The South's Church Culture and Its Dangerous Problems

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One of my favorite things about being on staff at a church is that I get to engage in discussions about faith and spiritual life with other men and women who are passionate not just about their relationship with God but also about helping others to deepen their relationship with Him.

Last week, I was brainstorming with our creative arts director and the student pastor at one of our campuses about improving one particular element of our services, when the student pastor remarked about how he knew people who thought of our church as light on doctrine and substance, largely because we don't engage in activities like "altar calls." Near the end of that part of the conversation, I remarked that Christianity in the South is more of a culture than a relationship with God.

In a now-famous quote, Flannery O'Connor once said, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” She may have been more right that she realized, because the dominant Southern Christian culture concerns itself largely with seeing and being seen, with church attendance as an end to the spiritual journey rather than a beginning, and with safely sheltering families from an increasingly messy world.

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I suppose there'll always be a social component to the church experience, and there's nothing wrong with that. But here in the South, church has become almost a social idol, for lack of a better term. Nearly every Southern hamlet features two or there old, beautiful churches in the center of town where the movers and shakers of the area attend. Often the most prestigious members of the community flock to these "name brand" churches - often the First Baptists, First Methodists, or First Presbyterians.

Even the best churches are guilty of overprogramming in the name of filling the social calendar -- or, to use the church term, "fellowship." How many church events are social gatherings with the slightest patina of spiritual content (i.e. the pastor welcoming everyone at the start of the event or praying before eating)? Heck, I can remember in the earliest days of our church when the first small group consisted of some families gathering at the pastor's house to eat supper and watch The Simpsons.

These days, we don't see nearly as many people dressing in their Sunday best, as churches increasingly adopt "come as you are" policies. But the very concept of dressing to the nines for church demonstrates churchgoers' desire to see and be seen. Of course, people from all walks of life would tell you that they dress up for God or simply because of tradition, but a fancy hat or spiffy tie have never contributed to anyone's spiritual growth. But they do add to one's social value, and unfortunately for too many people in the South, that's enough.

In Matthew 6:1, part of the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his followers, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. Our worship should be about our relationship with Him, not about seeking the approval or even the notice of others.

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Generations of churchgoing experience in the South have led to a region filled with Christians who are a mile wide but an inch deep spiritually. The reason for this phenomenon is that far too many believers view church attendance as the end goal of their spiritual lives.

Many churchgoers will attend services on Sundays, with a possible midweek service thrown in for good measure, and not crack their Bible open or engage in a discussion about God the rest of the week. Countless people attend but do not serve or contribute. "Of course I'm a Christian," they may say. "I go to church." If they invite their friends or co-workers, it's to come to church and little more.

God did not call us to make churchgoers. Rather, Jesus said, in what we call The Great Commission:

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20)

Inviting someone to church isn't the end of the process -- rather, it's the beginning. And if more believers and more congregations practiced the Great Commission, we would truly see more disciples following and fulfilling God's Word.

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One of my favorite quotes about God comes not from the Bible or any sermon I've ever heard, but from C. S. Lewis' novel The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. The kids are on their way to meet Aslan, the lion king who serves as Lewis' stand in for God. They ask Mr. Beaver, their guide, about Aslan.

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

Far too many Christians try to make the churchgoing, believing life too safe, and when they do they risk missing out on some of the goodness of God.

There's a local Christian radio station here in Atlanta (with a signal so strong I swear you can hear it on the moon) whose motto is "safe for the whole family." By "safe," they really mean "bland," with a repetitive, narrow playlist of trite, unchallenging songs. The Christian music industry -- based primarily in the South -- is largely centered on this format, and too much Christian music and art play it too safe, failing to challenge the listener.

I've railed against the "safe" approach to Christian art on a number of occasions, and, sadly, this approach spills over into the church. Sitting in pews, listening to cliched messages, believing that life is supposed to be "safe" is detrimental to spiritual growth.

Real life is messy and risky, and so is living out your faith. Sharing with your neighbor what God is doing in your life is risky. Traveling to a foreign country to spread the Good News of the Messiah is dangerous (sometimes physically so). Loving on a homeless person in Jesus' name is messy. Bringing up your family to take chances to deepen their faith is not safe by any means. But all of these -- and more -- actions are different ways God calls us to live our lives in obedience to Him.

At His last meal with His disciples before the crucifixion, Jesus assured his inner circle, "In this world you will have trouble." Notice He doesn't promise a cushy, safe life, but He does say, "But take heart! I have overcome the world."

That's the kind of life God wants us to live.

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I know what some of you are thinking -- that these phenomenon represent the American Church as a whole. You may be right, but seeing as how the South carries the Bible Belt nickname for good reason, Southern churches have these problems to a greater degree.

Listen, no church is perfect -- not even mine, as much as I'd like to think it is. But if we Southerners could root these problems out of our churches, the Bible Belt could be ripe for a revival that could spread farther and wider.