Over a year ago, my wife and I moved from a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa to one of Memphis, Tennessee. There are the obvious differences between Iowa and Tennessee such as cornfields in Iowa and trees galore in Tennessee. There’s also the big differences in temperatures in Iowa versus Tennessee. Winters in Iowa can be brutal while summers in Tennessee tend to be suffocating. In comparison, the summers are generally tolerable in Iowa while the same is true in Tennessee. But then there’s also the more subtle differences.
One of the things I’ve noticed about the Mid-South is what is termed the Bible belt. I’ve been exposed to this before as I lived in Millington, TN back in the 1990s while stationed at the Naval Air Station. It didn’t quite make as an impression on me then because I wasn’t a Christian. But now after becoming a born again believer and reentering this section of the country I tend to notice it more.
There’s a general sense around these parts that most people hold basic Biblical views. While I may admit there’s a greater number of people that “attend” church here, holding onto an accurate view of the Bible is something altogether different. I don’t say this because I’m some danged Yankee that has come to stir up dissension. I don’t think Iowa is better than Tennessee. I just think that what people “think” they believe here isn’t entirely accurate.
In Iowa, it’s a little easier to distinguish those who aren’t believers. Many don’t put on pretenses of belonging to a church if that is not what they believe. They are more than content to sleep in on Sunday mornings and live a paganistic lifestyle. I’m obviously saying this in a general sense so please don’t misunderstand me to say that’s true of every nonbeliever.
In the south, let’s just say it’s very different. The Southern Baptist Church has a large, and I mean large, presence in the southern states. It’s the predominant denomination and influences the culture in dramatic ways. While In Iowa, there’s a greater mix of Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, and other various denominations, the SBC has what may be considered a monopoly in this area.
I certainly don’t have a problem with the SBC having such a large presence. But in some ways I think it has had an unfortunate negative side effect. Because many do go to church, most people believe they’re Christian. And that is just not the case. What I have seen is that many don’t live anywhere close to Biblical values any more than the unchurched in Iowa. And I’m not the only one who recognizes this. A website that allows loosely defined definitions for its dictionary by anyone and everyone gives the very negative opinion of the Bible belt. In the Urban Dictionary, Bible belt is described by one person as:
An area of the southern United States that has a large protestant (i.e. Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ) church attending population. Most of these people are ignorant of their own beliefs, do not follow the laws they preach, and relentlessly attempt to convert those who do not follow their sect.
(When you feel out of place or someone is out to get you, you can say, "I feel like an atheist in the bible belt.")
Another reason I think it’s unfortunate with this side effect is that it’s much more difficult for the true Christian Church to know who to reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While many in the church may contend that they are Christian, their hearts seem miles away from God. And then there are those that I think may be true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, but because of the legalistic approach that some in the local church takes toward religion they are often misguided and are turned away from knowing Christ. It sort of reminds me of what Jesus said in Mark 7:6-8:
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
Both of these kinds of churches are what I would label as unhealthy churches.
Fortunately, not all churches in the Bible belt are unhealthy. There are those that do teach Scripture as the authoritative Word of God. They speak the Truth with love and preach the Gospel message that brings the conviction of sins. But if you’re wondering, how can you tell if you’re in a healthy or unhealthy church?
One of the more popular pastors of the Mid-South was Adrian Rogers. This is a man who I have listened to on the radio and through the internet many times. He has since passed away. However, what he said about a healthy church versus one that isn’t is relevant for today. I’ll quote just a few paragraphs. The rest of this article is at faithtalk1500.com:
I often tell my congregation that when it comes to battling sin in our lives, the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that non-Christians sin whereas Christians don't. The difference is found in which sides we take in the battle. Christians take God's side against sin, whereas non-Christians take sin's side against God. In other words, a Christian will sin, but then he will turn to God and his Word and say, "Help me fight against sin." A non-Christian, even if he recognizes his sin, effectively responds, "I want my sin more than God."
A healthy church is not a church that's perfect and without sin. It has not figured everything out. Rather, it's a church that continually strives to take God's side in the battle against the ungodly desires and deceits of the world, our flesh, and the devil. It's a church that continually seeks to conform itself to God's Word.
Let me give you a more precise definition: A healthy church is a congregation that increasingly reflects God's character as his character has been revealed in his Word.
There are certainly other factors when considering what a healthy church is. But I think Mr. Rogers hit the most basic aspect and need for a healthy church. Some other points I would emphasize is that a healthy church would convict a person of sin. If all the preacher ever does is tickle your ears and you’re never convicted of sin to move you to repentance and righteousness, then you’re not in the right church. Another sign of a healthy church is when people being saved and baptized and added to the church on a regular basis. If people are not being moved by the Spirit to be reborn and included in His family, then there’s something wrong. It may not be only the preaching. It may the attitudes and behaviors within the congregation. Or it may be something else. But it’s definitely something to look for.
Other things to look out for when it comes to healthy churches is that there will be opportunities to be discipled and grow in the faith. There will also be efforts to get the body of Christ involved in ministry. If the church is being led by a few and the rest sit idly by without serving as well, whether within the church or in the community, then there is something wrong.
I realize by moving to the Memphis area and speaking out on certain issues that I’ll be considered a danged Yankee. And I’m putting that mildly. But I do think this is something worth mentioning and if there are any that live in the Bible belt that read this, maybe this will get them to think about whether they’re in a healthy church or not. My prayer is that the Lord will give any who are truly seeking the Truth the wisdom and clarity to know the difference.