Posted by: baptistthinker | February 26, 2011

A Yankee In The Bible Belt: My Introduction To The Bible Belt

Over the past few days, I’ve been mulling over a couple of blog posts in my head. These postings come from experiences I’ve had, things I’ve seen, here in the Bible Belt. Things that I like about the Bible Belt, things I don’t like, and things I think those in the Bible Belt need to work on now. Because like it or not, there’s both good things, and very negative things, about the Body of Christ in the Bible Belt. This post is largely dealing with my introduction to the Bible Belt as a resident, my positive and negative impressions of the Bible Belt, and one particular problem I have with the Bible Belt.

I moved here from the Northeast, from the state of Delaware. My current residence is a town in Mississippi, in the Greater Memphis area. There’s a world of difference between the North, the Northeast, and the South(aka, Bible Belt). There are far fewer churches, and even fewer that could be considered orthodox. I grew up in a small town, near the capitol city of Delaware, Dover. Within 25 miles of Dover, according to YellowPages.com, there are 25 Baptist Churches. I couldn’t believe that figure, so I went through the list, and discovered one church with three different listings, as it owns three different buildings on the same street, and discovered a church parsonage listed as a church. Then, I went to my current city, and and looked for Baptist churches within 25 miles of my city. The results came in at 435. I went through a few pages, and found a couple of church-run daycares listed as separate entities, but most of the listings were individual churches. And I think 400 is probably an accurate number. The state of Mississippi is said to have the most churches per capita in the United States. Out of curiosity, I went to the city of my brother’s church in Alabama, and discovered that within 25 miles of his church, there are 396 Baptist churches. Then, I went to my sister-in-law’s hometown in Maine, and in the same distance, there are 25 Baptist churches. The population of Maine is approximately one-half of that of Mississippi. The population of Delaware is approximately one-third that of Mississippi. But it’s still an astounding difference, when you consider the overall picture. The reason I picked Baptist churches as my sample church group, is that I’m a Baptist. And in my experience, in the North, you tend to get a more orthodox church when you pick a Baptist church. However, for fun, I checked Presbyterian churches as well. Within 25 miles of my current city, there are 29 listings for Presbyterian churches; for my hometown, there are 4 listings; for my brother’s current city, there are 27; and for my sister-in-law’s hometown, there are 2 listings, with only one being an actual church.

For those of you who live in the Bible Belt, the above statistics are quite possibly staggering to you. Perhaps you didn’t realize what an insulated bubble you live in down here. And perhaps you didn’t realize the lostness of the North until just this moment. For those of you who live up North, perhaps working in a church, or simply attending a church, the numbers are possibly staggering as well. Perhaps you didn’t realize just how many churches there are in the South, as compared to your town. Or perhaps you’re driving 25, 30, 40+ miles every Sunday just to go to a good church that actually preaches the Bible, and you’re wondering how so many churches can exist down South, but you can’t get one in your town.

When I moved down here, I set out to find a church to attend. One thing that I discovered, is that every church I visited(all Baptist churches) was an orthodox church, preaching the Gospel. They varied in one way or another, some trying to be more seeker-sensitive, some trying to be “relevant”, some conservative(ie, hymns, no drums, suits and ties, etc), some casual, but all preaching the Gospel. I was, quite literally, stunned. It’s one thing to hear about the Bible Belt, and to visit it once a year to see your dear old grandmother(my grandmother lived in this area most of her life), and a completely different thing to move here. And as I visited churches, and started working a job, I discovered that just about everybody down here is a “Christian”. Many, many people around here attend church, talk about Jesus sometimes, what-have-you. I have sat in restaurants, or in Starbucks, and have seen people stop to pray regularly, or been astonished to hear people a table or two over having a conversation about church, faith, the Gospel, and how theology and life intersect. You Southerners must forgive this Yankee for his astonishment, because up North, this just doesn’t happen on a regular basis. Up in the Northeast, I rarely saw people pray at a restaurant, or carry their Bibles into a restaurant, or heard people sit and talk about the sermon they just heard, or heard people discuss the Gospel in public.

