belt of America. It’s hard to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to a culture that assumes it’s already "Christian." The reality, however, is far more urgent.

According to Church Initiative,

As startling as this idea may appear, recent research indicates it is a hard reality for many churches in the United States. Researcher George Barna has discovered the disturbing fact that ?half of all adults who attend Protestant churches on a typical Sunday morning are not Christian.? He also points out that people who call themselves Christians but are not born again are ?a group that constitutes a majority of churchgoers.?

Barna?s findings are similar to those reported by Bill Bright, founder and fifty-year president of Campus Crusade for Christ. According to Bright, ?Our surveys suggest that over 50% of the hundred million people in church here in the United States every Sunday are not sure of their salvation.?

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In addition to discovering that 50% of people in church are ?lost churchgoers,? the Barna Research Group has also revealed that 44% of Americans are ?notional Christians.? These 90 million notional Christians are people who describe themselves as Christians but do not believe that their hope for eternal life is based on a personal relationship with Jesus and the belief that He died and rose again from the dead.

According to On Mission magazine, ?notional Christians? do not know ?whether they will experience eternal life, eternal damnation or some other outcome.?

Jim Elliff, a Southern Baptist church leader wrote an article that called Southern Baptists (the largest and possibly most evangelistic denomination in the States), An Unregenerate Denomination. He calls his tribe to task its lapse in discipleship and unwarranted focus on getting people "saved" (to the exclusion of making a disciple, I surmise). There is a great summary of his article here. Elliff called for the following:

  1. Pastors must preach and teach on the subject of the unregenerate church member.
  2. Pastors must address the issue of persistent sin among their members.
  3. Churches should be more careful on the front end of church membership. (Good article here)
  4. Pastors must stop giving immediate verbal assurance to people who make professions of faith or who respond to their invitations.
  5. Pastors must restore sound doctrine.

Interesting thoughts, huh? I think, however, that Eliff and other Protestant denominational leaders fail to get at the core of the issue. It’s not just that there are a bunch of lost people naively attending church and assuming that they’re saved. The bigger issue is how the church would rather have them there, in attendance, giving faithfully – than for God to be truly and radically glorified by having people worship Him in spirit and truth. The true worship of God is more important than the maintenance of our "ministries."

One thing I’ve noticed consistently in my own context is that when talking about our church (only 3 years old) with members of other churches, I sense this mental "check out." As I describe the enthusiasm and excitement of being a part of God’s mission to our world, good, church-going folks seem suddenly to grow uncomfortable and eventually the conversation changes to sports, weather, or something inane. Bible Belt Ministry is difficult because it’s not just a ministry of proclamation, but a ministry of "reclamation" – literally reclaiming folks for the Kingdom. Just because your neighbor or friend is an active member at a local church does not in any way mean that they have a real, life-giving, faith-oriented love relationship with Jesus Christ. Many times it just means that they’ve found a religious club that makes them feel good about themselves and provides activities for their children. In no way are they on mission with the Father in our world or do they sense any need for further surrender of their life to the joy and claims of Christ.

Religion in the Bible Belt – whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian.. – is just that. It’s religion. Just like it is anywhere. Wherever you have heartless devotion to a system of teaching and its traditions rather than to the personhood of a Savior, you have religion. Just because a person is a member of a church where they talk about Jesus does not insure their own salvation. Talking about Jesus and following Him are crucially different vocations. It’s the difference between heaven and hell, heart and head.

Someone needs to develop a holy spatula that you could insert between the pew and rump of 85% of church-goers in the South and give it a good flip. There’s no radical new thoughts here. They’re 2000+ years old. God cares not about our church attendance. He looks for repentant hearts who acknowledge Him and love and serve Him as Sovereign.

If you’re a member of a church and have been opting for the Lowest Common Denominator of Pew-Sitting, Occasional Volunteerism in the church (to keep things running), Giving, and Mandatory Niceties, may I gently suggest that you may have bought into religion and the Bible Belt version of Christianity? The abundance of life that Jesus promised those who follow Him is just around the corner. Unbuckle. Stand up. Get outside. The wind is blowing.

Update (6/13/06):
Many thanks to Mark for posting more thoughts about this particular entry and adding to them at his blog. I am deeply grateful to all of you who help keep the conversation going.

On this day...