By Jimmy Scroggins
Many parts of my home state of Florida is culturally Christian, but South Florida—where I live and shepherd a congregation—is definitely beyond the Bible belt. Surrounding counties—Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade—are home to nearly 7 million people, and only 4% of them regularly attend a gospel-centered church.
Barna Research says West Palm Beach, Florida, has the highest number of “never-churched” people in the United States.
These statistics come as no surprise to those of us who are doing ministry here. Our neighborhoods are ethnically diverse and highly integrated. Unlike most places in the Bible belt, our neighborhoods, school, and churches tend to be diverse and integrated as well.
There’s a major influx and influence of Hispanics and Latinos in our South Florida culture. Over 30% of the people in our community speak a language other than English in their homes.
We’re on the leading edge of where America is headed. All pastors and ministry leaders should be thinking about what it looks like to be gospel-focused people in an increasingly diverse and post-Christian America.
Here are four realities of church life beyond the Bible belt.
1. Relationships matter.
The adage rings true here – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. We are constantly challenging ourselves and the people who regularly attend our church to build relationships with far-from-God people.
It’s a safe bet that the people we meet in the places we live, work, and play aren’t connected to church (96% of the time). This means nearly all of our neighbors, all of our coworkers, and all of the people at the ballfields, gym, and supermarket are people who may not know Jesus.
We have to go to them. We have to go into their world. We have to initiate social interactions and regular conversations.
Ask them about their work, their family, and their hobbies. Make a friend. Be a friend. Jesus did this. He was a friend to tax collectors and sinners. He had dinner in their homes.
But note that Jesus wasn’t unwise in the ways He engaged people. When He hung out with sinners, He brought the disciples along. There was accountability but there was also investment.
The goal at my congregation, Family Church, is to identify one person God has brought into our lives who needs to know Jesus.
We pray for that person. We deepen our relationship with that person. We truly care about them. We look for opportunities to turn everyday conversations into gospel conversations. We may invite them to church.
Ultimately, we want them to know God through a relationship with His one and only Son, Jesus.
2. Brokenness is universal.
It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you live, every person has been touched by brokenness.
It doesn’t take long to find out where people are hurting: The man in the kids’ car line who had an argument with his wife. The woman in the line at the grocery store who doesn’t have enough to pay for her groceries. The friend your son brings home who is dividing his time between his mom’s house and his dad’s house.
We live in a sin-soaked, sin-splattered world. Each of these conversations gives us opportunities to:
- Empathize. We don’t know exactly what each person is feeling, but we have all experienced some degree of betrayal, shame, guilt, sadness, disappointment, etc. Each of these emotions is tied to brokenness. We can use our experiences to bring comfort to others in their experiences.
- Encourage. We can offer people the hope we have through the gospel of Jesus. The only real fix to brokenness is through repentance and faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for our sins – my sins and the sins of the world.
3. Preach people into the room.
Every week when we welcome people to our church, we like to reference who’s in the room during our welcome.
We acknowledge that we have all kinds of people. We have people who attend every week and people who are there for the first time. We say, “At Family Church, we have people from every neighborhood and every race. We have people who are married, single, divorced, and living together. We have gay people and straight people.”
We say what we say to let people know that all kinds of people are welcome. It gives them permission to invite their friends—and it works. When we first started talking like this, we didn’t have a lot of people who fit in some of those categories. They didn’t come to a church like ours because they didn’t think they were welcome.
All the faithful church people wondered if we were okay with people who chose to live together without being married. They wondered if we had changed our stance on sexuality and family structure.
I had to explain to them that welcoming people isn’t the same as affirming their lifestyle choices. Our theological stance on the biblical view of the family is clear. It’s “one man, one woman for life.”
We changed the perception, we changed our tone, and we changed who feels welcomed. They don’t feel pushed down and pushed out. They feel pulled in and lifted up, so we can point them to Jesus.
4. Bible illiteracy is real.
Never assume people know all the Bible stories and Bible characters you know.
I like to call those of us who have been in church a long time “Seal Team 6” Christians. We grew up doing sword drills with our Bibles. We know all the verses and we like people to know that we know all the verses.
The problem is that most people today don’t know these verses. They don’t know the story of Noah and the ark or Joseph and his technicolor dream coat.
We need to learn to preach to people who know nothing about the Bible. I rarely reference other Bible stories when I preach because I don’t want to leave those people behind. If I do reference them, I explain them.
This may frustrate the Seal Team 6 Christians, but our worship services have to strike a balance. Those who need more can attend our Bible study groups and learn how to be self-feeders. We want to keep those who need it most coming back for more.
We teach the Bible so people will know that God and His promises are true. We want them to realize that God is offering them a better way to live – not an easier way – but a way that allows them to recover and pursue His design.
We believe in strong, clear, expository Bible teaching. More often than not, we’re teaching through books of the Bible. We want to teach people to believe and study the Bible for themselves.
We want to make sure we bring people along without leaving them behind.
JIMMY SCROGGINS (@Jimmy Scroggins) is lead pastor at Family Church in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is a co-author of Turning Everyday Conversations Into Gospel Conversations.