Nominal Christianity in the South

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4, ESV)

A goal of Southern by His Grace is to bring change to a culture that takes a great deal of pride in its heritage. The American South is one of those places in the USA that being Christian is still a good thing. We have a heritage that comes out of our love for the Christian Faith. Going to church is something people still do on Sunday. Most people in the South can quote at least one Bible verse. Being Christian is just a part of who we are. In fact, although people from other parts of the country may see the phrase as pejorative towards them, Southern by the grace of God is not meant to be a putdown to northerners, but we actually believe that it is God’s grace that has placed us in such a Christian culture, thus the name of my website and its play on that theme.

So that you won’t be put off by this first paragraph and it’s seeming bias composition, here are some recent surveys that put some meat behind it.

In a 2015 survey, Barna researched the top 5 Bible minded cities in America. They defined Bible minded as – captures action and attitude—those who both engage and esteem the Christian scriptures. The rankings thus reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible in various cities of the nation.[1] Each of the top 5 most Bible minded cities in America were in the traditional South, what would be thought of as the Old South or those that were in the Confederacy during the War between the States. If we include WV, KY, and MO, states that are now considered contemporary or sympathetic southern states, the first 22 Bible minded cities are in the South.

In a recent study by Pew Research[2], more people in the South claimed Christian affiliation than any other part of the US. People in the South claimed Christianity by 76% while the runner up was the Midwest at 73%. The rest of the country lagged behind in the 60’s.

Let me now make something very clear, not everyone who claims to be Christian is actually a Christian. As you disagree with the rest of what I am about to write, please refer back to that statement. I am not saying that everyone in the South is a Christian. I am not saying that everyone who lives in the South and claims to be a Christian is really a Christian. So, let those statements stand on their own, please.

I read a post the other day by a brother who I am positive has the greatest regard for the Kingdom of Christ and a great love for his brothers and sisters in Christ. His motives I do not question in the least. He himself is a brother with a passion for the Gospel. To that I say amen.

His post bothered me though. I will not quote it so that his identity will remain undisclosed. Let me generalize for a moment so that I can deal with a larger, more prevalent attitude that he and some other Christian leaders seem to have which I believe to be a misunderstanding.

Generally, there is an attitude of those who either visit the South or hear of its Christian culture, that the Southern Christian culture is a façade. Theirs is an attitude that comes from a passion for the gospel and a love for people. It also comes from a frustration that is realized when it seems that people in the South are so familiar with the gospel that they do not actually hear the gospel and are therefore, they believe, unregenerate. The accusation is levied that most people in the South are fake Christians.

I understand what they mean to say. Although it is true that if you went door to door in the South and asked folks “Are you a Christian”, they would not only answer in the affirmative most of the time, they would be offended at the question.

In fact, not only would they expect you to assume that they are Christian, but they may not give you the same respect. They may judge you as unchristian because you are not Southern.

Frankly, that’s hard for some church leaders to swallow.

Outsiders, people that have not been raised in the traditional South, have a hard time understanding the dynamics of Christianity in the South. On the other hand, their ability to introduce an outsider’s perspective remains beneficial as long as their assessment is accurate. I don’t believe that it always is.

It’s a shock when you become immersed into another culture. If you’re not a Southron, when you come to the South you’re probably going to notice some things pretty quickly. The overt Christian culture may surprise you. It’s like stepping into the past 50 years if you’re from the Pacific West or the Northeast. Where you find yourself is so different than where you’ve been that it’s surreal. It’s as if the Kingdom of God is actually at hand!

Not only is Christianity prevalent in South, it is an integral part of Southern culture. Hospitality, friendliness, and a generally polite demeanor are again, shocking signs of something different. People wave and say hello. Men hold the door for ladies. Children say, “Yes ma’am” and “yes sir” and “Mrs. Brenda” or “Mr. Donnie”. If someone’s truck breaks down, people stop and help. Cars pull over for funeral processions. Elderly people are respected. Needy are fed. I could continue but you get the point.

These things may happen in other parts of the country, but they are very common in the South.

The reaction to these things by many Christian leaders is an accusation that these virtues are skin deep. My reaction to that, “you ain’t seeing the forest for the trees, sir.”

It’s obvious that everyone who claims to know Jesus is not known by Jesus. Mat 7:21 ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, ESV) What’s not so obvious is which ones do and which ones don’t.

You see, it’s easy to sit back and say, “not all of these people are Christians”. It’s more difficult to say, “Hardly any of these people are Christians”. Why?

There are a couple of reasons why it should be difficult to judge the authenticity of a cultural confession and how it resembles something more than what’s so often being espoused as nominal Christianity in the South.

We’ll explore those next…



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