Matt Smethurst|10:51 AM CT

The Greatest Challenge Facing Churches in the South

Next week, hundreds of current and aspiring church leaders will assemble in Birmingham, Alabama, for an exciting new event. Sponsored by Acts 29 in partnership with Beeson Divinity School and The Gospel Coalition, Engage the South is a one-day gathering that advocates for the kind of churches we need in today's American South.

Matt Chandler, David Platt, Ray Ortlund, Kevin Smith, and Bryan Loritts will lead us in a series of sessions designed to teach, inspire, and train. There's still time for you to register.

We asked Loritts, who will deliver a message titled "Churches That Plant Churches," about the greatest challenge facing churches in the American South today.


You'll understand if I'm initially hesitant to answer questions laced with superlatives like "greatest." I'm no expert. However, I've grown up in the South and had the joy of serving as lead pastor of Fellowship Memphis since its inception 10 years ago. So I have a few ideas on the challenges facing the church in the South.

Not all Southern cities have been created equally. There are actually two types of Southern cities: (1) Old South, where most of the people who live in the city are natives (Memphis is still an Old South city, but that's slowly changing in part to FedEx being a hub here); and (2) New South, where most of the people are immigrants. Cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte come to mind when talking about New South cities.

One of the major differences between Old and New South cities is that one has a higher concentration of "older brother" religious people while the other is increasingly growing in their "younger brother" secular population (though still for the most part considered to be the Bible Belt). If you pastor in the South—especially an Old South city like Memphis—you have to be able to preach the gospel to the older brother of Luke 15. You're not in New York where you must contextualize the gospel primarily to the skeptic. You're in the South where churches are still welcomed in public schools and praying before games isn't a big deal in many contexts. Thanks to flannel boards, Awana programs, and sword-drill competitions, knowledgeable heads high in Bible IQ fill our seats, inches removed from cold and (in many cases) unregenerate hearts. If you don't know how to preach to the older brother, you won't be effective below the Mason-Dixon.

I know you asked me for "the greatest challenge," but as a preacher I have the right to add just one more point. I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to reverse the trajectory of the church backward to her first-century, multi-ethnic roots. I continue to remain indebted to Dr. King and to all who marched and endured persecution so that I can sit anywhere I'd like on the bus. But the civil-rights movement was limited in that while it changed laws, it could never change hearts. The legacy of racism that has become so entrenched in our country over the past centuries, particularly in the South, wasn't eradicated with the stroke of a pen when the Civil Rights Act was signed. In place of long marches and monumental speeches we need sanctuaries and dinner tables filled with the sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers embracing and doing life with the descendants of slaves.

The Trayvon Martin case reminded me of this need. What if George Zimmerman and Martin had attended the same multi-ethnic church, having sat around dinner tables and done life with one another? Martin would still be alive, because instead of seeing a suspicious young black man, Zimmerman would've had a relational context to guide his actions that evening.

Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.

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