For many Mississippians, some of our most cherished recollections come from church – weddings, baptisms, Christmas pageants or just laying one’s head in grandmother’s lap.
Religion has been a central part of life in the South ever since evangelists brought Christianity on horseback via the trails that pioneers had so recently cut through the wilderness.
Knowing that life could be hard and short, early settlers in the region took their religion seriously. In almost every budding community they contributed money, materials and manpower to the building of church edifices.
They habitually preached, prayed and praised – sometimes in marathon sessions of all-day worship and even weeklong “campground meetings.”
Church discipline was a serious issue, too. Try to imagine most of us moderns, with our emphasis on individual freedom and privacy, submitting to a congregational chastening for such offenses as neglecting family prayers and scripture study.
Yet that is exactly what some of our forebears did.
Fervor can still be found in some of the region’s churches, but by growing into the fabric of our lives, religion often becomes lukewarm – something we do comfortably rather than pursue urgently.
When our regional culture is so closely associated with Christianity, it is altogether too easy for us to think of the faith primarily as an American phenomenon, a Southern phenomenon, a rural Mississippi phenomenon – again, a comfortable part of who we are.
Christianity, however, has been most powerful in changing individuals, families and societies where its followers have had most to struggle, where its message has most upset the status quo, where its values have been in most conflict with those of the society.
Even now it is so. In many parts of the world where Christianity is restricted by law or even opposed with violence, churches are growing despite – in some ways, doubtless, because of – their persecution.
We look at much of Europe and its empty church buildings to see the future of Christianity in America if the faith is viewed as a cultural, consumerish commodity rather than a power.
Jesus told his disciples, “If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life” (John 12:25).
Even if we don’t face beatings and jail for our beliefs, if our faith doesn’t require some real sacrifice of some of life’s pleasures and securities, it may be in need of serious evaluation.
Christianity is to be a comfort – but not comfortable.
NEMS Daily Journal