(Ministering to our friends in the highly religious, but highly confused Bible Belt)
“Man, I’d love to know about your spiritual background? What was this like for you growing up?”
“O yea man, I grew up going to the First Baptist church with my mom and got saved when I was 7. It was awesome.”
“That’s cool man. I hear – and use! – that word ‘saved’ a lot. I’d love to know what you mean when you say you ‘got saved’?’”
***Crickets*** (followed by mumbles, “um’s” and strung together words about a prayer and baptism)
We’ve all had a similar conversation, haven’t we? I think in my 10 years working on campus, I’ve had it – no exaggeration – an average of once per week. All the faces are rolling through my mind as I write.
Why does it seem like so often students are confident talking about their story, but when it comes to what their faith actually means – even seemingly “101” phrases like and “saved” and “grace” and “died for my sins” – there’s often no ability for them to dialogue?
I’ve done some thinking about where we are in this age. We’re in the Bible Belt where 90%+ of people still identify as Christian, so for awhile I was confused as to how the supposed “post-modern” and “post-Christian” culture applies to my day-to-day life as a minister in small-town Alabama.
This summer some things came together for me as I read The Unsaved Christian by Dean Inserra, a book written to help us effectively reach people who call themselves Christians, but don’t truly know Christ. Reach people who, as he says, are “missing heaven by 18 inches” (distance from the head to the heart). In it he calls “Cultural Christians” the most underrated mission field in North America and advocates using the same principles missionaries pursuing unreached people groups use. It’s a fascinating missiological study in itself, and I commend the book to you, but that’s not the point of this blog.
What’s come together for me is realizing that post-modern and post-Christian do not necessarily mean “secular.” Our region of the country is in a much more similar spiritual climate as the rest, than we might have thought.
In postmodernism, words ultimately have no intrinsic meaning besides what the speaker gives them (“sin”, “saved,” etc.). And because a cultural Christian is really no Christian at all and this is the overwhelming majority of our neighbors, the label “post-Christian” is very fitting as well. It’s often “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). It’s a culture where “Amazing Grace is a song known from memory, but why that grace is amazing cannot be explained.”
We want to love our students well. Most of us were once like them – lost, deceived, “culturally Christian,” until at his appointed time God brought us the true message of Jesus and breathed life into our dead hearts. We don’t want to just criticize “Gen Z” issues or lament the growing tide of “biblical illiteracy,” we want to be part of God’s rescue mission. And while there are many different and proper responses to what we’ve learned, I want to focus on one: the call to clarity.
Perhaps one of the greatest ways we can love the students on our Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi campuses is by bringing clarity to confusion, ignorance or bad teaching that has left our students in a haze about the foundations of the faith.
Another blog post could be written how to actually have these clarifying conversations – though most of the time simple questions like “What do you think ___ means?”, “What do you mean by ____?”, “Could I share with you a verse in the Scripture about _____?” will suffice! But today I want to call myself and all of us to something a bit more personal: to be clear ourselves.
Everyone kind of knows where they are on either personally understanding or being able to effectively explain the essential truths of our faith. How confident do I feel explaining to an 18-year-old, biblically uninformed freshmen things like . . .
· Who is God and what does he want from us?
· What is sin and why is it so serious?
· Who is Jesus and why is his work a big deal?
· What does it take for someone to truly “get saved”?
· What is the difference between this and “counterfeit” gospels of the culture?
We all have needs and deficiencies. That’s ok! But I would encourage us to honestly answer these questions and make a couple of personal commitments in light of them.
· Do I need to spend more time than my normal “daily devotions” studying these things?
· Do I need to read through the whole bible in a year or take a “survey of the bible” class?
· Do I need to read a book or listen to a sermon about “Gospel basics” and learn from how other people more clearly communicate?
· Do I need to get help from my pastor or Area Director in how to communicate deep truths on a “101” level?
As followers of Jesus, who long for our lost friends to reconciled to God, we must share the Gospel. But perhaps it would helpful for us in this particular culture to equate “sharing” the Gospel with “clarifying” the Gospel. Often we share a common lingo with our neighbors, but a very different understanding (or lack thereof). I pray we are able to help our friends discover the true meaning (and weight) of “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…”
As ministers we’ve probably also had that moment where the “lightbulb” went off for a student. When they realized they were not really who they claimed to be, convicted of their sin and overwhelmed by the love of Christ, truly turning to him in faith.
I pray we have many more of those moments in the coming years. I think many will come on the heels of friends discovering the true meaning of biblical words they’ve always heard, the Bible Belt example of “was blind, but now I see.”