A Missionary’s Loving Observations of the Bible Belt
Originally Published April 28, 2018
Short Disclaimer: This is written in love and genuine care for what I’ve seen trending in Bible Belt culture. This is an observation of the Bible Belt culture in general. This in no way describes every church. There are faithful, Holy-Spirit filled churches that are thriving in the South.
…his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. Acts 17:16b
We recently took a family road trip back to our old home of Jonesboro, AR. For the past 3 1/2 years we have lead a ministry through our church called Resolved for Provo. Stemming from 1 Corinthians 2:2 — For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This recent trip to Jonesboro struck a cord in me that I haven’t been able to shake. I observed things that God opened my eyes to, that in previous trips I did not see. It was hard to describe the feeling that I had as I observed the people in restaurants, in the mall, on the university campus, and in the churches. It wasn’t until a week after my trip, as I was studying in Acts 17, that I found the word that encapsulated my experience — Provoked. If we were starting a ministry to the town of Jonesboro today it would be called Provoked For Jonesboro.
The Church is Shrinking in the South in Size and Influence
In ten years, those who have grown up in a place like Jonesboro won’t be able to recognize it. It was discouraging to see how the Kingdom is shrinking and the church is becoming less and less influential in the culture of the Bible Belt. Jonesboro was darker this year than last. By darker, I don’t just mean more visible worldly living but a religious glaze over the church that is blinded by its overall stagnancy. None of this should be coming out of left field. There has been plenty of research and documentation to back up this trend. For far too long the church has relied on internal (children being born into and raised up in the church) and transfer (believers moving into the area or switching churches) growth. Campus ministries, relying heavily on the network of churches sending them names of graduating high school seniors, are shrinking because the number of names they receive is shrinking. Overall, the pool of people that the church in the South has to work with is shrinking.
This trend should greatly disturb the church in the South. In particular if you have studied the book of Acts. Nowhere, under any circumstances, under any budget restraints, does the church shrink. Through persecution, zero buildings, and zero budgets, the church grew and the word of the Lord spread. The Church, filled with the Holy Spirit, was never designed to shrink. Something is dangerously and damnably wrong if the church is shrinking. We have to stop fooling ourselves. For every church plant there are 2 or more dying. For every one person being baptized, there are whole families leaving.
It is easy to identify the problem but harder to find the solution. Here are just a couple of thoughts that I have gleaned from the Bible.
Come and See ONLY is Dead
The traditional model of inviting people to a church service, as well as business like marketing practices to get people into your doors for your weekly gathering, is dying. This model is sometimes defined as the Come and See strategy. Those models worked only when there was a majority of genuine interest in organized religion as a societal norm. It is the thought of, “They are going to go somewhere on Sunday, why not us?” The problem is that the majority of our society, even in the South, no longer has that as a norm in their life. Youth and Young adults are forming their own norms and organized religion is not one of them. Generation Z is ever more identifying as non-religious. We are a generation away from a post-Christian Bible Belt. What does that mean? Essentially, the culture, will and in most places, has stopped looking at the church as the answer to societal woes and now sees it as part of the problem. They are not going to be indifferent to the church. They will be against the work of the church.
If you are racking your brain with your church staff, committee, para-church organization about how you can attract more people to your events and gatherings, YOU ARE HAVING THE WRONG CONVERSATION. You are not going to have a big enough sign out in front of your building. You are not going to have an attractive enough mailer. You are not going to have a modern enough looking building. You are not going to have a fun enough event at your church.
What was Paul’s response to what he saw?
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Acts 17:17
Paul, primarily used the Go and Tell strategy. Paul was in hostile territory everywhere he went. Most missionaries are. They are constantly playing away games. They are not on their home court, not with their fans, not with their home town refs. Paul went out to the people and engaged in spiritual and gospel conversations FIRST. If your church, ministry, para-church organization does not have a regular, reproducible, highly accountable Go and Tell strategy for each member, then your ministry will die. A hybrid approach of Go and Tell to Come and See is still viable. Go and Tell is not knocking on doors to invite people in your community to your event. Go and Tell is sharing the Gospel. It is calling people to faith and repentance and then seeing who is receptive to the message. Then inviting them to Come and See.
Which “Re” is needed? Revitalization, Revival, or Repentance
Revitalization is the buzz word among Evangelicals in the South, on par with missional living. Most people see a need for it but few know what it really is and what it will take to accomplish it. Revival used to be the buzz word for the generations before mine. It unfortunately got reduced to an event that is put on the church calendar, strategically not getting in the way of seemingly more important events like VBS. Neither Revival nor Revitalization can happen apart from Repentance.
