I have deep roots in the south. Although I was born in Baltimore, my family is all over the south. I graduated from high school, college, and seminary in the south. I know the south for better and for worse. And right now there’s all kinds of pressure for ministry-minded folks to move anywhere else besides the Bible Belt in order to do “real” ministry. While I’m not saying that I’ll never leave the south (or the USA), I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to fellow-ministers of the Gospel in the Bible Belt. Here are some reasons why I think ministering in my state of South Carolina is important, and why other southerners shouldn’t feel like less of Christians for advancing the kingdom in this spiritual “Jerusalem.”
The Bible Belt is largely a cultural phenomenon
The Bible Belt has a culture of tradition-based church attendance without strong accountability or appreciation for what the Church really is. Much of Christianity in the southern states of America is really a self-centered consumer social activity. If a church steps on toes or doesn’t fit someone’s preferences, they’ll move on in a skinny minute. Huge crowds that pack out the massive auditoriums across the south are often seen as indicators of a lack of need in this region, but the truth is that many churches are packed with good people who need the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Many of these people remain blinded to their need of Jesus because of their good lives, church attendance, Republican votes, etc. It’s a mission field of a different variety from other regions of the United States, but a mission field nonetheless.
The Bible Belt has a culture of biblical literacy without strong application of Scripture. It’s a culture of Sunday School teenagers who will walk away from the faith when they leave home. It’s a society of “God bless you” friendships who need little reason stab their friends in the back and tear them down to others. It’s a culture of Bible verses and fish symbols on business signs, but where the shoddy ethics of Christians in business is often worse than their secular counterparts. There’s plenty of Jesus on the outside, but very little Jesus on the inside.
The Bible Belt is a culture where politics and Christianity are one and the same. Many southerners believe that the hope for culture can be found in politicians, laws, and court decisions. They’ve placed their faith in quasi-Christian political parties, in guns, in precious metals, and not so much in Jesus. While our politics sound so biblical, the fact is that our southern politics have become something of an idol instead.
The Bible Belt is rapidly changing and desperately needs Jesus
The southern states have been inundated over the past decade with manufacturing, distribution, and call centers. Cheap skilled labor has drawn thousands of global companies and employees from all over the planet. People from other nations and regions of the United States are traveling to the Bible Belt for jobs and for quality of life.
Immigration challenges on the southern border of the US have brought an influx of low-wage workers from the global south. Many counties in the Bible Belt speak more Spanish than English. Unfortunately, this has led to xenophobic politics rather than welcome and mission in the churches of the Bible Belt. The spiritual and social needs of the Hispanic communities is a high calling for the churches of the south.
Legal immigrants and national refugees have settled in large pockets due to low cost of living and strong job market. While we often think of New York City as the gathering-place of the nations, the truth is that tens of thousands of immigrants have settled in your southern state. The end result is that the second largest religion in most of the Bible Belt states is either Islam or Buddhism. What are we doing to develop relationships with these communities?
The overriding reason why we should take other people’s cultures seriously is because God has taken ours seriously. – John R.W. Stott
Local attitudes are shifting away from the strongly-held traditions. About 7 out of 10 kids raised in church are abandoning Christianity or church. There are plenty of reasons for this kind of departure, but it is primarily happening among a major Bible Belt demographic – white teens. Postmodernism is taking root rapidly. The assumption that southern culture and Christianity are permanently one and the same should never be a given. I’m not saying that we should fear these shifts, but I’m saying that we need to realize that the secularization of American culture has come to the south. Who will equip the church to understand and reach the secular postmodern millennials?
The Bible Belt Christians need to be called to kingdom work
Millions of Christians don’t have the option of moving out of the Bible Belt. At a time where jobs are hard to come by, we can’t simply live under the delusion that all the Christians in the south must just pick up and move to more needy areas in order to do Great Commission work.
The Christians in the Bible Belt need to be equipped for mission in their communities. As we’ve already seen, the Bible Belt communities are changing and cannot be seen as havens of the heavenly, but as neighborhoods of the needy (in many senses of the term). Bible Belt churches have a great opportunity to equip Christians to serve their changing culture. Churches in the Bible Belt are in dire need of evangelistic accountability and fervor in order to carry out mission. Reticence in the pew and bureaucracy from the pulpit has led to the Great Commission becoming the Great Omission in southern culture. It’s time to think about how to step out of the way and empower and urge all Christians to engage their communities.
Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God. – William Carey
Millions of Christians in the Bible Belt need to be equipped for mission around the globe. Think of the untapped resource for global impact which is bottled up in the communities of southern USA. And I’m talking about more than doing week-long mission trips or swiping your Visa to send others as traditional missionaries; I’m talking about preparation for and actualization in meaningful worldwide impact in innovative and direct ways.
The Bible Belt was important to the Apostles
The Apostles stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). In spite of a call to evangelize outside of Jerusalem and in spite of an urgent need to do so, for some reason, the Apostles remained. A church of perhaps thousands of non-Hellenized believers needed to be discipled and equipped. While there was a need and a command given by Jesus to go on at some point, the Apostles saw the importance of working in the heavily reached and overwhelmingly religious city of Jerusalem first.
Paul stayed in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10). Ephesus and the local environs rapidly became the Bible Belt of the first century, and Paul didn’t appear to see this as a negative thing. He spent over two years in the city, training and equipping this missional church to spread the Gospel to the neighboring cities. He would later send his colleagues to minister there, and John the Apostle also spent much time in ministry in this city. Instead of viewing the city as an “already reached” location and moving on, the leaders of the first century church viewed the city as an evangelistic hub for ministry and mission. At the same time, this didn’t keep these leaders from being realistic about the growing challenges of religiosity and traditionalism in the church there either (Revelation 2).
I’m not writing to the millions of believers who live outside the Bible Belt. I’ve seen many families move to the Bible Belt hoping that the Christian schools and good churches and godly society will rub off on their kids. But that’s the exception and not the rule around here. Don’t be enamored with this region of the country. As I’ve said, we’ve got a ton of problems down here. It’s no utopia.
I’m also not writing to those who have been called by God to minister elsewhere. Some of my good friends have had doors for ministry or vocation open outside the Bible Belt and have moved on to minister there. They’re doing some awesome kingdom work in these locations. I’ve always adopted a posture of “looking to leave, but willing to stay.” And if God’s will moves you to leave to other areas of the globe, you need to see this as an opportunity for a different sort of mission.
I am writing to the millions of Christians in the Bible Belt of the US. As long as God has you and me here, we shouldn’t feel discouraged about the sort of ministry that God has given us here. We shouldn’t see it as a utopia. We shouldn’t stop doing mission because we think our work here is done. We shouldn’t ignore the mission in our backyard, assuming that real mission only happens elsewhere. The Bible Belt needs the Gospel. And you and I must take the time that God has given us here to make a difference.