Finding Our Notch in the Bible Belt

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

As you can see from this map of Chattanooga, we have no shortage of churches here in East Tennessee. The Yellow Pages list over 500 in the Chattanooga area, and there are nearly 200 surrounding my hometown of Dayton, which is located about 50 miles north of the city.  We don’t exaggerate when we talk about a church on every street corner. Our skylines are peppered with steeples, and signs announcing revivals and church picnics line the winding highways that crawl up and down the mountains.

Living in the Bible Belt has its advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, I’ve never been ridiculed or ostracized on account of my Christian faith, and it’s easy to live a moral lifestyle when most of my friends and neighbors share my value system.  On the downside, Christianity is so infused in the culture here that sometimes it’s difficult to see where one begins and the other ends.  Church often serves as little more than a social club, and the strong evangelical presence means that faith and politics get far too intertwined at times.

So, with hundreds of churches from which to choose, Dan and I are currently searching for one that:

  1. prioritizes care for the poor as essential to the mission of the Church and provides opportunities to serve the community
  2. creates an environment that encourages intellectual honesty and embraces a diversity of perspectives regarding theology
  3. stays out of politics
  4. allows women equal opportunities for leadership

(Dan wanted me to add "meets in an earthship"as number 5. Dan loves earthships. Unfortunately, all the churches in East Tennessee are above ground, so earthship church is not an option...Besides, First Earthship Church of Chattanooga sounds a little too much like a cult, if you ask me.)

Worship style and denominational affiliation are not particularly important, although we’ve limited our search to churches in the Protestant tradition. My general aversion to the doctrine of predestination/ limited atonement has unfortunately ruled out some good Presbyterian churches, and our shared skepticism regarding the prosperity gospel/signs and wonders have kept most Pentecostal churches off the list. I find myself being drawn to Episcopal, Methodist, and non-denominational community churches the most. (These are just our personal preferences, of course. I mean it when I say I respect and value the fellowship of Christ-followers from all traditions. Diversity is generally a good thing within the church...It always gives us something to talk about! )

Often I am told that my expectations are unrealistic, that church isn’t about getting what I want out of it, but rather about putting more of myself into it. I’ve been told that to search for a church that “fits” is to subject the Church to consumerism, to put my own needs above those of others. While I believe this sentiment is true to an extent, I also believe that in order to really contribute to a church, one must be able to embrace its mission and priorities. Staying in a church out of guilt isn’t good for the church or the individual.  I’m slowly beginning to embrace the idea that my desire for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment can be reconciled with my commitment to follow Jesus as faithfully as I can.

So what is your religious climate like? What do you look for in a church? Do you think it is selfish to search for a church that meets your needs? Any fun church-searching stories? (Remind me to tell you sometime about Dan's adventure at Old Time Holiness Church, where the aisles are extra-wide!)

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