Skylines of churches spanning across city blocks. Church buildings referred to as campuses more often than simply a church building. People smiling and waving at people they don’t know just because. Pleasant comments such as “I’ll pray for you” or “God bless you.” That’s right, I’m talking about the part of the United States commonly referred to as the “Bible Belt.” It’s become an accepted description of a part of the country between Florida, Texas, and perhaps Kentucky. Having grown up in Kansas, I always considered Kansas to be more a border-Bible Belt state than something like Oklahoma, Texas, or Florida. My parents divorced when I was young and my dad moved to Oklahoma, so I got to experience Kansas and Oklahoma. One thing that I noticed was the sharp difference in culture. No, not just the southern accent which is a sign you’ve left the midwest in Oklahoma, but the expected fact that people are a part of a church.
I’ve been to a Golden Corral outside of Atlanta where I went to use the restroom and noticed the graffiti on the bathroom stalls were Bible verses, prayers, and the plan of salvation. Yes, seriously.
Living in New England now, in southern Maine, I realize just how unusual and how sharp the contrast truly is between a place like Oklahoma and New England. I’ve often referred to Oklahoma as being the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. I’ve stood in line at a Starbucks in Oklahoma and heard people talk about the Bible studies they were going through and their church activities to one another. Rarely have I heard that while waiting in line at Starbucks in Boston or in southern Maine where I live. The Bible Belt is a unique place, but something that many seem to presume, myself included at one point, is that the Bible Belt is the ideal for our nation. Ideally, the whole US would look like the Bible Belt because the Bible Belt is as close to an ideal Christian community as there’s ever been. Maybe an exaggeration, but you get the point. People laud and praise the culture of the Bible Belt, even indirectly in conversation in referring to a place being like or unlike the Bible Belt. However, I wonder…
What if the Bible Belt is not the pristine, Christ-centered world that people talk it up to be? What if the Bible Belt is just as much a mission-field in the US as New England?
People commonly refer to New England as a spiritually dark place, where not only the coastline is rocky, but the spiritual climate as well. People talk about the frankness and stubbornness of New Englanders in New England not in a negative way, but people up here are actually a little proud of it. I use to see New England as the great un-reached mission field in the US. A place that was indeed an early seedbed of Christianity in our country, but has long since been overgrown and blown over by conflicting and competing world views that Christianity is a minority view. Christianity is indeed a minority view in New England and the state of Maine one of the least Bible-believing Christian states in the US, but amidst the darkness of New England I’ve found that the Bible Belt is perhaps just as dark.
New Englanders don’t hide who they are, but tend to where it on their sleeve. You ask someone in a Bible Belt culture how they are doing, the typical response might be: “Good. How are you?” Spoken with a smile and no hesitation in responding, but in New England, someone asks how you are doing and you might hear: “Do you really want to know? Okay, I’ll tell you. My marriage is a mess, I hate my job, and I don’t know how to pay the bills. You wanted to know, there ya go.” No doubt, folks in the Bible Belt deal with exactly the same problems. Hence, the high divorce rate especially among many who are Christians in the Bible Belt. A lack of contentment in work and trouble with the bills are everywhere. The difference is some people where their feelings on their sleeves and others simply are good at hiding it.
You see, amidst the Christian bookstores, the suburban wealthy church flair, the “Christian potpourri” as Matt Chandler calls it, the Bible Belt is just as much as a mission-field as New England. When you look past all the stuff that crowds the lives of people in the Bible Belt, even all the many good things that are there, there are still hurting and broken people in need of a Savior. There is no sinless, spotless perfection in the US, neither New England nor the Bible Belt, because Jesus Christ alone is our perfect righteousness.
We look to the mega-church pastors as examples and role models, but when there’s a massive financial scandal or some kind of sexual affair or corruption, the media makes a big fuss and celebration that such a figure has been corrupted. However, many Christians continue on lifting up and worshipping new godly leaders instead of lifting up and worshipping Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t surprise us as Christians when someone, even a prominent, has some sort of scandal going on because although we would wish they would walk closely with the Lord, no doubt, we also know that all are sinful and fall short of the glory of God. We say that, we write that on t-shirts and bumper stickers, but do we really get the gist of that one word – ALL? Or when the Psalmist writes that “none is righteous, not even one” and yet we seem to pretend that some are less corruptible and more righteous than others.
It’s not whether someone is more righteous than someone else as if to speak of different levels of righteousness. There are really 2 categories if you want to go there, there is Jesus and everyone else. That’s it.
