Why The Bible Belt Is A Mission Field

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The following is a sermon that I am preaching this morning. I spent most of my time this week preparing it, so I thought I’d upload it in the place of a blog post that I would have written if I’d had time:

How is everyone? My name is Ryan Ellington and I am with OBU Day in the Churches. I’m here to share my story with you, and hopefully in the process convince you that all of your support has paid off—and not only paid off, but paid off generously. I would love to stand up here and talk to you all day about why you should send all of your students to OBU, but I’m shooting for about 25-30 minutes tops, so I want to dive right into the message for this morning.

If you have your Bible, we’re gonna be in the book of Haggai. If you’re not sure where that is, it’s right near the end of the old testament, between Zephaniah and Zechariah—sandwiched between the two “Z’s”. I’m gonna keep my message fairly short, even though the text that I’ve selected is pretty long. Our passage will be Haggai 1:1-11, if you would turn there.

Haggai is about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed along with the rest of the city by the invading Babylonian army in 587 B.C., and chronologically it comes right at the end of the section of the Old Testament dealing with their exile in Babylon, which is narrated at the end of Chronicles, and then carries on throughout the books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and the prophets Obadiah, Joel, Haggai and Malachi. That was a lot of information, but at least now you can’t say I didn’t teach you anything.

Part of the reason this whole section of scripture, this whole time-span in history that Haggai fits into is so close to my heart is that I got saved because I accidentally opened a Bible and turned to Nehemiah. That’s something you don’t hear often: “I got saved reading Nehemiah.” Because there’s no gospel presentation in the book. It’s before Jesus came on the scene. The entire book is about the Jews building a wall around Jerusalem. Now, it’s not Donald Trump’s wall. At this point in history, the remaining Israelites didn’t have an immigration problem. Really what they had was the opposite problem. The people who had settled in the land that used to belong to the nation of Israel thought that the Israelites were an immigration problem, so Jerusalem was constantly under attack. And without a wall built around the city of Jerusalem, God’s people could never be safe from those who wanted to destroy them.

But on the day when I sat down in my car and opened my bible to Nehemiah chapter 1, I didn’t know any of that. Because growing up in the Bible Belt I had a pretty similar experience to most of the kids that I knew. There’s a profound danger that comes along with growing up in this particular part of the world. And this is what I mean: Almost all of the world thinks of America as “the Christian country.” Believe it or not, when people in Afghanistan think of America, they think, “Christian.” As pagan as the current culture in America is, we are still, in the eyes of everyone else, the most “Christian” place on the face of the earth. Let that sink in. But more than that, within the US, the particular cluster of states that we live in is statistically 86% Christian. Now, remember, I said statistically. The fact that we live in the Bible Belt means that we live in the most overwhelmingly Christian part of the most overwhelmingly Christian country on entire planet. And yet, let me tell you why the Bible Belt is a mission field: the culture is so overwhelmingly Church-y that it’s easy not to notice that Jesus isn’t there.

Right? You know something’s up when every politician that actually wants to get elected in our part of the country has to at least pretend to be Christian. Because even if they’re not active in a church, even if they’ve never cracked open a Bible, even if they don’t know the first thing about Chrsitianity, people around here just aren’t comfortable electing someone into office who couldn’t check the Christian box on a census form. That’s how saturated our culture is with kind of a surface level Christianity. But that’s the problem. Because our culture is so flooded with surface level Christianity, most people are born, live, and then die claiming the title of Christian but never meeting Jesus—and our culture cultivates and encourages that pattern.

And I was almost a one of its victims. I was raised to believe in God, but I wasn’t sure what that had to do with me. My parents were pretty good, and they tried their best to shepherd me into a real faith, but their voice was just one amongst a sea of voices pulling me and everyone that I knew toward towards fake, cultural Christianity. So despite my parents’ best efforts, I grew up with the sense that being a Christian meant going to church and not having fun. Those were the two parts. There were people who never had any fun but didn’t go to church, and they weren’t Christians, they were just boring. And there were people who went to church but had a little too much fun, and they weren’t Christians either. Because being a Christian meant going to church and not having fun. And I was pretty good at both of those, so I figured I was set.

But then something happened. When I was eight years old, somebody told me that if I “accepted Jesus into my heart,” God wouldn’t light me on fire for all of eternity. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I didn’t like the idea of getting  lit on fire, so I told my parents I was ready to accept Jesus in my heart and it was settled. We talked to the pastor, who said it was time to get baptized. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I knew water was the opposite of fire so I was all in. After my baptism, everyone told me that I would get to have the Lord’s Supper like all of the adults. I thought, “So this is what salvation is: free snacks!”

