The Kind of Churches We Need in the South

The building that housed St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Athens, Georgia, was built in 1869. All that’s left of the building today is the steeple, which sits neglected in a condominium parking lot. I see the steeple every Sunday morning on my drive into downtown Athens where our church gathers for worship. I don’t know the history of the church—I do know that R.E.M played its first gig in that building in 1980. But I have taken that weekly reminder as an opportunity to pray for a movement of God in our city and beyond that reverberates 150 years from now.

That’s why I’m so excited about Engage the South, a conversation for church leaders across the American South. Hosted by Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, we’ll meet on Tuesday, September 24. This is a collaborative effort of the Acts 29 Network, Beeson Divinity School, and The Gospel Coalition to inspire and encourage leaders to develop churches faithful to the message and mission of God in our particular context.

The question bringing hundreds together is this: what kind of churches do we need in the American South? Engage the South seeks to answer that question as we discuss:

Our need for churches that are marked by humility and holiness.

Marginalization is a new experience for most of us living in the American South. The freedom we have in Christ trips up moralists and makes us look foolish to people who make up the rules as they go. We need communities of faith across our cities and counties (and parishes . . . don’t wanna rile up the Cajuns!) who are known for laying down their rights in the cause of love as we pursue our deepest satisfaction in the God who shows us the way of life. 

Our need for churches that are serious about evangelism and conversions.

Evangelism becomes an optional sideshow when we assume that everyone in the South knows Jesus and forget that the gospel is needed by Christian and non-Christian alike. When repentance and faith become the rhythm of life inside the church as we tell people that Jesus saves us from rebellion and unbelief, our churches stand out even as they embed in the fabric of our communities.

Our need for churches that are committed to diversity.

The blight of racism casts a long shadow down in Dixie. The divide between rich and poor, black and white (not to mention Asian and Latino), conservative and liberal continues to be tragically demonstrated in far too many of our churches. But we see a profound gift of divine grace in our day. We see a developing transcultural ethos in a growing number of churches that I believe is the firstfruits of renewal that shakes the foundations of our cultural assumptions. We seek to chart a new course as we help each other follow Jesus together as a family.

Our need for churches that embrace theological clarity.

Doctrinal reductionism has failed as a tool for bringing clarity to our discipleship. But the difficult challenge of loving God and neighbor has birthed renewed interest in theological development. Churches with theological vision lay out a feast of godward hope and joy that challenges our assumptions about life and oils the creaking hinges of our soul. We need churches that do not divorce precision and practicality in our discipleship but embrace the life of the mind even outside the academy.

Our need for churches that plant churches.

It is no accident that we are sounding this call in Birmingham, a city marked by historic and influential churches. As a son of the city, I am grateful for the advance of the kingdom through these churches. Yet I also lament the overwhelming number of friends and family who don’t recognize themselves or hear their story in existing churches. Not only do we need renewed churches in the American South, we also need brand new churches that give themselves to the burned over, half-baked, and hopeless corners of our communities.

Engage the South is not an invitation to pioneer work in unchartered territory. It is a celebration of what God has already begun as we dream about what he might allow us to continue together. I hope you’ll join me and hundreds more in Birmingham—and if you register before this Sunday, you’ll only pay $49 (55 percent discount) to get in the door. We look forward to seeing you in September.

  • Curt Day

    I would add that we also need churches that challenge the status quo, that call our current system to repent. The movement to an economy that is more based on individualism than before in that many in this country think it is a moral choice to enrich themselves despite what it costs others and the environment.

    And the challenge here for those in the South is that to call the system to repent means that we have to stand up to authority. For if all we do is to teach our peers on how to submit to a system whose dependence on exploitation is ever increasing, we will be failing to preach the Gospel to those with wealth and power and we will be enabling the oppression of our neighbors.

  • Logan Gentry

    This is certainly encouraging to hear as someone originally from the south. Hopefully this is not a 1 time thing, but a regular thing. A thought…the speakers seem to be people from the south with little experience of marginalization and it may help to have speakers from the north or western europe to help explain what marginalization and evangelization/missional communities look like in those settings.

    Keep up the great work Matt. God is bringing a gospel revival to the south in a massively healthy well.

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  • Jacob Stevens

    I would add that the strategy for planting churches in the South needs to be a bit modified. The current strategy for targeting large population areas works for highly populated places on the West and East coast, but that strategy largely ignores the fact that the South is largely still a rural society (though growing more urban everyday). Some modification is needed concerning where to plant churches. Just because a city isn’t over 20,000 population does not mean it isn’t a cultural hub or doesn’t exert any influence in its surrounding areas. In fact, many of the cities in these states are disowned by the smaller communities as a different culture completely and far removed from the rest of the state. If we are concerned with reaching more area and more of the people in the region as a whole, I would consider not only targeting large population areas, but also the suburbs and outlying communities, who are not only neglected by culture, but also by many church-planting strategists. Many people in these communities have to travel to the large cities to shop, to see the doctor, to do anything. Do they have to drive several hours to be involved in life-giving community as well?

    • paul Cummings

      amen….what seems to “work” everywhere else fails to achieve in the Bible Belt….they’ve already been to church and don’t want to go again….it’s a different battle here.

    • Freddy

      I echo your concern. Cities are important as so many people live in them, but it’s not the only place where folks live.

  • Eric

    Please Oh Please tell me this will be available later for listening/viewing!!

  • Earl

    I am not familiar with southern churches. So I am not sure what some of this means:

    Theological clarity: Do churches in the south struggle with the health and wealth gospel, and things like liberation theology? Are they too obsessive with premillenial escatology and won’t “polish brass on a sinking ship?”

    Diversity: I imagine there are self-segregated churches in the south, typically along racial/ethnic lines as well as political lines. Is there an actual plan to inegrate? It seems to me the best way to unify greeks with romans and jews is through sound doctrine and good works of religion (widows, orphans, etc.) not through things like bussing and quotas and awareness campaigns. That turns out to look more like racialist meddling and social engineering.

    Evangelism: Are southern churches prone to have the “I’m in the kingdom, I gots mines” mentality?

    Humility, marginalization: I don’t know what marginalization means. Is this a specific term, or is it being used in the general sense which I do understand? Who are they marginalized from, and what does that have to do with humility? The only thing this paragraph brings to mind is the story a friend tells me about his time in the bible belt, where everyone was extremely legalistic and willing to condemn anyone who does not conform to their unscriptural, cultural legalisms.

    Help a brother out!

    • Conner

      Hey, Earl. From my southern church background, here’s what I think:

      TC: A lot of southern churches, or at least a few that I’ve been part of, don’t do a lot of answering “Why” questions, so the theology of members tends to be shallow.

      Diversity: I go to Kevin Smith’s church (he’s one of the event headliners). We spend a lot of time talking about racial reconciliation and have some ministries directly targeting non-English-speaking members of our communities, and we mostly just try to connect people from different racial/ethnic backgrounds so we’re not just getting the dominant white cultural viewpoints as we worship together.

      Evangelism: No, it’s more like “Everybody here has heard the gospel, so why bother?” Pretty crummy, but that’s a common mentality.

      H/M: It looks like this is referring to pious moralism as opposed to genuine love. As southern culture grows more secular, southern Christians will have to learn how to interact with people who don’t live with traditional moral standards, as most people ’round here tend to act nice, even when we aren’t.

      I didn’t write the article, so I could be wrong on any of these, but my experience suggests what I’ve written. Regards.

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