Several months ago I had the opportunity to visit some family friends who recently relocated to rural, East Tennesee from NYC. The couple (I’ll call them Tony and Susan), both in their sixties, are as quintessentially New York as it gets. They talk, sound, and act like New Yorkers, and as someone who was raised not more than 60 miles from NYC, being around them feels familiar and comfortable.
I thought it was super strange that they chose to move to a relatively remote part of Tennessee instead of a more suburban area of Knoxville or Nashville. While having dinner, we learned that they had started going to a local Baptist church. I was intrigued. What were a couple of lapsed Italian Catholics doing with a bunch of backroad Baptists? Further conversation revealed that Susan truly understood the gospel, and was planning on getting baptized. This was independent of any influence coming from us, as we hadn’t seen them in years.
“That’s what people do”
When I asked what prompted them to start attending church, especially after having no involvement in any church for most of their lives, Susan said something like, “Well, down here that’s what people do – so we figured we would as well.” She went on to explain that after attending church for a few months, she started reading the Bible and was convicted that she was a sinner in need of God’s grace. We had the privilege of being at her baptism this last Sunday (we’re still working on Tony).
What initially struck me after hearing her story was how somebody on the right politically that had chosen to relocate to a place primarily for its support of their value structure had found their way into saving faith in Christ simply by following the logical flow of the cultural Christianity around them. Now, obviously, salvation is a work and gift of God, and He had no doubt been working on Susan for some time. It’s probably just a coincidence because, after all, we’re often warned about the dangers of Bible-Belt, cultural Christianity.
A Similar Pattern
However, Susan’s story isn’t really an outlier. In fact, I’ve heard and encountered similar stories for several years now – most of them since the great paradigm shift that began in 2020. It sort of goes like this:
- Either because of covid-19 restrictions, the 2020 BLM rioting, or an increasing number of local drag-queen story hours at the local library, an individual or family decides that the blue area they live in isn’t ideal anymore.
- They relocate, either to a red state like Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, or Florida, or they move to a more-red area inside their blue state.
- While getting acclimated to the area, they start to deal with the normal things that happen when you relocate: isolation, loneliness, lack of familiar community – so they decide to start attending the local evangelical church (be it Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or a hip non-denominational church with a name like “The Hill,” “The Eastside Chuch,” Or “Church at the Grove”).
- Since they’re typically already conservative, the “ground is fertile” for accepting biblical teaching that already serves as the foundation for much of their worldview.
- They get saved. If they’re in a Baptistic church they get dunked, if a more high-church setting, then probably sprinkled.
The problem is, this isn’t how it’s supposed to work. We’re constantly reminded, often by the likes of Christianity Today or The Gospel Coalition, that the development of cultural Christianity is essentially the worst thing that can happen to true Christianity. Because faith that’s “tied to the Republican party” is inauthentic, fake, and ultimately damning, cultural Christianity is something to be eschewed, not embraced, by true Christians. In fact, it’s increasingly thought that the less common and popular Christianity becomes, the more of an impact it will have.
The irony of the vilification of “Bible-belt” Christianity is that it’s routinely vilified by Christian leaders who live in the Bible belt. Those who retain Bible-belt values and relocate to more culturally-Christian areas (as I recently did) tend to be immensely grateful to live in places where biblical morality is more common. Even if there’s hypocrisy that comes along with it, parts of the country (and world) that more closely align with biblical values provide freedom for Christians to live lives more in line with 1 Thessalonians 4:11 (“and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you”).
A Notable Example
While there’s a benefit to those who are already Christians, there also seems to be a current phenomenon of conversion to Christianity coming about from a progression of values, as I saw in Susan’s case. While there are several other examples I could go into, there are few as dramatic as the conversion of one of the famous atheist Richard Dawkins’ former assistant, Josh Timonen.
If you want to hear his full story, check out his 1-hour interview with Living Waters, but here’s a brief overview. Josh worked on Richard Dawkin’s United States team and built his website. He made and marketed some of Dawkin’s merchandise, and accompanied him on tours throughout the US. After a legal dispute with Dawkins’ organization, Josh left working for the atheist cause and moved to Portland, Oregon. During the lockdowns and subsequent rioting in Portland in 2020, Josh and his wife determined that relocation to a more peaceful, family-friendly part of the country would be smart.
Landing in Waco, Texas, the Timonens realized that they didn’t really have any community in their new home. The locals went to church – and in 2020 there wasn’t a whole lot more that was open, so they started attending a local Cowboy Church. Over time, Josh and his wife both experienced a softening of their hearts by hearing the scriptures preached each week, and finally, both committed their lives to Christ.
Not Necessarily the “Spoiler of True Faith”
Obviously, being a conservative, family-focused, gun-owning Republic doesn’t save your soul, and if you die without trusting in Christ, then you’re not any better off than a purple-haired vegan who lives in Amsterdam and still wears a surgical mask everywhere they go. Also, God saves His people out of cultures and communities very far from Christianity. The one who interacts within a cultural context that generally adheres to biblical principles can also experience a draw to true faith – one that is driven by the faith of those around them, those who are truly followers of Christ.
These are just a few examples of a larger trend, but the overall point is this: Bible belt, cultural Christianity isn’t necessarily the “spoiler of true faith” that it’s often made out to be. In fact, cultural conformity to biblical morality can even work as the catalyst to help an unbeliever realize that they need Christ. Additionally, God is at work in our own day and age, bringing sinners to Himself through many means – including the stark contrast of values between secular, progressive values and traditional, biblical values.
Growing up in the Northeast, I’ve often heard conversations about our part of the country as being “hard soil” when it comes to evangelism, outreach, and discipleship. In fact, many areas of the US and the rest of the world are described in the same terms. Amongst the hard soil, it’s worth considering that those who share similar cultural, political, and social values might actually be, in many instances, “softer soil.” So if you live in a part of the country (or world) that’s more “culturally Christian,” don’t merely look down on those who you live among as being “inauthentic Christians.” That’s your mission field, and the fields just might be ripe for harvest.