May 24, 2019

Christian Unity in Appalachia

appal200.jpgWhere I live, there’s a remarkable amount of visible unity among Christians. I’d like to describe it for you, at least as I’ve seen and experienced it.

I live in one of the poorest regions of the United States. Two counties near to us are in the federal government’s list of the ten poorest counties in America. We are probably one of the two or three poorest congressional districts in the country.

Churches and the people in them are quite poor. A megachurch here is any church with a nice facility and more than 200 members. (We have two of these, by my count.)

Because of that poverty, churches do many things together, share facilities, pool their money for community projects and help one another out without many questions of doctrine.

Most pastors are eager to work with other ministers and churches in community causes. The sense of calling to the local community is strong here.

Pentecostals and charismatics dominate the religious landscape here both numerically and influentially, with Baptists, mainlines and Catholics following in that order. These Pentecostal and charismatic churches often initiate efforts at cooperation. These community efforts include prayer meetings, pastoral prayer ministries, coordination of jail ministries, coordination of responses to community programs, encouraging support of parachurch ministries and concerts and crusades.

Recently, two leading pastors, one charismatic, one Baptist, have led the community in cooperating with a federal drug strategy aimed at making significant headway against drug dealers and corrupt law enforcement. This has included monitoring judges and public officials, funding and staffing a drug treatment center with a Christian approach, and urging churches to become involved in opposing the distribution and use of drugs in the community.

Drug use has become a pervasive problem in eastern Kentucky, and this cause has brought together Christians from almost every church to pray, work, train and become politically involved. The result is a remarkable amount of unity among diverse Christian communities as they work against common enemies- drug use and corruption- with a common strategy at the core : the eventual conversion of dealers and users to Christ.

Our community also has several parachurch ministries with broad support across the denominational spectrum. These include a large and active Christian Youth Center using sports and recreation, several private Christian schools, a large Christian music festival, and this year, a vacation Bible school that brought together the resources of ten different churches.

Because our community has a large public school that is the primary source of community pride and identity, local churches and Christians focus on ministry in the public schools. This means that organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes are generously supported by churches and the school administration. The lack of religious and cultural diversity in our community means that demonstrations of Christian faith are common in the public schools. Teachers have no fear of prosecution if they read the Bible or lead a class in prayer.

Local ministers have also used the “Ten Commandments” cases in a neighboring county to promote a strong, across-the-spectrrum support for public display of the commandments. One day I was giving a test over the Ten Commandments in a high school Bible class, when I noticed, in the middle of the exam, that someone had hung a large, ornate copy of the Ten Commandments on the wall. I had no idea where it came from, but the students were grateful.

Many of the people in the local Christian community share a common appreciation for Gospel music done in the unique style of the mountains. Contemporary praise and worship is present here in the mountains, but if you hear it used in worship, you will notice that in most cases it has been “acculturated” in sound and style to Appalachia. While some churches use music that is recognizable as the same style you would hear in Lexington and Louisville, there is no doubt that Appalachian culture has a strong influence on worship. I would compare this to the way African-American evangelicals share a common worship expression that generally exerts itself over whatever culture presents an option in worship.

In fact, worship style is quite similar in various kinds of churches. Innovation may cause conflict, but more often I would imagine there is a “coming together” around what is already present in mountain culture. Only a few churches here do not feel like “mountain churches” in worship style. This style of worship is expressive and open to spiritual expressions and experience. Even Presbyterians say “amen” here, and Baptists frequently seem little different from Pentecostals.

Funerals, weddings and revivals remain community events that bring people together around a common Christian faith. It is not unusual to drive past a funeral home on a weeknight and see 200 people visiting one another. In urban areas, this kind of community experience is rare unless the person is a member of a larger sub-community like a workplace or a large church.

We have one hospital in our county, and it is openly Christian in its approach. Much Christian fellowship occurs there at times when families are in crisis. A clinic in our community was called “Christian Cardiology.” These are signals of the presence of a strong “Christian” element that exists outside of denominational and traditional lines.

There is a general feeling in our community that most people are Christians, or if they are not, they will be when they face some of life’s realities. Conversions in our community are frequent, and almost always take the path of a person raised inside the faith returning to the faith of their family and church; the faith of grandparents and parents.”

Whatever can be said about this culture and the place of Christianity in it, there is no doubt that the average Christian here experiences a kind of visible and experiential unity with the larger Christian community that is rare elsewhere. This unity is not highly doctrinal, but it is not absent a doctrinal core. The emphasis is highly experiential and often deeply flawed, but from this unity hundreds of Christians worship, pray and work together.

