There are two churches in America. The church inside the Bible Belt and the church outside the Bible Belt.
The ones inside the Bible Belt often look at the ones outside as compromised and soft on sin because of their rejection of long-held traditions.
Meanwhile, those outside the Bible Belt often look at those inside as behind the times and irrelevant because of their insistence on long-held traditions.
Neither side is seeing the other one accurately – or kindly.
Is This The Biggest Unaddressed Schism In Christian America?
Over the past several years I’ve had the chance to travel to every region of the country, spending time with pastors and church leaders from almost every denomination and tradition. Fresh startups, fundamentalist Baptists, Mainline, Pentecostal, rural, urban, suburban, ethnic, non english-speaking, messianic... you name it.
But the most noticeable differences I’ve seen have not been the ones I was expecting.
While the theological, ethnic and political schisms are real and problematic, perhaps the biggest rift in the American church is between those inside the Bible Belt and those outside it. In fact, that division is often the driving factor that makes those other schisms more severe.
I don’t have a lot of answers for overcoming this division, but I think we need to be more aware of it if we hope to address it.
Here’s what I’ve been seeing.
(One quick note: The Bible Belt is typically defined geographically, with the greatest concentration being in the southern and some midwestern states. Northeast and western states are considered to be outside the traditional Bible Belt. But every state and every big city has Bible Belt churches and non Bible Belt churches. It’s often more about attitude than geography.)
A Tale Of Two Churches
Bible Belt churches are often thought of as backwards-looking, reactionary and irrelevant. That’s seldom the case. But they are facing a radically changing culture, and when they have to choose between adapting to a new reality and standing firm on known and proven ways, they tend to choose the latter.
Churches outside the Bible Belt are often seen as compromised and soft on sin. That is also seldom the case. They’re just as concerned by sin and its consequences, but they aren’t as shocked when the culture around them doesn’t share a biblical world view because they’ve been living in a non-Christian culture for a long time. When they have to choose between adapting to a new reality and standing firm on known and proven (but extra-biblical) ways, they tend to choose the former.
Because of this, churches in the Bible Belt are having a hard time maintaining their equilibrium as their older methods are finding less and less connection with the people in their own neighborhoods. And it doesn’t help when they’re criticized as they struggle with it.
Meanwhile, churches outside the Bible Belt aren’t living in compromise with the surrounding culture, but they’ve found an equilibrium that allows them to minister within it without being upended by it – simply because they’ve had to do it longer.
Each Church Has A Role
Churches inside the Bible Belt don’t need to adopt the cool, new ideas of churches in big cities or outside the Bible Belt. But they do need to pay better attention to how the unchurched people in their communities have changed in the way they receive information and relate to people.
Churches outside the Bible Belt don’t need to “go back” to anything, but they need to affirm the truths of scripture more strongly so they’re going forward with them, not without them.
Churches in the Bible Belt often feel as though they are charged with preserving the aspects of church tradition that need to be preserved, while churches outside the Bible Belt often feel as though they are mandated to move the church forward.
Both of those things need to be done. Important traditions need to be upheld, while new ideas need to be implemented. But very few, if any, congregations are able to do both at the same time – at least not in equal parts.
This is another reason why we need each other.
No Church Can Say “I Don’t Need You!”
We need churches that uphold traditions, and churches that help us break from extra-biblical ones.
As long as each is doing so according to a Christ-breathed mission while advancing the truths of the Bible, neither one should be criticized for following their calling.
The church has never found unity through sameness, but by celebrating how Christ uses the gifts of different parts of his one body.
Feet don’t do what hands do, which don’t do what eyes do, which don’t do what blood cells do.
So I want to amend my first sentence. There aren’t two churches in America (or any other country). There are thousands of churches. And there’s only one church. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, all serving one God and father of us all (Ephesians 4:4-6).
What we have in common is far more important than what we do differently.
And maybe, if we can appreciate what we do differently instead of criticizing it, we can do all of it better.
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