Eight Reasons Many Bible Belt Churches Are in Trouble

October 31, 2016

What a big difference a region makes.

Or use to make.

I served as pastor of four churches, and three of them were in the Bible Belt. One was not. It was my favorite.

The Bible Belt refers to that region of the southeastern and south-central United States where church attendance has been higher historically, and where biblical values are more closely aligned with cultural values.

But the buckle of the Bible Belt is coming off. That means the entire belt will soon fall off. And it is happening rapidly.

There are thousands of churches in the Bible Belt. Sadly, too many of them are not adjusting to the changing realities of the area. They still act like it’s 1975. Here’s why:

  1. They don’t recognize the decline in cultural Christianity. They refuse to admit the world has changed around them. And they are often angered when someone suggests they make methodological and stylistic changes.
  2. They have many “church rules.” The church rules could be related to attire worn on Sunday, or times of worship, or inconsequential polity issues. The point is they do things like they did 40 years ago, and wonder why those on the outside are not interested in their churches.
  3. They have leaders who have never led in a highly unchurched mission field. Of course, the problem is that the mission field around them is growing increasingly unchurched. Birmingham and Nashville, in that regard, are looking more like Spokane and Boston.
  4. They confuse traditions with truth. That is a dangerous reality. When our church members equate biblical teachings with some of the bylaws and processes of the church, the congregation is in big trouble.
  5. They do outreach the way they’ve always done it. So if Tuesday night visitation was effective in 1975, it should be effective in 2016.
  6. They have significant conflict due to frustration. A number of the leaders and members of these churches can’t understand why and how things have changed so much. They want their old church back, but it’s not coming back. Their frustration can lead to conflict that exacerbates their other problems.
  7. They are very slow to respond. Their internal culture moves at a much slower pace than the community around them. If they do respond to an opportunity, they might be five years late. Or ten. Or twenty.
  8. They have significant facility challenges. Many of these churches were built for one big crowd one day a week one hour a week. They might have old and dated education and recreation facilities as well. Some of them are in worship centers with a capacity multiple times their actual attendance. They can have significant unused space and deferred maintenance. A lot of their funds go to keep the lights on.

Many of you readers are in churches in the Bible Belt. I would love to hear your perspectives. Of course, I am always happy to hear from any of you who take time to read this blog.

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197 Comments

  • Ethan Strickler says on

    To be honest I’m saddened by this article. I agree that these structural issues may contribute to the demise of many of the cultural churches in our country. But you seem to miss the point that these churches are for the most part already dead and not actively obedient. The peripherals you discuss seem to suggest that a health church will change with the time and have the right structures in place. While I agree that structure, religion and tradition can all hinder the local church, my solution would be to disciple people towards obedience.

    I am a deacon in a growing, mid-sized, elder lead, baptist church in the heart of the Bible Buckle. I have returned to school after 12 years to be able to adequately pastor the flock of God. I have read and studied the Word, theology and ecclesiological for the past decade. Personally, I’m saddened that our churches today would rather see degrees for a school of higher learning than faithful accountable men who are willing to say “follow me as I follow Christ.”

    From my perspective the real issue of the churches in the Bible Belt is bad doctrine and bad application. Evangelicals have practically taught salvation as the end goal or the pinnacle of the mountain, when it is but the first step up the mountain in a believers life towards looking like God and His Son Jesus Christ (sanctification). This lack of teaching about sanctification has let to many cultural Christians, who look no more like God than their neighbor.

    We have failed to do the hard work of disciple making. We have failed to create followers of Christ who would forsake all for the name of Jesus (Matthew 13:44-46). We have failed to create communities of believers who look and act like God’s children (Eph 5:1). We have let the lies of the evil one and our culture infiltrate our “christian culture” so that we are not really salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).

    I desire to lead others to look like my Saviour. This means the whole body should tend to look like our God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). This means that each member of the body should tend to display the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). [It’s remarkable how the Spirit’s fruit looks a lot like God revealed in Exodus]

    To boil it down, this means that as a community the church will fulfill the commands to Love God and Love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). Show me a community that is trying to do this based on good teaching (sound doctrine) and I will show you a healthy church.

  • As always Thom, I enjoy your writing. But you were mistaken on one point in this excellent article. The Churches I’ve served in the UMC most of them have been doing the same thing that no longer works since the 1950’s. For them it’s not 40 years ago. It’s 50 to 60 years ago. Will they ever wake up?

  • Except for the years I spent in the Army, almost my entire life has been spent in the Bible belt: South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee. I can affirm much of what’s Thom has said, and what’s been offered in the comments. There are at least a couple of things that ought to be mentioned in addition to what’s already been said.