What the church in the South needs more than apostle-like church planting voices attempting to blaze new trails of church, is a prophetic John the Baptist-like voice that is bent on preaching repentance to God’s covenant people (Matt. 3:2).
Repent of what?
I see a common pattern found in the book of Acts. God’s people pray. The Holy Spirit does something amazing. The Gospel message spreads. The church is persecuted. Then put all that on repeat. Repentance for a prayer-less and non-evangelistic living needs to happen. The book of Acts shows us a church that didn’t move from the upper room for weeks until they heard from the Lord (Acts 1–2). What were they doing that whole time? Praying. They were a pray first people. Far too often, we are pray last people. They didn’t consult, they didn’t plan, they didn’t brainstorm, they prayed. They didn’t stop the work of ministry to pray. Prayer was the work of the ministry. God answers their plea of their need for Him by giving them His Spirit. Prayer has become an after thought. It is nothing more than a place holder in our worship services to help transition the worship team on and off stage. We rely far too much on financial resources and personal abilities rather than a true movement of God’s Spirit in His people. Our problem is that we know exactly what to do. We’ve lost our desperation for God. Few people in our churches today could honestly say that they have seen something happen in their community or town that could only be explained by stating, “God showed up!”
Their prayer led to Holy Spirit filling (Acts 2 and 4) that then led to the act of evangelism and effectiveness in evangelism. A church largely void of evangelism is a church largely void of the Spirit. A church void of the Spirit’s power will remain there as long as prayer is seen as a transitional tool and a side step to the “real work” of ministry.
Does the South need more church plants?
When I was in college at Arkansas State University from 2000–2005, one of my favorite late night eating spots was Steak n’ Shake. It closed down during my undergraduate studies. Mainly because people didn’t frequent it enough for a variety of reasons. For us college students, it served a much needed felt need — to fulfill a late night craving. Outside of that, the establishment got lost in the newness of other restaurants and more late night options for students.
Recently, my Jonesboro friends’ Facebook blew up with the news that finally Steak n’ Shake was coming back to town. Pandemonium set in and the excitement of a specific felt need being met ensued. Comments filled social media like, “I miss their shakes!” or “I can’t wait to have one of their burgers!” The business owner must be salivating over all the free press and momentum that is building. But if he never addresses the reason why the first one died, then the new is destined to follow the one before it. The newness will wear off and other newer restaurants will pop up that will meet the felt need better and his business will shrink.
Here is the sobering truth. Church plants will eventually die for the same reasons why the established churches will die before them. If you are going to have churches planted largely by transfer growth of prayer-less, non-evangelistic people that are chasing the newest thing in town that meets a felt need, then you will die eventually. If you don’t have a healthy theology and practice of prayer built in to your people, you will die. If you don’t have a reproducible, regular, highly accountable way to equip every member to do evangelism, you will die. New will die if they are void of the transformational power of the Holy Spirit.
Can I give you some encouragement?
We have Bible Practitioners.
All hope is not lost! The Bible gives us clear, simple measures of Spirit-filled living that grow the Kingdom and your local ministry. Learn from the practitioners in the book of Acts.
We have Modern Practitioners.
All hope is not lost! The roles have flipped. In previous generations, most missionaries would take what the established churches were doing and replicate it where they were. Missionaries were the learners from the practitioners at home. Now, more than ever, the South needs to observe and learn from what cross-cultural missionaries are doing around the globe. They need to begin to implement and replicate what they see in the least reached parts of the world at home. Some of these ministries around the globe are thriving without buildings and large budgets. They are baptizing more people and making disciples at an incredible rate that maybe your church hasn’t seen in decades or ever.
For the pastors, church and ministry leaders laboring in the field of the Bible Belt, I love you. Your work is hard. Your calling is difficult. Your role is needed now more than ever. Lead your people in prayer and evangelism. Call your church or organization, if needed, to repentance in these areas. Find a reproducible, regular, highly accountable way to do evangelism that will work in your context and enlist every member of your ministry.
I acknowledge that this could be viewed as arrogant and misinformed. I am open to rebuke and correction in which my views have strayed from the Biblical text or have distorted the Biblical text to back up my own view points. I am open to dialogue about this and would like to do that in a way that is eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3).