My eight year old religious awakening didn’t last long. And by the time I was a freshman in high school I didn’t want much to do with the faith I was brought up in. Like everybody else I knew, I kind of nominally held on to the title outwardly, but on the inside I really wasn’t even sure if God existed. I didn’t really have anything good to say about religion because as far as I could see it was just a tool that hateful people used to justify hating the people that they found icky. Are you tracking with me? I ran with a crowd that was less-than-friendly toward religion and the more I thought about it, the less attached I felt to my parents faith.

Right about that time, the youth pastor asked me to play guitar for the youth band. So, of course, I said no. And, of course, my mom said yes—and before I knew it, I was the guitar player. Leading worship for a religion I didn’t like, for students I didn’t hang out with, about a God I wasn’t sure I believed in. And then things got really weird. The youth pastor quit, followed by almost the entire rest of the band, which left me as the leader. And so there I was, the worship leader in a youth group singing songs to a God I just didn’t quite believe in. And in a way that I really can’t explain, God started working in my heart in a really uncomfortable way so that over time I began to develop the conviction that the words that I was singing each week were true.

Which really jacked with my worldview. Because if the God that I was singing about was really God, then everything in my life had to change—and that was something I was not on board with. But something inside of me was demanding—not asking, but demanding—that I crack open my Bible and see where things went. So I had this Holman Bible that my parents had given to me a few years earlier, which I had opened exactly zero times. Like, there was a thick enough layer of dust on the cover that I could have written a word in the dust with my finger and you could have actually read the word that I had written. So one morning I left for school early so that I could sit in my car and read my dust-covered Bible. I had no idea where to start, so I thought I’d open it up to a nice, middle-ish section, and when I opened it, I was looking at the first chapter of Nehemiah.

And I read about Nehemiah being a cupbearer for the Persian king Artaxerxes, and that he learned that the wall around the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and that the king trusted Nehemiah and let him go back to Jerusalem to lead the people in rebuilding the wall. And once they get started, a mob of men from the surrounding territories come around and start making threats. The opposition that they face gets so bad that Nehemiah chapter 4 says that they had to begin “working with their weapons in their hands.” Eventually the wall is successfully built and Nehemiah returns to his day job as the king’s cupbearer.

And that was the first thing that I ever read from the Bible, sitting there in my car in my car as a sixteen year old. And I understood none of it. I had a thousand questions. Number one being, “what’s Jerusalem?” Why did it need a wall? What happened to the wall, and why did the the guy who gets paid to test out the king’s beverages care? But somewhere between the first and last chapter of the book that I had just stumbled through, I had stopped not-believing and started believing.

Which then really freaked my friends out. My best friend since Kindergarten is a guy named Scott, and he saw me reading a Bible during some down time in a class we had together and was legitimately upset with me. And I had no idea what to say. I didn’t know anything about evangelism because I had only been a Christian for like six hours at this point. I really didn’t know anything about the Bible. But he kept watching me over the next year or so as I was growing, and really transforming into a completely different person, and by the end of that year he had come to the conclusion that people like me didn’t just change out of nowhere. He started reading the Bible too, and talking through his difficulties with myself and other Christians at the school. And the rest of his story plays out pretty much like mine, and now we’re both headed to seminary.

So in the end we both met Jesus, but we almost didn’t. We were almost victims of the ‘cultural Christianity’ that haunts this part of the world. And what really began to frighten me was that I realized pretty quickly that we were in the minority. Remember what I talked about earlier? Growing up in the middle of the most overwhelmingly Christian region of the most overwhelmingly Christian country, most people my age grow up going to church, making some sort of confession of faith at a young age, and then going off into adulthood to raise more kids to do the same thing but never actually come to anything like real faith in Jesus.

And so the question that we have to raise in response to this is, “how did this happen?” How is it that the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce false Christians? And once we have answered that, I think the question we absolutely have to address is, “how can we instead create a culture where the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus?”

So let’s look at our text. I’ll be reading from the English Standard Version. Haggai, chapter 1, verses 1-11 says:

“In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD, [the temple].” Again, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while my house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood. Build my house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought home what little you found, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

So to give a little background here, at the time that Haggai is preaching, Israel has been having pretty good fortunes. As fiery as this word from the Lord out of the mouth of Haggai is, things have been going pretty well for Israel, and that’s the problem. At this point God has worked in the heart of Cyrus, the king of Persia so that, almost out of nowhere, he decided to allow the exiled Israelites to return to their land and live in peace as his subjects. Before Persia had taken over almost the entire inhabited world, the empire of Babylon had been in charge of everything. Remember the story of Daniel and the Lion’s den? That was when Babylon was in charge. Remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? That was Babylon that decided to set them on fire.