As I visited churches, I discovered that some of this is cultural. For many people, church is a place to meet on Sunday, to discuss business, sports, clothing, or politics. They come because their family has always come here, their friends are here, they give their money, volunteer a bit, maybe serve as a deacon, usher, SS teacher, or what-have you. But their life isn’t necessarily changed. You have others, who are overwhelmed by the many choices in churches, and who simply float from church to church, never really settling down in one to serve and work. I confess, that for a while that was me when I moved here. There were so many churches, that were so good, that I couldn’t decide where to go. I liked one church because it was tiny, and still sang hymns. I liked another because it was medium-sized, and did hymns and southern-gospel. I liked another, because it was large and had a good-sized pool of singles(hey, I’m a single guy, give me a break). Some churches were well-established in the area, and still others were new church plants(something I’m still a little irritated at, but we’ll get to that later).

I remember visiting one church, and a lady came up to me, greeted me as I found my seat, and asked me “So is this your first time visiting here?” “Yes ma’am,” I replied. She responded, “So where are you from?” “Well I’m from Delaware ma’am” I said. “Oh, so how long are you in town for?” she asked. “Oh, I’ve moved down here.” “Oh,” said she with just a trace of contempt in her voice, “so you’re a d**ned Yankee then.” “I’m sorry?” I said questioningly. To which she responded “A Yankee is someone who comes down to visit, a d**ned Yankee is someone who comes down to stay.” With that, our conversation ended. But I still remember that.

It seems to me, that the general mentality here in the Bible Belt, is that ‘what happens in the Bible Belt, stays in the Bible Belt’. People go to church all their life in the Bible Belt. Some young men grow up in church, go to seminary, and then plant a church…in the Bible Belt. Don’t get me wrong, the SBC, for example, does a great job of sending missionaries out all over the world…as long as that “all over the world” doesn’t include the Northeast, North, Northwest, or West. The SBC just this past year, decided to pass what is called the “Great Commission Resurgence”. In the GCR report, they made a few statements that perhaps, in light of these numbers I’ve shared above, make some sense. Speaking of the NAMB and the SBC, the GCR Report said “Approximately two‐thirds of our Cooperative Program dollars are spent on regions where only one‐third of the population resides. In other words, the greatest percentage of mission funds remains where our own churches are concentrated.” Now, admittedly, when I read those words, I kind of thought “duh”. But then again, I had the experience of being from “outside the camp”. A statement somewhat similar came in the beginning of the report, when they said “In North America, evangelical Christians are falling behind the level of population growth. Put simply, we are failing to reach new immigrant populations, the teeming millions in urban areas, and a generation of youth and young adults who are living in a time of vast change and confused worldviews. Lostness is not only our concern
when it is found across oceans – it must be our concern when it is across the street. North America represents a vast continent of lostness, where millions still have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and where many communities and ethnic groups are woefully underserved by Gospel churches.” As I look around at the area where I currently live, I can only think that these statements are borne of the mentality that I opened with talking about in this paragraph.

Planting a church in the Northeast is a much more difficult job than it is in the South. Down here, I see new church plants all the time. And while I’m not against churches being planted in the south, I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, they’re being planted here because it’s far easier to get a congregation where people tend to be culturally programed for church, than where people are indifferent or hostile to the Church. Out West, I’m told that people tend to be more resistant to the church, in a different way than where I’m from in the Northeast. In the Northeast, it’s different than the Northwest. Those areas tend to be rockier soil, whereas the South can be perceived as soft soil, that has largely been plowed over and over and over again. But even down here, it’s not so much that it’s the “unchurched” or unsaved who are coming to these church plants, but it’s people transferring from a nearby church. I see it regularly, where somebody, for one reason or the other, decides to go across the street to a different church. Perhaps they had their feelings hurt at the one church, or they switch because their friend goes to the other, or because the music is better, or because it’s closer to the Chili’s down the road and lets out fifteen minutes earlier.

And in talking to some people down here(and in my experience, this is the mentality of the many), to people in the church, to pastors, to pastors wives, to whoever, I find this mentality of “the south is better.” I’ve heard people say that they will never leave the South, because people love the Lord so much in the South. Or that they just couldn’t move their family to where people hate the church so much. Or this reason, or that reason. There’s just this mentality that the South is better than these other parts of the country, because of the religiosity of the South. I remember seeing a tweet some time ago, and I don’t know that it was meant this way, but it reflected this mentality, where somebody said “was just in Starbucks and I heard two different gospel conversations. This is why I’m never leaving the south.” And all I could think was “Whoa. That is just so wrong.” Because it is wrong. It’s wrong to look at the Northeast, or the West, or the Northwest, and say “I could never go there, God isn’t there, God is down here.” Down here, foreign missions is seen as a great, wonderful thing, and the virtues of it are expounded upon regularly. But try garnering the same amount of support to plant a gospel-centered church in Vermont, or Colorado. You’ll get more support to plant a church fifteen miles away in the next town, than you’ll get support to plant a church in New Hampshire. You’ll also get more support to plant a church in the suburbs, or a rural town, than you will to plant a church in the inner-city, but that’s a story for another blog post.

