I live in the Bible Belt, but I spend a lot of time ministering to church leaders in more pioneer areas of our country. Every time I do, I’m reminded of how much I don’t often think about ministry outside the Belt:
- The work is not unlike work on the international mission field. Believers are sometimes trying to reach people who have no background in Christianity at all. Many have never owned a Bible, and they haven’t missed it.
- The fields are sometimes saturated with philosophies and religions deeply entrenched in culture. I’ve seen this reality particularly in the West and the Northeast. In some settings, to call people out of their “ism’s” is to call them to reject their family and their tradition.
- The work can be lonely. All the faith you can muster to trust God can be challenged when it feels like you’re the only believer in hundreds of miles.
- Fellowship matters. This point is directly connected to #3 above. When you seldom get to hang out with other church leaders, you love the time when you do. And, some of the squabbles that occur in more traditional church settings seem really silly.
- The stress on families can take a toll – especially when leaders have moved their families to that mission field. I’ve seen as much spiritual warfare in some North American pioneer settings as I’ve seen in the most non-Christian places around the world.
- Pastors are often working several jobs. Sometimes they do that out of a calling to bi-vocationalism; in other cases, though, they do it because their small congregation can’t pay them more.
- It’s hard to “stick it out.” Lonely days + hard soil + slow progress + financial burden can quickly equal burnout. The young couple that moved to the mission field sometimes begins to yearn for the routine of the Bible Belt again.
- Leaders long for support. Sure, they’d take our dollars to help them do ministry, but many leaders I know want primarily a ministry friend who prays for them and encourages them regularly.
I realize that some of these characteristics also describe the traditionalism and cultural Christianity of the Bible Belt (and maybe that's another post). My point is to say that we need each other. So, pioneer leader, know that we’re praying for you today. Bible Belt leader, reach out to someone in a pioneer setting. I think you’ll find somebody just waiting for a friend.
Thanks Chuck. I recognise and agree with these points. On the other hand I sometimes see those on mission assume wrongly a zero or weak understanding of Scripture and the Christian faith. This also happens on multi-cultural outreach in English-speaking communities; it’s easy to assume ignorance where lack of ability in English language and idiom is the cause. How do you strike the balance? Personally, I always start with fundamental narrative and fact within the Gospels. Questions like Who is Jesus? ; Who were in His groups?; Where did He travel? ; What was at the heart of His ministry? ; What did he teach? ; What persons were healed and of what? Where did He raise people from the dead? The reaction to teaching at that basic level will reveal where persons stand on their Christian journey, and will serve as the foundation for the disciple making journey, Anyone eles’s thoughts as to how to strike the balance will be very welcome. Blessings.
If someone could put the teachings of Jesus to practice in their life and those of Isaiah in 1:16-17 (RSV) “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow,” then they have the faith plain and simple. Getting church organization right and dealing with opinions on hot button issues are not that important.
Please remember that in the big northeast cities or what you call the frontier, it is a different group of people than you are around in the Bible Belt. Not that Bible belt people aren’t educated, but the cities are full of ultra educated beyond PhD (think genetic engineering, synthetic biology, financial technology) and so there has to be a different approach to discussing faith with them. Some did or may still believe in God but you can’t make science and scripture clash or tell them they are unwanted because of their ideas. Also, there are aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism that put their followers at more peace than Christianity does and so have appeal. There is also eastern Christianity that most in the Bible belt have never studied. Jesus acted on behalf of people (one of whom was facing stoning) but Bible belt Christianity did not discuss that. They were more interested in people in pews on Sunday than social justice for the people in the streets.
Pastoring a church in the Bible Belt can be tough too as you probably know. There may be a church on every corner. +60 % of the population may claim a Christian religious affiliation. But how many of those folks actually go to church and more importantly how many of those folks are really disciples of Jesus Christ? A lot of folks here in the Bible Belt have been burned by their past experiences with churches in the community. They have become inoculated against the gospel. They have neighbors, relatives, coworkers, employers, etc. who profess to be Christians but who act no differently from non-Christians.
Other religions beside Biblical Christianity are beginning to make inroads into the Bible Belt Christian Science, Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Wicca. The community in which I live has a Christian Science Reading Room, a Kingdom Hall, a mosque, and a Mormon temple. A community about 20 minutes further south has a witches’ coven. Books on Wicca and witchcraft were so often stolen from our county library ,that its director was forced to place the in the restricted section.
As well as having pastoral charge of a small church, I am also a part-time student at a local university. I am learning to understand, speak, read, and write Japanese. It gives me an opportunity to meet with students at the university, both foreign exchange students and US students. I previously did volunteer work with foreign exchange students. One of the members of the class in which I am enrolled describes himself as a “Satanist.” Other students that have meet, both in and outside of this class, describe themselves as agnostics or atheists. Most of the US students who attend the university come from the Bible Belt.
I recognize that the Northeast and the West are “hard ground.” But the ground is also hardening in the South. The Bible Belt may have appearance of being a Christian enclave but appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving.
Amen! I live those points on a daily basis.
It is very difficult to see new converts made from people who have lived in East Tennessee their entire lives. There is so much cultural Jesus here that many people dismiss the call to follow Christ as something that they have already done. A study done by the major newspaper here revealed that only about 15% of residents of our county are regular attenders to a church. That translates to difficult conversations about true discipleship. Our church has found that internationals are far more receptive to the Gospel conversations. We have also found that people who have “hit the bottom” with life controlling issues or crises are far more ready and willing to radically follow Christ. The Bible-belt is itself a unique mission field.
thanks-hopefully somewhere in seminary training we can help young men and women understand these issues And I wish regional structures were strong enough to provide better assistance -but in my 40yrs of experience our denominational structures -associations in particular-are underresourced and fail to offer adequate support