Years earlier, after the death of Solomon,  the nation of Israel had split into two different nations that were constantly fighting each other, and eventually they were both conquered by foreign powers and all of the people of Israel became exiles under a cruel and powerful nation—just like they were before God rescued them out of Egypt under Moses. But it’s funny, nations like Babylon that are always conquering weaker nations eventually find themselves on the other side of the gun. Right? You can only conquer so many nations before you get conquered. And sure enough, a day came when Babylon wasn’t baddest kid on the playground anymore, and Persia came along and replaced them. And at this point, the Persian king Cyrus allowed the exiled Jews to move back into the land that they had been driven out of.

Their fortunes continued to get better when a later Persian king, Artaxerxes, gave them permission to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to protect themselves from their enemies. I talked about that a little bit at the beginning. They built the wall in record time even with all of the opposition that they were facing and then they began to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem that Babylon had destroyed when they conquered the nation years earlier.

But unfortunately, throughout all of history, God’s people tend to shoot themselves in the foot, and they continued in that pattern here as well when they just stopped. When everything was going so well, they just stopped rebuilding the temple. We’re not given a reason why, but I think our passage this morning says it all. Look at v. 2-4. The people of Israel, that God had just graciously brought back to the land that He promised them and had enabled to build a wall for their protection, were now building well-crafted houses and planting crops and vineyards throughout the land. You might notice that these are all good things. If they’re gonna survive the next year in Jerusalem, these are pretty non-negotiable things that they have to do. So what’s the problem? The problem is that in the process, they stopped actively carrying out the will of God and only concerned themselves with taking care of their immediate needs. After God had rescued them for a purpose, the Israelites went into what I call survival mode.

This is the first of what I believe are three parallels between Israel during the time of Haggai and the modern Church in America. In the midst of taking care of the necessities of everyday life, they had lost touch with the mission that God had rescued them for. Just a few years earlier, they were struggling to survive under the harsh rule of the Babylonian empire and God had rescued them. And we’re in the same position. If you’re in this room this morning and you’re a believer in Christ, then there was a time when you weren’t. Even if you can’t remember that time because it was so long ago. Even if you were 5 years old and the Holy Spirit worked in your heart to produce repentance and faith, that means there were five years when you did not know the Lord and even as a little kid, no matter how cute you were, you were on a path that led to destruction. God rescued you from the pit of your own sinfulness and made you His ambassador. God has made you His priest.

That’s why we don’t have priests, because God didn’t rescue us from the darkness that we were walking in to make us into people who mindlessly sit each week and soak up sermons. He rescued us to make us into priests for the world. That doesn’t mean that you need to go get a priest’s robe and start chanting words in Latin from a pulpit. That means that if you are a believer in Christ in this room, you are the one that God has chosen to introduce the town of Wyandotte, Oklahoma to Jesus. I am not an ordained minister yet. I am going to be ordained at my home church in Texas in the near future, but that’s not going to make me into a minister of the gospel. I became a minister of the gospel when I became a believer in Christ because of the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart.

Do you want to know one reason why the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce cultural Christians? Because we have lost touch with the mission that God has rescued us for. One of my friends from school graduated last year and is now assisting in the Episcopal Service Core. He also works with the youth pastors at his local Episcopalian church and the last time he visited Shawnee where I live, he said (paraphrased):

“A lot of the kids in the youth group that I serve at wouldn’t be able to locate the four Gospels in a Bible. And that’s kind of why the Episcopal church is dying. They raise their kids to be ‘religious’ but they don’t really teach them what it means to be distinctly Christian. So what happens is that students will grow up going to church but drop out of the church scene after a little while in college because there was never any real root to their faith. When they get older, some of them come back because they want their kids raised religiously like they were. But only some of them come back, and so every generation the Episcopal church gets smaller and smaller. I don’t think my denomination will be around that much longer.”

Now, I told that story because I wanted to evoke a certain response. If I had heard that several years ago, I would have thought, “well, that’s just the Episcopal church’s problem.” But that’s not true. Because every semester, I meet new students OBU students,  freshmen—18 year-old Baptists who can’t explain to me why Jesus had to die on the cross. Victims of the ‘cultural Christianity’ that haunts our part of the world. And one reason that our culture is producing false Christians is that the prosperity of the Church in the Bible Belt has made it incredibly easy to ignore the mission that God rescued us for and still feel like obedient Christians.

