I live in what is arguably the most conservative state in the nation, in a conservative suburb of a large city. Several churches in my town (and the greater metropolitan area) are stereo-typically mega–with membership numbering in the thousands to the tens of thousands. With the exception of the Starbucks parking lots and the annual homeschool convention, I rarely see anti-religion bumper stickers or humanist demonstrators picketing something or other that has offended their brain chemicals. The community is considered a highly desirable area for Christian families looking for a safe, friendly place to live life. The demographic leans sharply towards well-educated professionals: dentists, surgeons, oil chemists, college faculty, and attorneys make up a good fraction of the populace. I’d venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of public school teachers are Christians. It feels insulated and almost idyllic…maybe not quite Stepford Wives, but I’ve heard it compared to that! However, in my years of living here, I’ve come to see that in one important respect, Bible-belt suburbia can be toxic.
A worldview that goes largely unchallenged is rarely fortified, and the world then suffers. When you go through life surrounded by like-minded people, particularly when your entire social group consists of fellow church members, there’s likely no sense of urgency to equip yourself to correctly articulate Christian doctrine and defend its truth claims. Unfortunately, I have the common experience of seeing Christ-loving men and women forsake the requisite training because of not having “enough space in life right now.” Often, a myriad of sports practices, music lessons, social events, and self-help “Bible studies” take priority over reading even a few challenging, instructive books throughout the year. They’ve fallen for the Christianized version of the American Dream.
This state of affairs makes me want to shout from the rooftop: “Why on earth are we here?!” I haven’t resorted to that, because I fear I already know the answer I would get: “We’re here to share the love of Jesus!” Well, yes, of course we are, but WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Jesus didn’t travel the countryside with the mission of making people feel good about themselves; He wasn’t some hippie of antiquity just “spreading the love” to gain followers; He was a Radical Truth Teller! He didn’t sequester himself within a bubble of comrades, being careful never to offend anyone on the outside. He purposefully challenged even the greatest political powers of his day in the name of Truth. He was gentle and loving but unafraid and uncompromising.
One of the main underlying problems, I think, is that Christians are much too worried about being liked by the rest of the world. Terror is struck in their hearts by the word “intolerance.” So, many simply go around “doing good” in order to “show the love of Jesus.” But we’re kidding ourselves if we think such actions are unique to Christians. There are plenty of secular philanthropic organizations out there, extending the same kindness and generosity to people in need. In other words, belief in Christ isn’t a requisite for demonstrating a Christ-like love. So—-
WHAT IS THE CHRISTIAN DISTINCTIVE? Alongside of a Christ-like attitude of grace and love, we alone are able to offer ultimate Truth. In this era of religious pluralism, moral relativism, and scientism, a great and growing need we must be able to meet is intellectual in nature. Sure, there are always going to be people whose hearts are touched by emotional and material kindnesses, but what about those who are in desperate need of rational answers to the deepest questions of existence? Showing the love of Christ to these souls involves mental sweat on our part, not a gift basket and a churchy platitude.
And this is why I think Bible-Belt Suburbia can be toxic; the Christian faith is rarely challenged, thus Christians feel no pressing need to equip themselves to be an intelligent voice in the face of philosophical opposition. When challenges eventually arise, from extended family members, coworkers, or perhaps our own college-age children, a major opportunity to carry out the Great Commission (our raison d’etre) is laid before us. It’s [spiritual] fight or flight.
Let’s be armed and ready to love God and others with our minds.