The Bible Belt Has Fallen Off

If you’re one of my three devoted blog readers (including my sister – I set her browser’s homepage to default to my blog, and I don’t think she knows how to change it; oh, and hi, mom!) then strap in. Right out of the gate, please don’t think I’ve “lost hope” or am ready to throw in the towel (you can think that later, if you want!).

I hate the Bible BeltCompactbelt

Not its people. Not its geographic area. Not its amazing friendliness and sweet tea.
It’s the religiosity and habitual-church-attending, combined with an Americanized self-satisfied, materialistic, comfort-driven, convenience-embracing culture. Yea, see. I told you to strap in. But after growing up in it and then serving in ministry in it for the past 17 years, I think I can speak with some authority to my growing hatred of it.

I’ve been involved in a new church plant in a rural town in southeast Arkansas for the past three years. We began meeting in our home in January 2003 for prayer and discussion about the church we hoped to become. Three years later, we’re still earnestly striving to become that church that seeks to replicate the lifestyle and nature of Jesus Christ in our own context.

Here are some things I’ve observed the past three years:

  • While it’s been proven time and again by every missiologist, denomination, and Christian agency that NEW churches reach more people than older, established churches, new churches are STILL looked upon in most areas that already have churches as threats to their turf. It’s a sad reality in our own experience that most people in our area just don’t know how to “label” us since we’re not denominational. I suspect that many wonder where we keep our snakes since we meet in unconventional places.
  • Location and buildings define church for the majority. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been asked when we’re going to get our own building. I will refuse to rant about that. Besides the fact that the Christian church did not have established “church buildings” until the 3rd-4th centuries, it’s a sad fact that discipleship long ago left our homes and has been relegated to the church-schoolhouse setting. We even call them “Sunday Schools.” Christianity is not a set of facts and information to be learned, digested, and spit back out!!! Our faith is in a risen Savior, and we FOLLOW Him – not study information about Him.
  • Our overemphasis on buildings has created a dependence on formal programming. In order to become good “stewards” of these massive facilities that we’ve erected (and justified through endless biblical gymnastics), we’ve had to fill them with all kinds of religious activities and programs. It simply wouldn’t do to have a large facility sit empty most of the week after spending hundreds of thousands (and in many places outside our rural area, multi-millions) on it. So we cram them with activities and then drag the people that our community needs to rub shoulders with the most and dominate their schedules, free time, and energy with programs, rituals, and activities (for all ages, mind you – we start early with the indoctrination that to be religious you need to be at our programmed events). We take the life out of the community and stick them behind brick religion where those without Christ can never encounter them or hear them. They’re so tired of religious stuff when we get done with them that they have no time to serve their community, much less meet and eat dinner with neighbors.
  • Our formal programming prevents Christians from THINKING and robs them of creatively expressing their faith in their workplaces and community. We are literally guilty of eating their brains. The way we over-program and shove pre-chewed curriculum and Bible studies down people’s throats is a travesty. Rather we should be helping people to study the Bible on their own, without crutches and encouraging them to plumb its depths daily to discover the purposes and glory of the Father. Unfortunately, however, many denominational curricula chooses instead to repetitively hit the same themes year after year (Southern Baptists continue to emphasize “Sanctity of Human Life Sunday” in January), telling people what to think rather than helping them explore scripture so that they can explain why killing a fetus or terminating the life of an invalid early is wrong rather than just stating that it is.
  • “Church life” begins to be defined as what happens when the church is gathered in its buildings rather than what happens as it is scattered through the community during the week. Just look at any church’s calendar, and you’ll see what it considers to be genuine “ministry.” By robbing its community of its Christians through zealous over-scheduling and self-perpetuating activities, a church is effectively silencing the Gospel being lived out. We must begin to recognize, encourage, and equip our people to BE the church out there on a hourly basis, rather than creating religious country clubs, full of activities and services (for all age groups) for its paying members.