And that is a really dark thought, but there’s good news. If you would, look at v. 5-6. The Lord says, “Now, therefore, consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.” Israel has lost touch with their mission, and God’s response is to wreck everything that has replaced it. Now look with me at v. 9-11. The Lord says, “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

God may not have brought a famine to the land, but the Church is rapidly losing cultural influence in America. Now, the question is, “how could that possibly be a good thing?” How could it possibly be a good thing that the Church is rapidly losing cultural influence in America? This is a dumb analogy, but I think it works: It’s generally a bad thing to take food from hungry people. But if they’re eating themselves to death, it’s the most loving thing you can do. And God loves His Church. Since the founding of our nation we have enjoyed a near unprecedented place of safety and privilege in society which for a very long time served to help the Church propel the gospel to every corner of the earth. That is wonderful. That is glorious. But in recent decades, we have allowed the safety and the privilege that we have enjoyed in America to turn us away from the mission of God to the nations and we have instead become drunk on comfort and on cultural influence.

So God is taking away the thing that has captured our affections in His place. If the comfort that America has provided us is sabotaging our missionary mind, He will take it away from us—not because He wants to hurt us, but because He wants to save others. If the privilege that the Church has enjoyed in American society for the last two and a half centuries is causing us to lost touch with the great commission, God will take away the thing that has kidnapped us. And it’s going to be a painful process, but it’s also going to be a fruitful process.

Do you know when the single greatest periods of growth in the Church have always been? Times of great persecution. God has always used persecution against the Church to multiply the Church. Are you tracking with me? The first three centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, the church was like a gigantic rabbit. It just kept multiplying. Every day, there were new Christians, and sometimes new Christians were former persecutors. There are stories in old Roman documents that we’ve found that basically tell the same story. And that story is this: some Roman spy visits a small church community hoping to get some dirt on the members of this new religion that the government could use to justify persecuting Christians. The spy hears the gospel clearly proclaimed by this persecuted people group, gets saved, and has to go into hiding because if his boss finds out he’ll become the next Christian martyr.

We are part of a faith that began as a persecuted people group and currently throughout most of the world is still a persecuted people group, and may one day return to being a persecuted people group in America. And my message for anyone who is concerned about that is  “do not be afraid.” Since we worship a God that is sovereign, we can rest knowing that everything that happens, happens so that the gospel will further multiply to every corner of the earth. God removed every obstacle that kept Israel from obeying the mission that He saved them for, and he’s doing the same thing here. So that’s the second way that Israel in the time of Haggai parallels the modern Church.

And we’re almost done. The third parallel is that they were given a clear call from God. “Rebuild my house.” V. 7-8 says, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.” In 2016, God doesn’t live in a temple in Jerusalem. We’re not called to buy a plane ticket to the Holy Land and start construction on the third temple. But we are called to make disciples. And it so happens that that’s the answer to the question I posed earlier: “how can we create a culture where the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus?” And the answer is often repeated but rarely lived out.

As a Greek student, I can’t come here and preach a sermon without throwing in just a little Greek trivia. A very literal way to translate the great commission would be, “As you are going, make disciples of all the nations.” Most English translations are misleading because they translate it as something along the lines of “Go ye therefore and make disciples…” And you should go. Right? Leave. Get out of here. Go somewhere that doesn’t have the gospel and share it with them. Mission trips are awesome. Organize as many as you can. Support as many missionaries as you can. All of that is good, and right, and perfect. But the Great Commission is as you are going, and we are all currently ‘going’. We are never not ‘going’. After this service, the deacons are very kindly taking my dad and I out to lunch, and in the process we will be going. If you have neighbors, I hope you are going. The guys who live in the apartment next to mine are not my pastor’s responsibility. They’re mine. Because God pulled me out of the pit of my own sinfulness to make me a priest to them. And the only reason that isn’t immediately obvious to me, is that the American Church, and especially the Church in the Bible Belt, has grown so comfortable because of the safety and privilege we have enjoyed here that we’ve lost touch with the mission that God rescued us for.

But God is giving us a wake-up call. He’s removing our place of privilege and our safety to transform us into a disciple-making people again. I don’t suspect that 50 years from now, Pastors will be able to support themselves without a day job on the side. I don’t suspect that 20 years from now Churches will have tax exemptions. I don’t suspect that 10 years from now Christianity will be the majority religion in the United States anymore. But I do suspect that we’ll be a more obedient and effective people. I do suspect that the gospel will spread throughout our nation more rapidly. And I suspect that, when all is said and done, God will have shaped us into a people with whom He is well pleased, and that through us, He will create a culture in which the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus.

 

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