Good morning from Bozeman, Montana!
As I start my first full week of ministry in Bozeman - a stunningly beautiful place! - I am noticing the differences and similarities with my other place of ministry in Brownwood, Texas. The biggest difference I have noticed is that I am no longer in the "Bible Belt."
Brownwood, Texas is in the middle of what many scholars, pundits and just regular people call "The Bible Belt." The map on the right shows the density of practicing Baptist Christians across the United States in 2000 and it is a fairly good representation of the geographical location of the Bible Belt in general. This is how the author of the Wikipedia article on "The Bible Belt" defines the phenomenon: "Bible Belt is and informal term for an area of the United States in which socially conservative evangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is extremely high." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_Belt) If you would like to read more on the topic, Christine Heyrman's book, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Knopf: 1997) is the book you want to get.
My observation of "The Bible Belt" phenomenon is that Christianity in this region takes on a "Constantinian Veneer." In other words, Christianity, rather than being the embodied living of faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and expressed through the community of faith, tends to take on a much shallower, individualistic and cultural gloss. People often speak about "going to church" rather than being "a part of the church." In this context, 'church' can become a social obligation, rather than participation in the body of Christ through a sense of 'call'. And, at worst, community standing is often measured by which church a person attends or how many 'ministries' or activities in which a person is involved.
Now don't misunderstand me. Although Brownwood, a community I love and respect, is in the Bible Belt, that doesn't mean that this mindset is 100% manifested. The problem is that churches have to fight the mindset in order to reflect accurately their gospel commission. They do this generally by embracing a turn to mission. They become outwardly focused. They see powerful conversions and the church becomes healthy and experiences healthy growth. Theology in this perspective grounds mission.
On the other hand, the church that is hamstrung by the Bible Belt mindset focuses on an apologetic for an exclusivist theology - a theology that can be either a stinging fundamentalist polemic or a more moderate apologetic for specific theological stances. These churches can grow, but the growth is based primarily upon their theological stance or their profile in the community - thus however mission is defined, it supports a skewed theology. My Bible Belt friends will die on many hills, usually just not Calvary.
Now I admit that this description is reductionist and a bit too simplistic. Some of my friends who read this blog are residents of the Bible Belt and will take issue with this description. Nevertheless, it makes the point. The Bible Belt, with all of its good intentions, can be a difficult place actually to reach people with the gospel. In an increasingly postmodern culture - even in rural Texas - the Bible Belt bound church is struggling to communicate with an increasingly skeptical, hurt and disenchanted younger generation. They have watched the Bible Belt church in-general fight, bicker and wound each other in theological turf-wars so often that they are abandoning the church of their childhood in favor of nondenominational churches or they even have abandoned the faith altogether. So to my friends who live in the Bible Belt, I simply encourage you to be an instigator of cultural change in your church. Put the gospel and its transformative power at the forefront of your faith!
Not so in Bozemania.
Bozemania isn't simply Bozeman, Montana. It is the area outside of the Bible Belt. Christianity in these places hasn't become a "taken-for-granted" part of the culture. Indeed, 70-95% of these populations do not have any religious affiliation. Most would consider themselves spiritual; just not 'religious'. They see society as basically secular in nature, with a few people on the fringe. They don't have any opinions for or against the church or Christians in general, unless of course, their politics collide. There are Christians here, of course; but they constitute a small segment of the population. There are Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Mormons. There are also scientologists and atheists. They too constitute a small minority, more or less. The vast majority is either undecided or simply secular - unconcerned. In a democratic republic where the economy is capitalist in orientation, a person is prone to a secular orientation.
The key is that there is little or no Bible Belt bias. These people are willing to engage you, listen and discuss the deep things of the faith. They want to discuss these things. They may not be convinced quickly, but they will engage. The key for this generation, however, is action. This generation is not a generation of 'pew potatoes' - they want faith to mean something whereby they can make a difference in another's life. The form and trappings of religion - the tradition, if you will - is way down their list. This is golden. This is a paradigm shift.
Part 2 - Later!