The Pharisees and Scribes were quick to point out that Jesus liked to hang out with “Sinners” and was unclean for doing so. What they failed to realize was that they were sinners and were unclean because of their sin, and that no matter how much they might walk in obedience to the Law of Moses, their sin remained. They were still in need of a Savior, but believed they were so righteous, good, and holy, that they could just go through life without one ultimately because they believed they were their own savior.
Why this talk about Pharisees and Scribes when I started talking about the cultural differences of New England and the Bible Belt? I’ll tell you. There are many Pharisees and Scribes in the Bible Belt. There are many who go to church not just once a week, but 2-3 times a week, have nice Bibles, sing songs on Sunday, have Bible verses memorized, and are generally very good at wearing the right clothes, looking a certain way, not saying certain things, and being around the right people, but when tragedy comes, when hardship arises, and when skeptics approach them they seem to abandon or leave the faith. Why? It’s because they were very good at wearing Christian clothes, but they were never really Christians to begin with. They had Christian stuff and knew a lot, but they were ultimately relying on their imperfect righteousness to sustain and save themselves as opposed to the perfect righteousness of God in Jesus.
I’m not saying everyone is a Pharisee in the Bible Belt. If you read that here, you’re misunderstanding me. There are indeed a great number of Christians and churches in the Bible Belt, but just because there are a lot of churches and a massive Christian culture going on, don’t mistake that everyone is a Christian even in churches. In a culture where it is expected and accepted that you should be in church on Sunday morning, it shouldn’t be surprising that some are there not because they believe in Jesus but for other reasons.
For many of us who are Christians and who have grown up in a church culture, you always hear about the mission-field as the other. It’s over there, far away, over seas. What would it look like if we started looking at the mission-field as being not simply outside the doors of a church, but within as well? This goes for the Bible Belt and New England and everywhere.
Some of the dangers of the Bible Belt are being so sheltered within the context of one’s worldview that once someone comes along to shake that with a different worldview, they don’t know how to handle it. Either they react quite negatively which shows the conflicting worldview adherent that Christians are not loving or gracious as Jesus was, or they struggle with the worldview competing with their own and their worldview which was built on a straw man faith collapses around them and they are left searching for an identity. The Christian bubble can be encouraging and helpful and strengthening, but it should be a place where one is challenged in the faith in order to grow more mature as a disciple of Jesus. A place where when someone comes along with common objections to Christianity, while you might not be the best apologist in the world you aren’t tongue-tied with what to say and your faith is strengthened instead of weakened in the midst of opposition.
Also, in the Bible Belt, you might be sitting in a church worship service with several thousand people, and you might regularly see many people each week. However, when it comes to knowing the daily struggles of life in people’s lives and what is on their heart, it is often lacking. The Christian language of “I’m good and alright” can replace what’s really going on in the heart. What’s worse? People can accept that people really are alright. Then, great marriages suddenly turn into divorces. Great models of the faith suddenly are abusive parents or alcoholics. Kids are enjoying worship and Sunday school one day, but are doing drugs and having sex and living entirely different lives apart from the church.
The danger in the Bible Belt, with equating it as the safe, perfect, pristine ideal of Christianity is that many people could be wearing Christian clothes and regularly doing Christian things, but not truly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not be growing actively in their faith by putting sin to death in their lives and discipling one another. It can turn into a culture of complacency and wealth which internalizes without ever reaching out into the local community, to the poor side of town with the truth and hope of the Gospel of Jesus. What if churches in the Bible Belt (and I know some are) were less shelters from the world and more sending places for mission in the world? What if the pleasant conversations about the same-ole-same-ole were sacrificed in order to get to know one another on a deeper level and address the issues of our hearts?
My point is not to bash the Bible Belt, but to help people see the Bible Belt as a place that needs the Gospel just as much as New England. Just because someone looks the part of a Christian, doesn’t mean they truly are one and they certainly don’t have it ALL together. Being a follower of Jesus is a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is safe. If your life is safe and you’re living in the Bible Belt (or not), maybe you should ask yourself whether you are truly following Jesus in the battlefield of the world, putting sin to death in your life, and growing and maturing as a disciple or have you settled for something else that could be a fractured image of what it means to be a Christian? New Englanders need the Gospel, absolutely. However, our role model shouldn’t be the Bible Belt, our role model should be Jesus Christ. If your ultimate role model is your rock star preacher or to be like such and such Christian family, your aim is too low.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2, English Standard Version