The only closed communion church in the community would be the Roman Catholic Church. Everywhere else I am aware of Christians of every kind accept one another as believers and come to the Lord’s Table together. (I am do not believe most of the Southern Baptists here would request rebaptism of a person immersed in another denomination, but all would require rebaptism of someone not immersed as a believer.)

A generally low education level among laity and clergy means that there is rarely any awareness of issues that more educated and literate Christians take seriously. Issues such as legalism, eternal security, spiritual gifts and healing do come to the forefront from time to time, but these issues do not generally divide Christians from one another, even when, perhaps, they should. Issues like the Federal Vision would be largely incomprehensible here.

Christian radio and television support the experience of unity I am describing, with major television ministries and local stations playing an equal role in affirming a kind ground-level ecumenism. This can be criticized, and should be, but it is a fact.

Is this all good? No, certainly not. But it is far from all bad. If we were measuring Christian unity by how believers treat one another and interact outside the walls of a church and in the causes of the Kingdom that intersect their lives together, then my Appalachian Christian family gets high marks.

Perhaps, in some ways, this unity is the fruit of the difficulties of Appalachian life and the lack of a pervasive consumerism as the dominant value. God matters here. Faith matters. Loving one another matters. Church as a gathered experience is important, but it is not as important as it is in urban and suburban churches. There is little competition between churches. Most people follow family traditions. Few “shop” for the megachurch programs offered in big cities.

The shared faith of Christians working in a hospital or a public school is very important here. Visible demonstrations of unity, be they prayer meetings or community ministries for young people, are prominent. This is unity “on the ground level.”

Sometimes we can learn from those who are, themselves, relatively unlearned. Perhaps the unity I experience here in Appalachia can prompt more serious consideration of what unity would mean in your community.

Comments

  1. I live in a region of Arkansas that is also very poor. But the divisions here are very vivid–almost as though since there is less to get, the more everyone tries to get “it” for their own. It’s not too much education or theological issues that divide them, though. Race is a bigger factor than I ever imagined before I moved here, but still, there is something else even bigger. Our selfish, consumerist nature, maybe?

  2. Those are some good reflections, Michael.

    I grew up in the country and know how that world is. It has its pros and cons but there is something really good at the heart of it. I live in the city (on a campus right next to the interstate;dang!) and I really miss that world.

    But then I return for the holidays and it’s not that great. I want to go back to the city. Either way, the pros and cons are there.

    I guess the best way to look at it is that the gooness we see in the heart of these two different kinds of communities are foretastes of glory divine.

  3. Nice testimony of Church Unity in your area. When I think of the area I live in in N Ireland it has one of the highest densities of churches per km sq yet few of these churches work together. We are all too concerned fighting our own wee corners, getting as many people to ‘our’ church as opposed to into Christ. We could do with economic struggles, maybe that’s where our consumerism/materialism has taken over and inflitrated the Church here – we really don’t care enough about Christ and want our comfortable, middle class, self serving, self indulgent Churches to satisfy us on a Sunday only mentality.

    Thanks for your thoughts, pray that we would have unity ‘on the ground level’

  4. The danger of this article on “Christian Unity in Appalachia” is that it seduces us to dismiss or minimize the importance of doctrine. Although Scripture certainly promotes unity, and we should all be glad to see it in practice to do good, Scripture does not promote unity at the expense of doctrine or truth. We can see the drift away from doctrine and truth in today’s churches as ecumenical efforts, seeker orientation, and social services are more important that the contents of the sermons preached therein. More than the type of Christian unity shown in Appalachia, we need churches which are willing to be beacons of light of truth in a world that is getting darker and darker. We no longer know what the truth is, and we are content if someone calls themselves “Christian” regardless of what that means to them (image). For more, see my web site http://www.reformeddoctrine.org .

  5. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

    Doctrine jolly well does matter, but the point of our doctrine is to get us to this place…to love God and love each other.

  6. Motoyuki (Moto.) Nomura says

    I used to live in Wincheter, Kentucky, for
    three years attending a small college
    called Kentucky Bible College/Southeastern
    Chritian College. She does not exists any more. That is about fifty years ago.

    I have a profound sweet memories of eastern
    Kentucky, and I consider it as my
    Old Kentucky Home.

    I have been a minister of Gospel in Japan
    as well as an independent evangelist
    among the several centuries of old
    strong Buddhist mountainous rural community
    in a central highlands of Japan.

    I appreciate your ministry, and my
    prayer goes to those local small congregations of the Lord in My Old
    Kentucky Home.

    In His grace,

    Moto. Nomura, Japan

  7. Thank you for painting a beautiful word picture of the community in which you live. I love different cultures and the things I can learn from the people that make up those cultures. I really appreciated this post. We have so much to learn from each other in our walk with God and each other.

