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New Horizons

Mountain Religion (Part 1)

John W. Belden

[Note: John Belden lives in Neon, Kentucky, where he is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC). The town of Neon is nestled in the mountains of Appalachia. The city once served the needs of several surrounding coal camps. But when the mines began to close, the town and the whole surrounding region were plunged into poverty and welfare. John first came to Neon in the mid-1990s to help build low-income housing. He received his divinity degree from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has been serving as pastor to CRPC since 2001. This mission work has purchased a vacant building in downtown Neon and is reconstructing it for worship and other ministry.]

I first came to Neon in 1993 as a carpenter to work with a local housing ministry. Over the years, I shared the gospel with many people in the mountains of Appalachia. I generally encountered respect for the Bible as God's word. There even seemed to be a genuine interest in its truth. Yet no one appeared to embrace the message.

I would begin my presentation by explaining that they are sinners. They would agree. "Yes, no one is perfect. We all sin." I would tell them what God did to save sinners by sending his Son to suffer the punishment. They would agree. "Oh yes, Jesus died for sinners." When told that their sins would be forgiven when they trusted in Christ, they would agree. "Yes, God'll forgive you." But they were not interested in putting their faith in him.

When asked why, they would say, "Now I'm not a bad person or anything. I believe in God. And I used to go to church, you know. And I love God. I know I'm not where I need to be, but I still pray." After explaining that they had to be bad people in order to be saved (Mark 2:17), I would gently remind them that they had not answered my question. "What keeps you from believing in Jesus right now?" "I do believe in Jesus." "I mean trusting in him alone for salvation, becoming one of his children, being declared righteous."

Their response? "I'm just not ready." "Not ready to be forgiven? Adopted? Accepted? Loved? Saved?" I couldn't understand it.

In Detroit, where I am from, most people would just say that they don't believe the Bible. Yet here were people who professed to believe the Bible and claimed to want to be saved. But they wouldn't take it! And they seemed so humble and God-fearing. It was like someone who raved about chocolate ice cream refusing to eat it when served to them.

Why? "I'm just not ready." "Do you mean you are not hungry?" "Oh no, I'm hungry." "Are you sure you like it?" "Oh yes, I like it—in fact, I love it." "Do you want it?" "Yes." "Why won't you eat it?" "I'm just not ready right now."

Gradually it dawned on me that we weren't talking about the same thing. I was talking about becoming a Christian, and they were talking about living like a Christian. I was talking about justification, and they were talking about sanctification. Even words like sin, salvation, and forgiveness had different meanings to them. I was discovering mountain religion.

As I came to understand mountain religion better, I realized that these people were tired. Their typical experience started with "getting saved" and ended in backsliding, where they would remain until the next crisis. Then they would start all over. Each time they hoped it would last. They had been through this cycle so many times that they began to see Christianity as a religion for strong people. By the time I came to talk to them, they were in a state of burnout. I would try to hold out hope for them in God's Word, but the good news that came from my lips was filtered through their past experiences. It sounded like bad news.

Mountain religion can be illustrated this way. Picture a man standing at the bottom of a mountain. At the peak is eternal life. The problem is getting up the mountain to reach eternal life. He hopes to get to the peak by a series of steps. The first step is to "get saved." This usually means walking up the aisle at church in response to an altar call. Getting saved does not bring eternal life. It is simply the first step in the process. It's a jump start. Quite often the preacher simply pleads with people to come up and get saved, without telling them what it means. Little effort is made to show the sinner why he needs Jesus and what Jesus has done to save him. Getting saved is the event that begins his journey up the mountain.

Now his efforts turn to staying saved, which means continuing to climb. So he frequents the place where he got saved. Here is where the fire was first lit, so it is seen as the ideal place to keep it going. Typically he will be in church whenever the doors are open.

Later he reflects on this time as the best years of his life, when he was "really walking with the Lord." It was probably the only time that he ever had any sense of assurance that he was right with God.

Fellowship, baptism, Bible reading, gospel music, and prayer all help him keep his forward momentum. For the mountain person, these steps are seen as taking him higher and thus closer to eternal life. Many even decide to become preachers. After all, if anyone will be saved, it will be preachers, right? Presumably, if one dies while climbing (assuming he has reached some unknowable point), his chances of getting into heaven are good. No one ever really knows for sure that he will make it, but he "hopes so."

During this climb, many backslide, meaning that they fall to the bottom of the mountain. Now they are no longer "saved." They've lost everything. The backslider will give various reasons for this fall. The most common refrain is "Things just got hard." The ultimate cause is attributed to the devil knocking them down.

People can "walk with the Lord" for five or ten years, only to backslide. They were "really good Christians." They were in the church all the time. They helped the pastor. They worked on the building. They took the youth on trips. But now, nothing. They still believe in God and pray. They may even start "preaching" to me right then.

But repent and believe? They won't budge! They're waiting. Something must happen to convince them that they will be able to make it up the mountain this time. And they're tired. They're just not ready to start again.

Tragically, they begin to believe that they are not responsible for their condition. They have never come to terms with the gravity of their sin against God. Their recent failure reinforces this. In their minds, they simply ran out of steam. Now you can't fault a guy for running out of steam. They gave it a shot, but just couldn't do it. Some people can, but they can't, at least not now. They are not to blame.

God's not at fault either. He's cheering them on. He's done all he can. If he could do anything more, he would. His hands are tied. He's a spectator on the sidelines. It's up to them. And they are weak and tired. Surely God understands. Surely he's not angry. It's really no one's fault, except the devil's.

Years pass. Some crisis finally moves them to go and "get saved" again. They may even get baptized again to help it stick. Each time they start over, they climb a shorter distance. The old habits creep back in more quickly. Discouragement sets in sooner. The devil really comes against them. After three or four cycles, they are burned out.

Somewhere along the way, a third category is created. They no longer see themselves as Christians; this would imply they are climbing. But neither are they unbelievers. They believe! They would be climbing, if they could. They're not bad people, but they're not where they need to be. They're in the middle, waiting.

The notion that they could be rebels against God is the furthest thing from their mind. They profess to love God. God knows they would be climbing right now if they could. But there is no point in starting if you don't have enough steam to finish.

[Part 2 will appear next month.]

Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2006.

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