The world is changing. In good ways and bad.
If you live in America’s Bible Belt (predominantly the Midwest and South) you are probably feeling the impact of these changes to a greater degree than those of us who live outside it. And those feelings are likely to grow for at least another generation.
If you’re wondering why, here are three reasons I’m seeing as I travel the country ministering to and having conversations with small church leaders in almost every denomination, followed by three steps we can all take to meet these challenges head on.
1. You’re Used To Living In A Mostly Christian Culture
I’ve never lived in the Bible Belt, so I’ve never made the assumption that the surrounding culture is likely to believe the way I do or bend to a Christian worldview.
As the world around us shifts even further away from what has traditionally been considered a Christian worldview, churchgoers who live in post-Christian regions are not as likely to be overwhelmed by those changes.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not blasé or naïve about them. And we’re not giving in to them. We just know what it’s like to be in the minority.
We’re not used to hearing Christian music in stores and hotels, seeing chapels on practically every corner, or waiting during the Sunday lunch rush at restaurants. So we won’t miss them when they’re gone.
If such practices have been a normal part of your life, congratulations! You live in the Bible Belt. Unfortunately, the next 25-40 years may be harder on you.
Instead of the culture proceeding in the same direction, only faster, as we’re experiencing in post-Christian regions, your culture will feel more like it’s reversing course. In fact, many of the coming changes may feel like persecution to you, even though they don’t feel that way to those of us who already live in a post-christian environment.
2. There’s A Tendency To See Change As Negative, Not Normal
I live in California. Constant change is a part of the air we breathe. It’s rare to live in a house or attend a church that has existed for more than 75 years. If it is that old, it’s either a historical landmark, or it’s been gutted and updated within the last decade or so.
But as I travel through the Bible Belt, I’m struck by the longevity of things. Some houses and churches have been around for centuries, and many of the people who currently live and worship in them are fourth and fifth generation descendants of the people who built them – sometimes longer.
When you have that kind of long-term stability, it’s natural for change to feel more dangerous than typical – especially when the change is challenging the way you live, worship, work and play in some fundamental ways.
3. None Of Us Understands The Culture Around Us As Much As We Think
This may be the biggest challenge of all.
There are two equal, but opposite mistakes we make when it comes to understanding and communicating to the culture around us.
On one side, we have the fresh-out-of-seminary pastor who comes roaring into town with exciting new ideas about being “relevant”, “real” and “relatable” only to crash and burn in a small rural town that doesn’t see the need for a church with a name like “Oasis” or a worship pastor with holes in the knees of their pants (on purpose, no less!)
On the other side, you have the long-time local pastor who knows the town, its people and its traditions, but hasn’t kept up with how people, even in their traditional setting, have changed in the way they receive information, relate to each other, and what they expect from the church. If they expect anything at all.
So, with all these changes not just happening, but accelerating at a very rapid pace, what can a church leader in the Bible Belt do to understand their situation better and get ready for the inevitable changes to come?
Here are three ideas from someone who has been living in a very post-Christian culture for my entire life:
What To Do?
1. Put Less Energy Into Fighting The Culture, More Into Loving People
Jesus and the Apostle Paul didn’t try to change either the Roman or Jewish culture around them. They invested themselves in sharing God’s love with those who were willing to receive it. By doing that, they didn’t settle for changing the culture, they turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Now, more than ever, people are looking for a church that is less interested in winning the culture wars and more interested in sharing the love of Jesus.
(For more on this topic, check out my previous article, Be Undeniable: A Christian Alternative to Engaging In the Culture Wars.)
2. Learn To Think Like A Missionary, Not A Local
Have you ever thought, or maybe even uttered the phrase “I’ll never understand why (group of people) do (behavior).”
That phrase is only true if you let it be true. You will never understand if you don’t try.
But if you take the time to try to learn why people do what they do, or think like they think, you’ll have a much better chance of reaching them.
Missionaries know how to adapt their language and methods to a new culture without changing the truths of the gospel. After all, they’re leaving their familiar surroundings and going to a new place, so the need is obvious.
But when you’ve lived in the same area for most or all of your life (maybe going back generations) it’s very easy to miss the incremental changes around you. You may be living in a culture that is as different from you and your values as the missionary who travels to a foreign land, without even leaving your own house.
We need to get better at cross-cultural ministry to reach our own towns.
Get out of your church world for a while. Join the PTA. Coach Little League. Maybe even sign up for a cross-cultural training class for missionaries at a local seminary or online. Do whatever you need to do to start understanding how the world around you – maybe even within your own household – is changing.
We can’t reach them if we don’t understand their language.
3. Concentrate On Doing What Only The Church Can Do
Almost everything people used to come to church for can be found elsewhere. Mostly online.
Want great preaching? Listen to a podcast. Great Christian music? Spotify. Someone to marry you? There’s a dot-com for that, too.
If we hope to reach newer generations, or even keep the ones we’ve got, we must concentrate on doing what only the gathered church can do.
You don’t need a building for that. Or a denomination, a budget, a choir, a pulpit or rows of pews. You just need a place and time for people to meet together to worship Jesus.
Our calling is not to maintain our cultural traditions. It’s to create opportunities for people to truly encounter God, share life with each other, and be equipped to bring the love of Jesus to the world around them.
Now, if that place happens to be a building with pews and a pulpit, fine! And if that time happens to be around 11am or so on a Sunday morning, great! But none of that is essential.
We need to spend less time, energy and passion on the ideas that are peripheral to the gospel, and hone in like a laser on the mandate that is central to it.
The culture around us may not see the need for church as they (and we) know it. But everyone, everywhere will always need to know they’re loved by Jesus and by those who love Jesus.
When everything else is changing, that never will.
(For more on this important subject, check out my previous post, 8 Assumptions Pastors Can't Make In A Post-Christian Culture.)
Copyright © 2018 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.
Pivot is a part of CT's
Blog Forum. Support the work of CT.
Subscribe and get one year free.
The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.
Join in the conversation about this post on Facebook.
- A Discipleship Strategy Small Churches Can Actually Follow, with Darrell Stetler (Ep 38)Darrell and Karl talk about the importance of discipleship in the life of the church – and as a central role in our calling as pastors.
- Why Proximity and Longevity Matter in Pastoral Ministry, with Alan Briggs (Ep 36)Karl interviews Alan Briggs, a pastor, the author of Staying is the New Going, the host of the Right Side Up Leadership podcast and StayForth.com.
- Seculosity: Ministry In The Era Of Secular Religion, with David Zahl (Ep 37)Karl Vaters interviews David Zahl, author of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.
- Should You Start a Podcast? And Positive Ministry Trends, with Aron Utecht (Ep 35)Karl Vaters interviews Aron Utecht, a pastor and the host of the Good Ideas for Churches podcast