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

  • Lawrence Lemonds says on

    It is for these very reasons I left a status quo Southern Baptist church a year ago and I would never go back to one. Too many traditions worshipped and no interest in reaching the multicultural community with Jesus.

  • Mayrine French says on

    I can tell you what I see. I live in a community of maybe….maybe…. 800 people. An isolated small community s/w of Nashville. There are 6 small churches here. Each one has just a small difference in interpretation of the gospel. Each church exists of from 10 to 40 people. The biggest Pentecostal church split bc one of the ministers wives got a tattoo of her deceased baby daughters name on her ankle….so now there are 2 Pentecostal. There is church of Christ, Pentecostal, Non-denoninational, Old Regulars, oh, and I forgot about the Primitive Baptist (This does NOT include the church in the Mennonite community! ….and all of them put together wouldn’t make a good sized church. How does a community deal with a problem such as this?

  • It’s by complete accident that I ran into your blog and read these comments, but I felt the need to offer a voice from the audience you are trying to reach.

    My point:
    “The bible belt church” along with “Christianity” has lost control of its brand to the extent that it gets branded by it’s fundamentalism and intolerance for diversity. Local churches cannot easily observe this loss, much less address and repair it. Muslims have it even worse: all 1.6 billion of them are getting branded as terrorists.

    My personal experience:
    I grew up in a bible belt church in Western Kentucky. I moved to Silicon Valley after college and raised my two children mostly without church. I love visiting my home church when I visit my Mom and Aunt. I love the people I grew up with there and feel deeply loved by them to this day.

    That said, in my teens, I knew gay curious peers that were suicidal due to condemnations from my church and every other church in our community.

    Meanwhile, there was no condemnation from any local white church when the “death Klan” took responsibility for a local murder. At 16, I called that out in a letter to the editor of our newspaper, and spent many years later worrying about my own safety.

    This year I found many public figures using “the church” and “the bible” to promote political views that I happen to strongly disagree with. When our new president does the harm (starting wars, damaging environment, generating hatred) I expect him to do, I will personally hold accountable “the church” that helped to elect him.

    Not surprisingly I find my home church members on Facebook — these are people I love and grew up with — following the lead of these same public religious and church figures. They posted: “Anyone who desecrates our flag should be shot.” That’s right, they are promoting homicide, and it is right next to their Christian nation and anti-Muslim postings.

    Just a few years ago, I remember taking my son out of Boy Scouts because his church sponsored Boy Scout troop expected us to help them campaign door-to-door against gay rights. At the time, I had no idea my son would turn out to be gay. Now he’s 23 and his boyfriend is a wonderful part of our family. That is completely contrary to all the threats and condemnations from “the church” both 40 years ago, and recently.

    Globally, nationally, locally and personally, the institutions of “the bible belt church” and “Christianity” have occurred to me as being directly opposite the love and acceptance I felt as a white, straight, Christian believer in my teens.

    I say the following with deep and profound love and respect for your life’s work:

    If I want Christ, I do not go to institutions like “the bible belt church” or “Christianity” because they generally do not reflect, enhance or promote what Christ is to me.

  • Thom, I pastor a church a lot like this. I need your prayers. The church was about to close its doors when God called me there. I am certain that God is not done with us because we have alteady had 2 salvations and two baptisms with new members. I’m 32 and miraculously not the youngest in the church. This is the hardest thing I have ever done but I am confident of the Lord’s will. Thank you for what you do.

  • Boom! Out of the park!

  • Phil Hoover says on

    Many Bible belt churches are content to start a “singles’ ministry”–without including the “single people”in the congregation (regardless of how they are single) in the life of the congregation. The gifts of these people are ignored, overlooked, or dismissed, and often without reason.

  • John Blackwell says on

    Hey Tom,

    You forgot one; willingness to change the service format and to change the music from slow traditional to peppy celebratory. I have been in rural churches in the south (TN) all my ministry and this is one area that meets the most resistance.

  • I became a Christian in 1974, attended an independent-fundamental Bible church in NJ that closed a few years ago, and now pastor an EFCA church in KY. In no particular order:

    1. There is a lot of poor preaching.
    2. Rural counties are emptying out, which puts great stress on rural churches
    3. Young Christians’ POV is not that of their Christian grandparents.
    4. The “America is God’s Special County” story is seen as untrue.
    5. Older churches don’t understand how non-whites think or feel — or want to.
    6. Churches are not prepared to deal with aggressive skepticism toward the Bible.

    IMO, there is more long-term value in new church planting and mercy ministries, than in trying to force adaptation on old churches.

  • I have been concerned with the Church (let’s say all the protestant) have been missing the point and people. Many larger churches seem to get the point to do many of the things to attract young children but typically lose them when they are out of college, not just from there denomination, but from the church period. Some of this comes from lack of understanding of following and having Christ as Lord (everyone seems to want Him to save them), a general understanding of the Bible (How many see the same God in the OT as in the NT), and understanding why there are church rules.

    I watched my church go from reacting to the world with many rules, to teaching the heart over the last 30 years. But I am still surprised how many didn’t get the fact the rules were to keep you from breaking God’s laws if you went a bit farther.

    I am concerned with the churches that are so worried about attendance that they accept inferior pastors (with less belief in the complete Bible) or have went the other way and thrown out traditions along with the truth. Not only has this watered down our churches, but you see those pastors and those on “stage” breaking many rules, accepting way to much in salary, dressing as if they were going to a hardware store, and above all, not stepping aside when they have been sinful.

  • I have grown up in a church that is now going through this BIG TIME! Our new pastor is challenging us to think out side the church walls and see that the “old ways” arent working! Bc of this it has caused claws to come out of some people that taught me growing up! I was told recently that “true christians” should be upset with how things are changing in the church! That statement alone proves their traditionalism has become truth! I’m so scared for them! I beg, plead and weep over these people with god every week to take the blinders off their eyes! Our culture has changed and it’s no longer christian!! Our former pastor left to plant a church in he northern states and he did this bc of the unwillingness to change! The Bible Belt is driving true biblical Christianity out bc of tradition! I am continually praying lord open my eyes to your plan and your way! Take blinders off and guard my heart when the truth hurts and guide me to grow through it! And that prayer continues not just for me but for my church!

  • This scares me a little because I’m moving to the Bible belt next month. I’m already praying to find a good church. I think this article helps me know what NOT to look for. My husband was a pastor for 29 years until he died suddenly. For the first time in a very long time, I’ve had a choice of where to attend church. It’s been an interesting journey. Thankfully I see many young people taking up the challenge to reach the world. It might look different than our years of early ministry, but that’s ok. I cheer them on and pray for them, my own children included.

  • Great discussion and many issues arise. Allow me to mention the structure of a congregation. It seems that most of us think of a “Church” as a single meeting where one style of music, one message with one level of Bible used, with one program for all adults. If we organized a church like we do Christian Education we would separate the preaching like we do the teaching and it would be age appropriate for spiritual maturity.

    One message with a message of Beginners-milk, one for Continuing-mush, one for Disciples-meat and one for Equipped for ministry. Babies cannot eat meat, they choke on it. Mature Disciples get bored with milk, and complain or leave.

    Attacking the customers/members or unchurched will drive people away. Just differentiate what is offered to each group.

    Blessings and praise the Lord.

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