Bible Belt Religion

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...

8 comments

  1. Mark W. says:
    My Bible Belt comment grew too large, so it has become its own post on my blog! Take a look to see my thoughts and response to Jeff and Mr.”E”.
  2. Jeff says:
    E,
    Thanks for asking that question. I am planning on making the “Bible Belt” installment a series. I’ll be addressing that there; however, in brief let me respond in this way:
    1. I affirm and deeply appreciate any older, established church, traditional, typical, or not that continues to “make the main things the main things, and those are the glory of God, the preparation and equipping of the saints, and the proclamation of the Gospel and discipleship of all peoples in all nations.
    2. It is not just in my context or own local experience to say that most churches just want people present. In fact, there are several vibrant fellowships in my area that I’m grateful for and excited to see God working in their midst. Don’t misunderstand my comments by reading local context into them. What I’m referring to is how churches want people present, giving, and accounted for at the expense of true discipleship, biblical accountability, and loving and authentic community. In fact, there are many smaller, traditional churches that have achieved these things better than some of our newer church starts and “star” churches.
    3. Indeed, I hope that anything I write about the Bride of Christ is used in a way that spurs us all on to love and good deeds. If I make you think, even just a bit, about the reality of Bible Belt Ministry and how to lead people into a deeper relationship with Christ apart from religion, I would be deeply grateful.

    Again, thanks for your insightful comments and I look forward to more conversation!

  3. E says:
    Curious to know what you find redeeming about the “typical southern church?” I am sure you have written about it but it seems the focus of most posts here are what’s not so good about the typical southern church unless its one that has forged its own new way that is more spirit lead than one that’s been around for 170 years (to me, there is somethng to be said for an expression of faith that has been faithful to the King for that long). The older an oak tree is the easier it is to see the knots and broken limbs that the tree has sustained over the years. Sometimes we don’t see the the size of trunk or the life of the tree because of the scars it has sustained for being around for so long. Granted there are some churches that probably just need to die.

    Finally I want to comment on this:
    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.”
    Perhaps there are churches that just want people there but to say that that is the bigger issus is just a hasty generalization of a “typical southern church.” It’s a suprising broad summation of the Bride of Christ that I would say is unwarranted and probably comes from your own local experience that has not been a good one.

    If all of your comments here are meant to spurn the believer (or church) on as your last two paragraphs suggest, then I’m with you in hopes of igniting the fire of the Spirit in the churches so that believers are responsive to His call and the nonbeliever is brought to faith.

  4. K.T. says:
    Wait,aren’t we all unregenerate?
  5. Jeff says:
    Unregenerate refers to the person who has not experienced salvation through Christ. After submitting to Christ in faith, the person is given new life by Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, thus becoming “regenerated.”
  6. K.T. says:
    My definition by a dictionary showed it as “with Sin”
  7. Conny says:
    “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.”

    And who determines what “real”, “life-giving”, etc. is? Who are you to judge???

    1. Jeff says:
      Conny,
      I think we are given the ministry of discernment in the New Testament. Jesus said that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. In other words, He said, we should know a true believer by their fruit.

      While we should never stoop to being judgmental, we are indeed called to judge rightly.
      Jeff´s last blog post ..Family

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