By Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, FL
“The Bible Belt is the most difficult place in America to pastor a local church.”
These words, spoken to me by a pastor friend in northern California, seemed comical at the time. I felt like I was taking the easy way out by going to pastor in the South. My West Coast friend was the one who was really on mission, I thought, and I was getting ready to pastor in the land of sweet tea and prayer before the kickoff at the high school football game.
He reminded me what I already knew from my own experience of growing up here as he said,
“Where I am in California, there is no confusion. Either you’re a Christian or you’re not. In the Bible Belt, everyone thinks they’re a Christian, and that they are just fine with God.”
Winning people to true discipleship in the lands of “churchianity” presents some unique challenges. Everyone thinks they’re fine. It reminded me of Jesus’ challenge to the religious people of his day, warning in Matthew 7:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord! ’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name? ’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’—Matthew 7:21-23 HCSB
These words could be preached on the steps of every southern state Capitol building today. People today may object,:
- But didn’t we “say grace” before dinner?
- And didn’t we vote our values?
- Didn’t we believe prayer should be in school?
- Didn’t we go to church and volunteer at Vacation Bible School?
- Didn’t we believe in God?
No saving faith exists apart from true commitment to Christ. While the number of those who check “No Religion” on a survey might be rising, the average person in the South still loves to sing “God Bless America.” This god, however, acts more like a sentimental mascot or a good luck charm. I refer to this Bible Belt culture as the land of the over-churched and the under-reached. In a place where many are Christians by culture rather than conviction, pastors and local churches face serious challenges. People in this land have been “immunized” from the true faith by a dead version of Christianity.
Statistics show that the church is shrinking in the Southeast more quickly than anywhere else in the U.S. It turns out the Bible Belt isn’t so Bible after all.
Here are four challenges to ministry in the land of the over-churched and under-reached:
1. Many have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, even though they’ve been to church all their lives.
In other regions of the country you are dealing with a majority of the population having no church background whatsoever. The Bible Belt is often just the opposite. The cultural approach to church has deep roots in the family and usually centers about keeping Nana happy because it “means so much to her to have everyone sit together.” For others, church is a “symbol of their values” and “a good thing to do for the children.” It makes Nana proud.
In challenging this culture, the pulpit is key. Furthermore, gospel centrality and clarity in preaching and in every small group or Sunday school setting is critical. It is almost as if you have to get people lost before they are saved. We must define over and over again what the gospel is, and be very clear on what it is not.
In almost nine years of pastoring a local church, the majority of people I have baptized were familiar with the church, but were completely ignorant of the gospel. I would assume this is common for many pastors in the South. I frequently hear people reflect that, “Growing up, nobody ever told me I needed to be saved from my sins.” These people knew the Christmas story, took cute family pictures before church on Easter Sunday, and knew nothing of God’s plan of salvation. These are markers of Bible Belt religion.
2. People in the Bible Belt often possess a false assurance of salvation.
Many think they are just fine with God based on heritage and good manners. This false assurance may also result from a church climate in some gospel-believing SBC churches where the goal is to report impressive baptism numbers. I fear there is a large number of men and women who think they are “fine” because they repeated a prayer when they were seven, got baptized after VBS, and never established faiths of their own.
The assurance of one’s eternal security must be grounded in the work of Christ rather than a one-time prayer or experience. While going through those processes and growth environments should not be dismissed completely, it certainly does not guarantee that a person knows Christ, either. Too many churches approach baptism and assurance in ways that cause people later in life to doubt their salvation and be baptized again. While some of our people understand the gospel clearly as children, many do not. This is a big problem, and particularly keen in the Bible Belt.
3. When the Gospel is not clearly and consistently explained, “confessing faith” becomes a rite of passage rather than a work of repentance.
When a person is first getting into Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, he or she begins collecting badges for different categories based on milestones reached in the program. This can be an exciting activity to work on. In the Bible Belt, there is a different type of badge collection.
In the midst of cultural theism, the concept of a generic “faith” is often just another badge to add to the vest, rather than it being the entire outfit. Basic belief in a higher power, or the “big man upstairs,” substitutes for life-changing belief in the specifics of the gospel. This is a difficult cultural reality to break through, as for generations the badge of faith can be worn and passed down without its wearers ever having anything to do with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
4. Gospel ambiguity leads to missional lethargy.
If the local church is mostly about the family sitting together and making Nana happy, it isn’t going to be making much impact on its city. The planting of new churches will be seen as threatening at worst and unnecessary at best. Global missions efforts will amount to nothing more than a hand-written check or annual humanitarian trip to ease one’s conscience, “vacationaries” as they have been called. True gospel clarity in the pulpit spawns mission fervency in the church.
Jesus spent a large part of his ministry confronting the phenomenon of those who were “religious by culture” rather than “worshippers by conviction.” His ministry gives us both encouragement to persevere and an example to follow. While this faux-theistic faith reigns supreme in the Bible Belt, the harvest is still so plenty.
The first step to engaging this mission field is to admit this reality and rise to the opportunity. It is time to get to work and change the game in the over-churched, under-reached South.