Reaching the High Fruit
No matter where you live, following Jesus is challenging. It requires commitment, Christian community, sound Biblical teaching, and the power of the Holy Spirit to resist cultural idols and follow Jesus with authenticity. This is true in every region of the United States, and especially in the South.
The culture in Southern states has a long and complicated history of being influenced by the conservative Biblical values associated with evangelicalism. This has earned the Southern region the nickname the Bible Belt. It is true, historically church attendance has been higher in Southern states, and conservative religious and political values have dominated the landscape. Christians in the South are not facing harsh forms of persecution as they do in other parts of the world. It’s more acceptable to talk about your faith in the South without the risk of being ridiculed and marginalized. Being a minister is still a respectable profession. Jesus’ teachings are still valid and valuable for those who have placed their faith in Christ and many who have not.
All this has led many people from other regions to assume it is easier to follow Jesus in the South. And, many church planters have mistakenly settled for an, “If you build it, they will come,” strategy. Consequently, many church plants in the South appeal to a Christianized population while those furthest from Christ are overlooked. However, it is now becoming apparent that this Southern wave of church growth and cultural influence has left a wake of nominal Christianity that is holding many Christians back from authentically following Jesus today.
The reality is: there is still plenty of low hanging fruit in the South for the church planter who is looking to measure growth by attendance. You can sow the gospel more freely, gather a crowd more quickly, and grow a church more easily than other regions around the United States. There are many church planters taking advantage of these ideal conditions for perceived church planting success. But what the South needs now is church planters who are willing to implement innovative and creative structures that will enable the church to reach beyond the low hanging fruit.
As a church planter who started a church on the South side of Atlanta, sadly, I was satisfied and deluded by our success at attracting a crowd of church consumers. There is a seductive quality to the work of developing systems and structures that will attract the already Christianized population to a new church. There is an immediate gratification that is difficult to resist. As a church planter, I learned the importance of doing the labor-intensive work of developing creative and innovative systems and structures that would help those far from Christ journey through the stages of skepticism, exploration, doubt, and fear until they commit to the way of Jesus.
The South needs church planters who are ready to have a missionary encounter with Southern culture, church planters who study and critique culture instead of rapidly adapting to it. The planter called to the South must be intentional about stepping outside of the comfortable Christian bubble to develop relationships with people whose ethics, beliefs, and values are in tension with his or her own. And more than anything, those who plant in the South need a better metric than numerical growth – a metric that indicates that those who have been marginalized, forgotten, overlooked, and deemed too hard to reach are learning to follow Jesus with authenticity.
The South presents a unique opportunity for new churches to plant a fresh expression of Christian community that reaches those who have given up on the church and who have never given the church a chance. One of my greatest joys as a church planter was hearing people say: I never thought I would belong to a church till now. Don’t be deluded – the South isn’t oversaturated with churches. There is plenty room for more churches willing to do the hard work of reaching the high fruit of those furthest from Christ.
Wesley Bolden has ministry training and experience in church revitalization, campus ministry, leadership and church planting. In 2013, he partnered with Stadia to plant Tri-Cities Church, a multiethnic church in metro Atlanta. Wesley is passionate about empowering church planters to discover and live into their unique gifting and calling. During his free time, he loves to get outside, listen to podcast and drink good coffee.