The long and short of it is, that from my perspective, the Bible Belt has largely become an inbreeding of cultural Christianity. I think, and I’m not a scholar nor the son of a scholar, this has largely to do with two things(again, this is pure conjecture on my part). One, the Civil War made the attitude of Southerners hostile towards Northerners. That attitude of hostility has continued to today, though largely not on purpose. Southerners tend to have a semi-hostile attitude towards the North, but it’s not an active hostility. The other event would be when liberalism began to creep into churches. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, liberal theology began to gain steam. In the South, it gained less of a foothold, although it did take hold of SBC leadership for some time. In the North however, liberal theology became much more dominant. While Southern churches, largely innoculated to liberalism due to their close proximity to other conservative churches(this phenomena is known in animals as “herd immunity”, and I think it’s a fitting term here), maintained conservative theology through most of the Bible Belt. The North came to be viewed as a place without true Christianity, as well as a place to be hated due to Civil War friction. And so it has largely been ignored by Southern churches, who have chosen to take the Gospel to other countries, or to keep it within the South. While some churches have sent missionaries up North and out West, the most amount of churches are in the South. Particularly when it comes to Southern Baptist churches. We talk about the “lostness” of, say, China, or India, and never look to the Northeast, which is extremely heavily Catholic, or the Unchurched Belt, aka the West, Maine, and West Virginia, which is largely secular or Mormon, or just have low religious adherence. It seems, in my very humble opinion, that much of the Bible Belt is simply cultural Christianity which is starting to fade away. I don’t know if those of you who have lived in the Bible Belt longer than myself have noticed, but pluralism is starting to get a foothold in the South. The Bible Belt is an area that has hid itself from the rest of the United States, and kept it’s light under a bushel in that regard. The Bible Belt has done a little bit of what the early church in Jerusalem did. When the church in Jerusalem started, it grew to an enormous size, it was the first megachurch. It performed it’s duty to start preaching in Judea, but failed to go Samaria and the rest of the world. And so God sent them out into the world as missionaries by scattering the church via persecution. And those of us here in the Bible Belt should tremble, because God may do that same thing again to scatter us throughout the rest of the United States. Don’t get me wrong, as a Yankee, it was refreshing to move to the South, and find so many, many people who profess Christ and go to church and preach the Gospel. It has been a wonderful time here, meeting orthodox Christian brothers and sisters in numbers I wouldn’t really imagine back home. I love how so many churches down here are preaching the Gospel, but I fear that they do so to a culture that has become inoculated to the Gospel. I wish that they would take the Gospel to the North and the West, to the regions filled with Catholics and Mormons and atheists and secularists. I wish they would, and this is my opinion here, and I realize I may offend somebody with this, but I wish they would stop viewing themselves as the ancient Pharisees viewed Judea and Jerusalem, and that they would stop viewing the Northeast and West as “those Samaritans”. I wish that these churches in the Bible Belt would say “Hey, let’s get a few families together, move up to Maine, or Alaska, or Idaho, and start a new church.” Because wow, if we could get some churches to do that, to help move some families out of the Bible Belt, we might just see something new happen across our land.

This link is a visual representation of the overall religious makeup of each state(in a percentage based color code system) in the Continental US.

Wikipedia Article to the Bible Belt
Wikipedia Article to the Unchurched Belt

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Responses

  1. OUTSTANDING Article. Keep up the great work. I’ll check back periodically.

  2. Thoughtful and helpful. A few comments:

    1) that map – I had no idea the number of Baptists in Georgia was that low. I thought it would be a little bit redder. 🙂

    2) I’ve been looking over some posts from my old (pre-conversion) blog tonight before you posted this one, which original blog title had the words “Bible Belt” in it as well, very tongue-in-cheek, written at a time when church people in general and Baptists in particular were the enemy. Now I are one 😉 God’s grace is amazing.

