Americans generalize the “Bible Belt.” With over 80 percent of people in the region (typically construed as Southern states, maybe or maybe not including Florida) identifying as “Christian,” it’s no wonder people have assumed the Bible Belt is, and always has been, a region where church is just a way of life.
But it’s always just a matter of time until the norm becomes the mundane. And that’s certainly the case in the Bible Belt and the rise of “cultural Christianity.” No longer is the “us four and no more” church attractive to newcomers, no longer is the religiosity among believers acceptable, and no longer is the generational, blind way of accepting Jesus guaranteed.
After about the 1990s, Bible Belt culture began to shift, the 2000s lit a fire and church world began to change.
New Ways of ‘Doing Church’
Two major cities in Oklahoma—Oklahoma City and Tulsa (the “buckle” of the Bible Belt), have been at the starting line of reshaping the way communities and believers do church and grow spiritually.
In Oklahoma, the ministry of Craig Groeschel—the pastor of LifeChurch and one of the guys behind the YouVersion Bible app and Open Network website—began innovating and developing the way we approach church since the late '90s. LifeChurch began in 1996 in Oklahoma City with a single campus, and it has now grown to have 26 churches in eight different states around the country through the broadcast of Groeschel’s messages to each extended campus.
Aside from this new approach to delivering a message and down-to-earth method of reaching people who need Christ, LifeChurch’s creation of the YouVersion Bible app transformed the way the Bible is shared all over the world. With more than 250 million downloads on tablets, smartphones and desktop computers, YouVersion now offers nearly 1,300 versions of the Bible in 1,000 different languages.
Groeschel’s vision in offering thousands of resources at no cost, a free download of the Bible app and a constant open door with nearly six church services offered at each LifeChurch campus every Sunday, is simply this: “When we stand together, we can reach even more people. Our mission is to lead people to become fully devoted followers of Christ.”
Another church, this one in Tulsa, stands out among the sea of churches living in the “buckle.” It could be their establishment and continuation of a 36-year-old church in the heart of the city, or the establishment of over 1,800 of Bible colleges all over the world, as well as one right in Tulsa’s own backyard.
It could be their creation of The Tulsa Dream Center that offers food, clothing, medical attention and recreational activities for children and adults in need in the city. It could be their program that airs weekly on the Hillsong Channel, which broadcasts to millions of viewers around the world or it could be witnessing over 30,782 people give their life to Christ in 2016.
That church is Victory, led by pastors Paul and Ashley Daughtery. I sat down with Paul in a recent interview and discussed the shift we’ve seen in the Bible Belt, throughout the 2000s to 2017.
Could we claim leaders, pastors and churches are revolutionizing and redefining the Bible Belt? Absolutely. Here’s what we discovered:
Churches Are Coming Alive
Over the past 20 years, thousands of churches have popped up in the Bible Belt—especially in the "buckle." Paul explains what comes to his mind when he thinks of the region: “When I think of the Bible Belt, I think of a church on every block. There’s a lot of church history here: a lot of great ministries, big churches and people who are knowledgeable about the Bible. Doesn’t mean they’re necessarily Christian, but they’ve heard of Jesus.”
In Oklahoma alone, 22 percent of the population regularly attended a church service in the year 2000 (The American Church). According to PewForum, 43 percent of the population regularly attended a church service in the year 2014. With a 200 percent jump in numbers, there has to be a main factor in the increase of church attendance.
Daugherty goes on to explain, “Churches are progressing greatly. I remember in the '90s, the "buckle" went through a great teaching on faith. I remember our church felt the shift. In 2007, there started to be a shift with more of a progressive look at faith, at the Bible, at God, and we allowed ourselves to remove the limits of how Church had to look.”
So, what’s the common denominator? What’s causing the shift in attendance, in belief, in acceptance of God? Welcome to the awakening. As Daugherty explains, “I think the reason Victory is growing is because there’s life flowing in and through it. Churches that are alive are going to stand out. In the Bible Belt, there is no lack of churches, but there is a lack of life-giving churches. The ones that are alive stand out, they’re moving with a mission, they’re involved with the city, they’re progressing.”
Now more than ever, we are seeing churches come alive. We’re seeing congregations arise and remove the religious masks, remove the tradition, remove the stale taste in nonbelievers mouths. If our goal is to reach lost souls for Jesus Christ, then the Bible Belt must come alive and ready to rise up in our cities, in our states, in our region, in our nation, in our world.
And it’s doing just that.
Utilizing Technological Advances
With the launch of LifeChurch near the “buckle,” the church world made a big shift.
Daugherty acclaims Groeschel’s ministry: “LifeChurch changed Church World here drastically. Honestly, until LifeChurch began multiplying like they did, I thought our state would be very turned off to change. But then when I started seeing all that Craig Groeschel has done in establishing this very non-religious, come as you are church, LifeChurch helped us realize there’s a lot more lost people in this state than we thought.”
He continues, “Craig Groeschel blew the lid off with YouVersion. Two hundred million downloads? That blows my mind. But he did it so fast because of technology.”
Daugherty goes on to explain how the use of technology in Victory’s ministry has become essential in how they reach the nations. “We’re at 1,860 Victory Bible Colleges around the world that we’re able to reach via internet and computer access.”
Daugherty’s perspective shifted in looking at how they, too, utilize church online and technology.
“LifeChurch’s establishment has shifted a lot of church's mindsets to focusing on what they can do to reach more lost people and how they, too, can innovate—and not just maintain,” he says. “There’s also new ways to do church. People are open to this. Not just open to this, they’re ready for it. They want it.”
More and more, the churches are recognizing the importance of a multigenerational and multicultural church body.
“My parents paved and pioneered the way for the multigenerational and multicultural congregation that we have,” Daugherty explains, talking about the importance of diversity in his own congregation.
“Back in the early '90s, there was a little bit of an exodus of people who wanted to keep a church all the same. My parents began projecting more diversity in our church, and that really got inside of me. As I got older, I saw that a multicultural and multiracial body was a rare thing in a church, and this really challenged me. I remember saying, ‘If I’m ever a pastor, I want all races, and don’t want my congregation to look lopsided.' We are still growing in this, and this is something we strive for in our church.”
When we stand together in church, we gain a clearer perspective of what heaven will be like one day when all races, all ages, all people are united together with our savior for eternity.
Churches for Their Cities
Near the end of 2016, the "buckle" of the Bible Belt experienced extreme racial division. With the shooting of Terence Crutcher, the enemy began to attempt to stir up hate. Daugherty was on the front lines in addressing the tension and what took place in our city.
“God spoke to me to set aside a whole weekend to speak about the shootings in our nation and the hatred that was being stirred,” says Daugherty. “I had friends of mine from the African-American community share, as well as friends from the police force share, and had a strong moment of healing and prayer in our church services.”
Tulsa, according to Forbes, is the number one city for young entrepreneurs to start a business. Daugherty thinks there’s a direct correlation of millennials finding a spiritual purpose in Tulsa, as well as an economical purpose:
“I think God is preparing this army in Tulsa for ‘such a time as this’ to carry out whatever His plan is for our state, our nation, our world,” Daugherty says. “We are just one of the churches that will partner with the other churches out there. I do feel like God is moving within young people. They’re rising up and ready to run.”
He continues, “Tulsa is full of young life that’s bursting at the seams with outreach, compassion, evangelism, love and changing their community and the world.”
And if Church is changing like this right in the center of the Bible Belt, it’s sure to spread (if it hasn’t already) throughout the Southern Church.