  8. Beautiful post.

    I’m not a regular commenter but do read here often.

    Your post brought back many wonderful memories Michael of my youth in Knox County KY, family and friends there, many of them gone now, Church ‘meetings’ and the preacher sitting around our supper table on many Sunday afternoons.

    You made me realize how much I miss the simplicity of it all.

  9. Excellent article! To Bill I would say – love unites and doctrine divides. I think that the churches in Appalachia are probably greater beacons of light than those who preach doctrine without applying it because of their unity in love and care for each other and because they understand that the truth is, as Jesus said and UberGooder quotes:

    “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

    I don’t see anything in the article about seeker services or ecumenical efforts – I just see churches whose members are doing their best to live by the commandment quoted above. I’m sure that in reality it’s not perfection by any means – but it certainly looks a lot more like Christianity in action than what goes on where I live.

  10. I come from a mainline/oldline denom (Disciples of Christ) that prides itself, with some reason, for being the vanguard of ecumenical work wherever they’re present.

    But for my 6 years in Appalachia (West Virginia), no one led, did, or supported local church co-operative work like Pentecostals. No one. Mainly AG or lossely affilliated split-offs from a larger AG church charismatic churches and their leaders. It wasn’t AG leadership or ethos as far as i ever saw, but their pastors and deacons were passionate about building up the Body of Christ on a local/regional level, and they’d work with Unitarians if they came to meeting and didn’t mind holding hands during prayers packed tight with the words “Jesus” and “Lord, we just…”

    Now, state councils of churches and legislative lobbying and petitions about federal policies and organic union talks . . . they’d smile and look at you puzzled: “Well, brother, if that’s where the Lord leads you!” But if it was to organize a food pantry, hammer up studs for a Habitat house, break 500 for a CROP Walk, put on Fifth Quarter programs for teens, or paint the assisted workshop warehouse, give me Pentecostals; if we’re gonna pray for the protection and guidance of a community, almost no one else knows how.

  11. Jeff: I agree. If if comes down to love of the community and a passion for the community, many- not all- of the Pentecostal/Charismatic pastors are miles ahead of any other church here. It’s quite unnerving to a theological guy like me.

    One reason is these guys believe quite strongly that they have a “last days” ministry of removing barriers in the body of Christ and showing visible unity to the community. They believe this is an IMPORTANT work of the Holy Spirit, and they organize and pray toward that end.

    Bill: You remind me why I’m not a Calvinist. Keep up the good work, and soon you and the small group that agrees with you on everything will be able to meet around the kitchen table.

  12. Bill: You remind me why I’m not a Calvinist. Keep up the good work, and soon you and the small group that agrees with you on everything will be able to meet around the kitchen table.

    Think he’ll even wind up with that many?

    According to the old Guinness Book of World Records, there are a lot of denominations with only one member. So many the book couldn’t give a record for “World’s Smallest”.

  13. The issue raised by Michael is whether “passion for the community” which I will summarize as “zeal” or “doctrine and truth” is most important. Paul answers that question by referring to the Jews: “For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” Romans 10: 4. “Doctrine and truth”, herein referred to as “knowledge”, is most important.

    The issue raised by both Michael and Ken is whether the right focus is determined by what the largest denominations focus upon. Paul also answers that by also referring to the last days. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,” 2 Timothy 4:3.

  14. Michael,

    I agree with your observations. In bouncing around the country, I’ve noticed that the Catholic parishes that are easier for a newcomer to find a place and acquantices (sp), tend to be less strict in both theology and liturgy. And unfortunately, the reverse is true. And I like both good liturgy and sound theology.

  15. Michael,
    Whereabouts in KY are you located?
    When I was a youth pastor a few years ago, I took our youth group to Knox County near Barbourville with Appalachia Service Project.

    Beautiful country.
    Beautiful people.

    ASP (http://asphome.org/)is a organization that ministers to housing needs of the people of Appalachia. It is a largely United Methodist Organization, but we went (and were very warmly welcomed) as non-denominationalists. We met Baptists and Catholics and other denominations there. We were unified for one cause: to be Christ’s hands and feet to those around us.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It brought back warm memories of our time in KY. (I’m from PA, by the way.)

    Some things that divide should not.

    Thanks, brother.
    Nathanael

  16. Clay County. I’ve heard of ASP. We have hundreds of volunteers stay at the campus where I work. One of the largest ministries in the mountains is Christian Appalachian project, whose leadership is Catholic, but we work with them frequently. It is a rare thing we enjoy here.