    1. One big part of the decline in our churches started over thirty years ago. Can we all be honest here? For the most part, the preaching in the vast majority of our churches is atrocious. Not just mediocre—it’s out and out terrible. The sermons had little to no content and the delivery (the preaching) was even worse. Thus we produced at least one generation (I’d argue at least three, but I digress) that was entirely without any biblical mooring. Now we have elders and deacons are shockingly biblically illiterate.

    When I was called to my current church in the southeast of Tennessee, in God’s providence I arrived just three months before officer nominations and elections were supposed to occur. I didn’t push an agenda or hold a meeting. Ever Lord’s Day I stood in the pulpit during the announcements and told the congregation we had elections upcoming and then read 1 Timothy 3:1–7. After six weeks, five of my seven elders approached me after the service and said, “We’ve realized we don’t meet the qualifications for elder you’ve laid out from Scripture.” So we elected men who did meet those qualifications, and then put them through rigorous officer training—something else that’s sorely lacking.

    2. I completely changed my sermon preparation method and the way I outline my sermons. In short, I took the “traditional three-point sermon” out behind the church and shot it in the head and buried it. Not long after I arrived here, I read Denny Prutow’s book, “So Pastor, What’s Your Point?” Brothers, that book cut me to the bone. So I prayerfully tried his method, and within a month the difference was startling. (One of the things I demanded when I came to this church was a performance review every six months that focused on my preaching. The change in feedback was mindblowing.)

    Were there other things that changed? Absolutely. I could list them with ease, but none of them had the impact those two things did. None of them.

    I point this out because we (pastors) are too quick to blame the congregation for things that are wrong. Our education and our desire to be viewed as professionals have caused an unbecoming and unbiblical arrogance in us; all too often, we are what’s to blame for what’s wrong with our churches—we and our predecessors who failed to preach the Word. There’s a long, long process of reformation in front of us, and it has to start with us.

  • Randall Smith says on

    Something else I’ve noticed is that elder leadership often does not want to make way for younger members. This is a problem that I read about affecting traditionally African-American churches, but I’m seeing in small churches everywhere.

    Basically those in lay leadership positions in the church are staying in those positions. Eventually you come to a point where all of the leadership has the same or a very similar view on things. Diversity is not just race and gender, but age as well. Established church leaders need to be willing to step aside and mentor younger leaders as these people will be the future of the church.

    The churches in my area that I see thriving are investing in the leadership talents of their younger members by encouraging mentoring from those who are established.

  • With the qualifier I did not read every single comment but at least dozens it seems the answer, including this article is around modes, styles, or ministry philosophies that have not adapted to culture.
    What seems to be missing is the most important part that transcends all cultural adaptation and that is the teaching of God’s Word. It means having a pastor who does not study to prepare messages but first wants to know what the Bible says for himself. It is the personal passion on his part to know God more, to know his Son, see the work of the Spirit through the word in his own life and thereby personally conformed to truth and the image of Christ. When Sunday rolls around he almost explodes with passion toward truth and his congregation is swept up in his joy of discovery and they too want to know Jesus Christ more and experience a powerful work in their own lives. That heart and passion to know and please Christ through God’s word then drives all ministry underneath it from music to mission…shall I say great commission. Churches are languishing because they have not been led and conformed to truth enough to live their daily lives and keep families strong in a world of darkness, much less do outreach or even enjoy worship on Sunday. It really isn’t just a bible belt thing, each region of America is struggling because superficiality–absent of true sanctification–which directs ministry comes in many forms. I respectfully have to say the reasons given for bible belt church issues are superficial in themselves and misses the heart of the problem–which is anemic spiritual growth–because many pastors and leaders of churches personally have stopped pursuing their own spiritual growth and focus on the “killer B’s”, buildings, bodies and budgets. Jesus said…”sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” Jn 17:17. As the world turns up the heat in persecution on the church we will soon find out who the real sanctified church really is…it wont be the superficially focused ministries for sure.

  • Frank Manno says on

    In 1995 I was pastoring a church that fit every point that you listed. The exception is that it wasn’t in the Bible belt; it was in Pennsylvania. The church was about to close their doors when a meager few in the congregation realized they had to change or close. All saw the need to change, but no one wanted to pay the price of change, which meant doing the opposite of each point above. It was very painful: Founding members left the church, families became openly torn and divided regarding what was going on, people either venerated or vehemently hated the pastor and things seemed to get much worse before they got better. But, they did get better. It took 3-4 years to go through the transition. Attendance went from about 35 to 125. One help is that I took many in the congregation through a book called “Dancing with Dinosaurs” that addresses this very issue of transition and change. It helped people to see from a wider, more global perspective that the change was necessary and in many ways normal. It helped people be committed to a mission and not a memory. God did an amazing work there and I’m happy to say that 20 years later the church is still thriving. If it weren’t for a few (and I mean few) who were committed to keeping the doors open and surrendering their nostalgic memory of what their church “was,” that parcel of property would be a housing development today. Thanks and praise to God!