    And because God’s grace is amazing….

    3) Getting families together to go plant a church – like a little community – awesome idea. Seriously. That’s something to pray toward and if there are those in a position to pick up and do it, it really seems it should be done and supported. That’s an idea that needs a platform.

    4) Several years ago I spent a little bit of time in (very Catholic) southwest Louisiana and even as a heathen at the time (Baptists were still the enemy) it felt somehow dead there to me, largely because of the fact that there were so few churches around. I got back to Georgia and churches everywhere, and I could breathe a sigh of comfort – I was “home”. There seems to be a subtle “comfort” factor in having lots of churches around. Pure idolatry, I know, but it is what it is.

    5) The nature of my job has me talking with people in some depth about their medical and emotional challenges. The vast majority of those I deal with are in a single northern state within that Catholic belt. They have trials and distresses, and if they tell me they pray or give some inclination of having a Christian interest or affiliation at all, I give them Scripture. One such woman, a Catholic, was at the mercy of an unreasonably jealous husband and fought back depression because “God will be mad at me”. I gave her Romans 8. She wept. Others think God hates them because they have overwhelming illnesses and circumstances. Philippians 4. 2 Corinthians 12. Without fail, they have never heard such words before, they ask me “where in the Bible is that?” and they drink them in with gratitude. One just today sat in stunned silence that this nurse from this insurance company was telling her about Paul’s joy in prison and reading Philippians 4 – which she had not known. She promises to let me know when she chooses a church. People are in bondage everywhere and they are hungry and thirsty everywhere. We must go to them however we can and bring the Word to them in any way possible. It is that which breaks those chains.

  3. Great post, man. I am one who has been raised in the SBC in the bible belt (SW Arkansas) and have been both saddened and encouraged over the last year or so in the SBC.

    I’ve been saddened to learn the lack of attention so many areas of our country has received (in regards to missions) and saddened at the huge amount of missions $$ that remain in the deep south.

    BUT, I’m encouraged at the direction the NAMB is planning to go. My family and I are soon to move to seminary at Southern and while I have no idea where God will have us go from there, the idea of moving to the NE to plant and/or revitalize a church is exciting.

    May people in the Bible Belt be shaken out of their “Christ-haunted,” cultural ‘Christianity’ by the power of the Gospel and may the church in the south commit to spreading the gospel amongst unreached people groups, both in North America and to the uttermost.

  4. @Jared-Thanks brother.

    @Barbara-On the idea of sending a few families together, that’s something I thought about in recent years. Our model of planting churches in the United States has always been a model of sending a preacher and his family to a city to plant a new church. Over the past decade and a little longer, with foreign missions churches have started doing “team missions”, where they send two or more families into an area. This helps overcome feelings of homesickness, discouragement, etc. Because you have help from fellow believers, especially those who know where you’re coming from. When it comes to planting a church in the next town over, churches have no problem sending multiple families to start that church plant. But still, when it comes to planting a church in an unchurched area here in the United States, we tend to send out a single family. I really don’t think that works. Our church sent our youth group on a missions trip to a church up in upstate New York last year. Our YP’s wife said that while she was there, the pastor’s wife expressed how grateful she was to have fellow Christians around, and that it was encouraging to have so many believers with them for that time period. When you send out a single family to work in an unchurched area, discouragement and homesickness are very powerful. I think this is a logical extension of “team missions”. And I think it would be effective for keeping church planters in the area they go to. Too many go up there, find out how hard it is, get discouraged, and go back home. With a support base there, I think it might be better for them.

    @Brian-I agree, I am encouraged as well with the direction the NAMB is going. And I hope to see more positive changes coming. I didn’t understand the term “Christ-haunted” until recently, and I think it fits very well here.

  5. This is a great article! My wife and I spent a little over a year in the Northeast(Upstate NY) and it was like going to the uttermost parts of the earth…a real culture shock to someone who grew up in the Bible belt. Rachel, however, lived there from 1988-2000 so we both understand the challenges the Northeast brings. But it is saddening that we don’t have more people going up there. One thing I will say and this may hit some but from what I have seen is that you see a difference in those who walk with God in the “uttermost parts of the earth” and those who claim Christianity for cultural reasons and not because they want to know Him.


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