Jesus in the Bible Belt

26 Dec

My status on my Facebook page recently was “I really hate living in the Bible Belt sometimes.”  I was surprised how many people commented on it either agreeing with me or asking me “what happened?”  I don’t remember anything in particular that was going on that day to make me say that, but it is something that I think to myself quite often.  So I was thinking yesterday, “Surely there are some good things about living in the Bible Belt… there is has to be…”  But, honestly, I couldn’t come up with much. 

In this video Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Highland Village, TX, talks about ministry in the Bible Belt and describes people as being “inoculated to Jesus.”  I couldn’t agree more. 

In the South, in the Bible Belt, 

“… the bulk of people have some understanding of who Jesus is… the bulk of people have enough of Jesus to feel like they don’t need him, or that they understand him enough.”

  

 

One thing that is frustrating to me about living in the Bible Belt is that everyone thinks and says they are a Christian.  People believe that because they grew up in church, or because their parents are Christians, or because they went to Vacation Bible School when they were a kid, or because they said a prayer once when they were at a Christian camp one summer, that they are a Christian.  

I came across the blog earlier today of a church in Winston-Salem.  The title of the post was “How ‘Getting Saved’ Can Lead You to Miss Jesus.” 

Yesterday, I preached from Acts 8.9-25 about the life of Simon Magus, who professed Christ, was baptized, joined the church, and then turned out to be a false-convert and a heretic. While we shouldn’t assume that anyone who isn’t involved in the life of a church belongs to Jesus, Simon proves to us that not everyone who talks about Jesus and belongs to a church knows him either. And this should make us stop and think. We need to ask where our hope and our trust are. This is especially important here in the South, the Bible belt, because everyone goes to church here. And there’s a lot of bad teaching about salvation in the churches many people go to. 

The typical approach to salvation here in the South is that you must “ask Jesus into your heart,” or “give your heart/life to Jesus,” or “enter into a personal relationship with Jesus,” or “make Jesus your personal Lord and Savior.” There are a few problems with this mindset. The first is that none of these phrases are to be found in the Bible. Scripture casts salvation in terms of repentance and faith. We trust in Christ and his work on behalf of sinners. Jesus makes us right before God (justification). At their best, these expressions are trying to get at this. But often they degenerate into something harmful. 

For example, Pastor Stephen was “saved” and got baptized around seven times during his childhood. He asked Jesus into his heart a lot. And at no point was his faith put in Christ. I’ve personally said the “sinner’s prayer” countless times. And it never worked. And the problem is that by expressing the matter in these terms, we turn the focus onto ourselves and on what we’re doing, rather than on Christ and what he has done. Our confidence is shifted to our act of prayer, or confession, or acceptance, or walking the aisle, or whatever other accoutrements may attend the “conversion experience.” And when that happens, there’s a very real possibility that we are trusting in ourselves and our own works rather than Jesus. 

Often times, people are pointed back to their conversion experience for assurance of salvation. But again, this is a misguided idea. Our assurance can’t come from something we’ve done. Maybe I “believed” in Jesus back then, but what about now? Only faith in the present tense is the instrument of receiving Christ and his benefits. And what if I “did it wrong?” What if I didn’t repent or believe enough or the right way? Instead, biblical assurance of salvation comes from the Holy Spirit leading us to recognize the promises of God to all who believe, and that we ourselves are included in these promises. Biblical assurance pushes us back to the cross and resurrection of Jesus and away from ourselves. 

I’m not saying that all people who “ask Jesus into their hearts,” or “get saved,” or say the sinner’s prayer haven’t been truly converted. But I am saying that many are not because they are trusting themselves rather than Christ. And I am saying that when we explain salvation this way, we confuse people about the nature of hope, and risk leading them to miss out on salvation even as they are “getting saved.” 

I think this is one of the reasons so many people in the Bible Belt sincerely believe they are Christians, when in fact many are not – because “there’s a lot of bad teaching about salvation in the churches many people go to” and because “we confuse people about the nature of hope, and risk leading them to miss out on salvation even as they are ‘getting saved.'” 

I honestly think I would rather live in a completely secular society than in a society where, as Matt Chandler said, “everybody feels like they already know the gospel, despite the fact that they don’t know the gospel.”

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