I spent a couple of years in Louisville, Kentucky studying to be a pastor. Towards the end of my time there a friend asked me where I hoped I ended up living and pastoring once I graduated. I told him that I wanted to be in a large city.
That didn’t happen.
My thinking was that the large cities are where the people that need Jesus live and the small rural areas, particularly the ones in the south, have already been captured and are now fighting for the good guys. I was only partially right.
I was reminded why at the gym this week.
There’s one song that comes on every morning while I’m at the gym by a band called Van Zant. As soon as I hear the first note I start pulling out my hair. Like most country music songs, it’s about grandparents, tractors and America (pronounced Mur-a-cuh). Here’s how the chorus goes.
Don’t get too high on a bottle,
And get right with the Man.
Fight your fights, find a grace,
And all the things that you can change,
And help somebody if you can.
This song finally clicked for me this week. It could be the theme song of the religious south. It’s about being a moral man that tries to be right (whatever that means) with the Man (whoever that is). Oh yeah, and it’s about helping people too.
Even though I knew better, I thought people in the rural south were okay with Jesus because they had a lot of churches, relatively good morals and no decadence weekends (at least officially). But as I’ve spent more time here, I’m starting to learn that these are the very reasons why the rural south needs Jesus.
Sure, there are a lot of churches but many of the ones that are still functioning have long ago abandoned Christ’s gospel for the gospel of American politics or, even worse, the gospel of denominational politics. In some churches, voting republican and staying away from liquor has become the new baptism and Lord’s Supper.
I’m reminded of another conversation I had right before I left seminary to become a pastor.
I met a guy that was in between missions in Afghanistan. He wasn’t with the military. He was a missionary. I expressed amazement at how hard of a job it must be to present the gospel in a place like Afghanistan. That’s when he let me know that the rural, religious south I was about to go to had a lot in common with the rural, religious Afghanistan he was about to go to.
“We’re both headed to parts of the world where nobody will want to listen to the gospel we proclaim because they’ve used religious traditions to convince themselves that they’re okay with God.”
And that’s exactly why gospel preaching and gospel ministry is vital in the place where I live. Almost everyone thinks that they’re right with God, or in the words of that song, right with “the Man,” and they’ve managed to do it without the help of Jesus.
I can’t think of a more dire situation.