  • Radson Mulozowa says on

    Pastor It Is Happening In Malawi Churches

  • I’ve been a youth pastor in the Bibke Belt for 20+ years and things have changed…except the church. The kids in our church now have practice on Wednesdays and Sundays and have a lot more homework and extracurricular activities than the generation before them. Yet I’m not allowed to change our meeting dates/times to accommodate these trends and then scolded when our numbers aren’t what they used to be. SMH

  • Wow –
    Each of these start with “they” and so many of the comments comming from pastor types are using similar terms. i.e. “I” know what is needed, but “they” wouldn’t go along.
    Within (and across) a congregation it should never be this way – the new versus the old.

    2: They have many “church rules.”: Make no mistake about this – New leaders just make new/different rules.
    3. They have leaders who have never led in a highly unchurched mission field. Many of the new pastors have never led. Both (existing and new) need to learn from each other. Neither knows all.
    4,They confuse traditions with truth. Here too, new people are in the midst of making new traditions. And, sometimes traditions are very good and useful – especially to those who like them.
    6.They have significant conflict due to frustration. Yeah – and much of it due to a new person coming in and making wholesale changes without really taking the membership feelings and ideas into account.
    7. They are very slow to respond. Or – they are not tossed around by every wind or wave.

    These assemblies belong as much to the older generation as they do to the younger.
    So many responses that seem to say – the older generation just has to get with it and do it our (younger generation) way. The older generation has seen a lot of things come and go; they have a lot of wisdom. Too often this is left untapped by the new pastor – to his/her and the church’s detriment.

    And yes, there are struggles that the older generation has with change – just like everyone else. Provide the new vision in the midst of getting to know them – not just telling them this is what has to happen.
    If the majority is not ready yet, maybe it is the new pastor that needs to be patient with the changes.

  • #5 was the stake my old church was insistent to die on. Door to door was the way to go. I loved them but could not get them to understand that we were dealing with a new culture.

    • My former pastor was bound and determined to have visitation night every Monday to go knock on doors. Even when people started posting on Yelp! that we were nuisances didn’t deter him. He has since left that church and I think he still has visitation night.

  • But the buckle of the Bible Belt is coming off. That means the entire belt will soon fall off.

    Appreciate the belt metaphor. Though not directly applicable, makes me think of Jeremiah 13 incl. “ For as the waistband clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole household of Israel and the whole household of Judah cling to Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘that they might be for Me a people, for renown, for praise and for glory;
    but they did not listen.’

  • Christian Westerink says on

    Hello Thom,

    I’m from the Netherlands and following a masterprogram to become a pastor. We also have a Bible belt in the Netherlands. We even call it the ‘Bible belt’. And I’m living in the Bible Belt. It struck me how much the situation in the USA Bible belt and in the Dutch Bible belt is te same! Almost all points I recognize in a certain way, may it that there are ofcourse differences in history, culture and challenges etc. But we roughly have the same problems.
    One of the biggest problems is you first point. Older people in congregations have grown up in cultural christianity, sometimes they really don’t know how much the culture has changed. Although they sometimes know it rationally, they don’t experience it in there everyday real life, which causes that they don’t really see the problems. They are to naive!
    I think it is hard to let go of a culture which uphold your christian beliefs and lifestyle, even for me as someone in his twenties, I find it hard to see the culture change. It is kind of frightening to be honest. Maybe it is not good and not rational to fear, but the fear is there.
    Here we have created a own christian culture in which people are ‘safe’ (at least that is what people think). It is easy to live in that culture and very comforting etc. But is it where we called for?

    I think one of the biggest differences between the American and the Dutch church is that Americans are usually generally spoken more positive towards culture and are trying to transform it. Really strong you see the influence of neo-calvinism (Abraham Kuyper and others). In the Netherlands we are far more pessimistic about transforming culture, there is in the Netherlands far more a tendency (for a part of the chruches, not all) to seperate from culture. It is more nuanced than this, there are denominations which are more positive towards culture. But in general people are less optimistic. Mainly because we’ve seen the denomination (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland is Reformed Church in the Netherlands), which Abraham Kuyper constituted, totally turn liberal in the sixties and seventies. Nothing of Kuyper’s theology is left. Where they first fierce defenders of orthodox-reformed theology (alla Kuyper), they’ve totally changed. Kuyper is therefore not taken very seriously annymore here under orthodox-reformed believers, at least when it comes to his vision on culture. Kuyper is popular in the USA and Korea, but overhere he is ofcourse admired for all he has done, but not read that much anymore. When you are are second hand bookstore or market you always find his works in big numbers. The rapid change of his denomination is caused in our view by his optimistic view on culture. When you want transform or even “conquer” culture (I’ve hear American pastor use “conquer)), be aware, before culture conquers you. That is what happened to Kuypers’ denomination.
    That is a big difference between America and the Netherlands when it comes to engaging culture as a church.

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