Giving the Belt Some New Holes
Here are a few thoughts related to our own context:

  • Our church has not seen a single adult led to faith in Christ in the last three years. Are we really a church? Yet our membership have shared their faith with others consistently. But that “Good Ol’ Boy” Syndrome and Bible Belt mindset is so firmly established here that most folks (including hundreds of church-attending ones) probably think that since they have a favorable impression of Jesus in their minds, that they must be going to heaven. The rationale… “I don’t hate Jesus, so he and I are cool.” The claims of Christ upon their life for service, mission, and transformation are, for the most part, in our area, certainly ignored.
  • We still need more committed believers to help us in our church plant. We are trying to redefine the expression of Christianity in our culture. We need help. We simply don’t believe the mission of Jesus was for the purpose of helping us create religious country clubs that primarily serve ourselves. Unfortunately, so many believers would rather be a part of churches that serve their needs rathen than one that enables them to serve the needs of others. We’ve consistently heard of folks that would be a part of our church, if it had this or if it had that (a large youth ministry, comprehensive children’s programs, etc.). In short, people want church to raise their families for them, rather than being equipped to raise their children in the wisdom and instruction of the Lord.
  • People in our community who are not involved in any church are not being persuaded to be so by any church older than 5 years. Most unchurched folks simply don’t care what happens within the walls of our buildings. They need help outside the walls, and they’re not going to come in to get it. At the 5 year mark, many a church shifts into a maintenance mode. It becomes focused on keeping its own stuff running more than equipping and expecting its people to be out there, involved, and invested in the life of the community. Therefore, those who are not-yet believers in Christ don’t normally see lives of faith being lived out in front of them – mainly because those lives are sequestered behind walls and busy with programmed activities.

Whew…. I’d better stop for now. I’ll pick up this long rant sometime in the near future. I’d be VERY interested in your feedback, however.

0891096639Here are a few books to check out in the meantime…

On this day...

7 comments

  1. DB says:
    Preach, brother! Preach!
  2. Jeff Noble says:
    Jason,

    Thanks for the encouragement! I read that book and loved it about 2 years ago as we were starting Journey Church! the only thing I’m still processing about it is its emphasis on the 5-Fold Ministry. I don’t know that that one passage is as prescriptive as the book makes it out to be.

    But I definitely enjoyed the book and was deeply encouraged and challenged by it. A similar book in its depth and challenge (as well as its emphasis on the 5-Fold Ministry) is “Shaping of Things to Come.” It’s in my parchment list. Check it out when you can.

    Jeff

  3. Jason Kerner says:
    You are not alone in your wrestling. Another good book is Houses that Change the World by Wolfgang Simpson. God is beginning to raise up a generation that longs to live with Jesus among the lost.

    I appreciate your thoughts and your heart.

  4. Michael says:
    I see your point. And it’s quite sharp.
    Religion has become a “bad” word that I do not enjoy using any more. As I have been learning these last three years (I am glad to say thatsome of that learning took place under your tree Jeff), I have found that so many people are just happy with being in the “religious” club. It is truly disheartening.
    Alas, Christ is still awesome, and I think that if people would just ask for a hunger for His word, and more knowledge of Him, He would gladly give it to them. Once people start learning more about God, then I think they will get out of this religious funk and become Christ’s diciples
    Do you think people are actually scared to ask Christ for a hunger of His knowledge?

    Your pal,
    Mcp

  5. K.T. says:
    Okay I loved this post!!!!
  6. Pam says:
    Wow, jeff, I hardly ever hear (read?) you rant! I enjoyed reading your post.
    I have a love/hate relationship with the Bible Belt. I like the chivalry, friendliness and authenticity of the people. But I hate the lack of diversity in ideas, lifestyles, religion, politics, etc. Anything different is viewed with suspicion.
  7. Mitch Odom says:
    Even though I am free and released into ministry as Christ leads me rather than bond by what the church has already determined for me – I still miss the challenge of doing unconventional ministry in the Bible-belt. You have a real opportunity to release people into the freedom of who they are in Christ and out of the clonism they have become a part of in the established traditional church. After all, we have been called to help the body of Christ conform to the image of Christ. That is quite different than making people look and sound like they are members at old First Church on Main Street.

    I kid you not, I was sitting in the Tokyo airport and I saw a man walk by whom I had never seen before – and I said to the person with me, “I will bet you money on that man being a Baptist pastor – as a matter of fact, I know he is.” So, I tracked him down and popped the question, “are you a Baptist pastor by any chance?” To which he said, “yes, I am.”

    Amazing! What told me this complete stranger was a Baptist pastor. Nothing more than the air about him. Leads me to ask, “exactly what kind of air are we creating around us?” because the air around us speaks volumes about who we are. I wonder what “Jesus air” truly looks like? Funny I should have to ask.

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