Getting out of the bible belt

If you were born in another part of the world — not in North America, for example — do you think you’d still be a Christian?

If I wasn’t born in south Louisiana, a Bible Belt breeding ground, would I still be a Christian? While studying abroad in Spain, I’m determined to answer this inarguably complicated question.

In the past 43 days I’ve journeyed through numerous countries, moved into a new apartment in a new city, and started classes at a new university, in another language. All the while, I’ve brazenly instigated conversation about a topic that our culture often places under the “do not discuss” section: religion.

But before embarking on this question-filled journey, let’s look at a few definitions, facts, and stats related to this topic of religion.

Fact: I am studying abroad in Madrid, the bustling capital of Spain.

Definitions: a “Christian,” according to Operation World, is one who “embraces all traditions and confessions of Christianity.” This definition is general and reveals no level of commitment. An “Evangelical” (a term often debated) is one who maintains the following principles: salvation through Christ alone, personal faith, conversion and change of heart as a result of the Holy Spirit, recognition of the Bible as the most revered foundation for faith and Christian living, and a commitment to bringing others to Christ through evangelizing and witnessing to others. Think James 1:22. I’ve calibrated my compass to the latter definition.

Stats: Canada contains 24 million “Christians” (72% of the population), 2 million of who claim to be Evangelical (7.7% of the population). The United States contains 246 million Christians (77% of the population), 91 million of whom claim to be Evangelical (28.9%). Lastly, Spain contains 35 million Christians (77% of the population), 461,000 of who are Evangelical (1.0 % of the population). The contrasting statistics between North America and Spain are eyeopening.

Back at my host university, I gobbled down café con leche and a croissant (my Spanish diet) as Dutch, Italian, Spanish and English voices beat a new rhythm in my eardrums. The roaring chatter and laughter sent a caffeine-like rush through my blood, giving me the courage to ask these random European students to write one word that comes to mind when they hear the words “God, church, Christianity and religion.”

Thirty minutes and thirty responses later, and the glass on my compass has cracked.

I scanned the list of responses and became confused, even frustrated. What came to mind for these European students seemed to reveal a lack of knowledge of Christ: faith, art, fanatics, war, brainwash, annoying, selfless, ‘someone who is very very active in their church,’ ‘the Pope, missionaries’ etc. When I combined these responses with another common response — “I’m Spanish, so I’m Catholic — things started looking a little more like home.

I could hear the reverberating echo of my former self, saying “My parents are Christians, so I’m a Christian.” As a product of the Bible Belt South, I spent years identifying myself as a Christian even though I didn’t even know Christ. I thought of churchgoers as occasional “do-gooders,” or old ladies, pastors and peers who were annoying, condemning guilt-trippers. I considered the more zealous Christians to be crazy weirdoes wrapped up in their own theology, blinded by religion, refusing to accept any other denominations. I saw crucifixes throughout my home and school, and I repeated the daily prayers that came over the class intercom. However, none of it impacted me to the point of conversion. It was old, meaningless static in the background of my life. So it seemed with my European peers — the jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring cathedrals and the history of religious conflict is all religion has come to stand for.  I was starting to understand where my international classmates were coming from.

But while I could relate to my student peers, were our experiences really similar?

Dan, a 20-something-year-old Austrian student, whom I met at an international church last month, doesn’t seem to think so: “In the Bible Belt, you grow up surrounded by a Christian worldview. In Europe, you grow up surrounded by an atheistic, naturalistic worldview.”

I had another conversation that helped me understand just a little bit more. One particular Sunday (after spending hours trying to locate a church to attend) I walked into a Spanish Evangelical Baptist Church. On that particular day they had a Guatemalan guest preacher from Texas. After church, I explained my question to Pastor Jorge, and he pointed me onward, toward a better understanding of the culture I was in. “Spain is a mission field right now. If we are to invest somewhere in the world to win a lot of people for Christ, it’s Spain,” he said. He explained Barcelona recently replaced California as the most diversely populated place in the world. He said more than 200 nations are currently represented there. As a result, intertwining influences are further blurring Spanish culture. Solid glimpses of Christian faith are hard to find within the country.

So… to try and answer the big question from the start: “Would I be a Christian if I was born in Spain?”, I think maybe yes. But… also definitely maybe no. I don’t know! But I’m comforted with the knowledge that Jesus is not hindered by a particular culture or spiritual climate. He is the same always and everywhere. His commandments and Words don’t change just because my geographic location does. He can bring his salvation to the ends of the earth.

You will seek me and you will find me when you search for me with all your heart.” I hold tight to this one.

I searched for those churches. I looked up Facebook pages, web sites, Google maps. I watched old sermons for the churches that had them available. I was desperate to find a community of believers. My desperation drove me to an encounter. Many blessed encounters. In the same way, I believe that if a person is truly seeking Jesus, they will find Him.

So, I’m going to say I believe that if I was born in Spain, I would find Jesus. I believe my soul, our souls, are programmed to desperately crave the love and affection only God can bring — the kind this world doesn’t offer. I don’t have to live in the Bible Belt South to experience this love. And neither do my European friends.

In a foreign country, the seeking might be a little harder. Resolve might have to be a bit stronger, the will more unshakeable in a city that, according to pastor Jorge, has gone two, going on three generations without the gospel. But, God is faithful to reveal himself to the seeking heart.

Photo by (Flickr CC): Thomas Hawk