Why I Left The Bible Belt And Moved To NYC (And Why You Should Too)

In the summer of 2006 my husband and I sold everything we owned (excepting our clothes and books) and moved from Huntsville, Alabama to Brooklyn, New York to plant a church. We didn't have much of a plan--looking back we wish we'd had a better one--but we did have heart. A lot of heart...

The story of Justin and I moving to New York is a defining one; it's the story that most explains who God's calling us to be. It's a story about risk, obedience, priorities, light and dark. It's a story about following God to unlikely places...

In December of 2003 my brother died in a car accident. Two years later I found myself talking about his death to a room full of college kids expecting modern world literature but settling for a story. I guess it was Tolstoy who got me going on death and grief. I like to think it was him or Dostoevsky, a holy nudge from one among the cloud of witnesses.

After class that day one of my students stopped at my desk. He pushed his long hair out of his face--what was his name, again?--and asked me a question. I can't remember the exact words he spoke. I was packing my things, shuffling papers, barely registering. But I know he asked me about my brother and I know he told me about his dad, his dad who'd died in a car accident, his dad who he loved like maybe he'd never loved anybody else. I remember looking up at him, standing straight up, and realizing this was a different kind of moment than any I'd ever had in my whole life. As Matt said these words "Why is it that you seem to be doing so well, and I'm not?" I prayed, "God, don't let me mess this up."

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, Matt came to Christ. It wasn't smooth. He almost drove away the first time he visited our old, country church building--it just seemed like everything he'd always avoided. But he was patient. And God was good. And Matt was baptized, washed in the river I played in as a little girl on vacation, visiting Alabama cousins.

Matt was the first person I ever helped bring to Christ. I was twenty four and I'd been a Christian for fifteen years.

In the first few months after he was baptized Matt started a Bible study group with people he worked with. He studied with his best friend. Eventually he moved across the country to attend Bible college. Blue-haired with a studded belt, he was absolutely full of the Spirit of God.

That process--meeting, loving, and introducing Matt to Christ--was the most exciting, satisfying thing I'd ever done.

At some point I remember sitting across the table from Justin, probably over Mexican food, and hearing him say, "If I could just do that all the time, it's all I'd ever want to do." I couldn't agree quick enough.

Meanwhile...

The Bible Belt began to itch.

Justin and I both grew up in coastal Florida. We attended small churches. We'd never heard of Christian pop music.  Our friends at school mostly didn't go to church anywhere. And, as vocal Christians, we were widely considered strange or other. I narrowly avoided being voted "Most Likely To Be A Nun" because it quickly got around that being a nun was "against my religion."

Somehow we heard about a college in Tennessee where everybody was a Christian. And we just about fainted (our "youth groups" combined totaled ten). So we went. And it was wonderful. Not perfect, but good. It felt good to be understood.

After college Justin started preaching at the first church to give him a job, a beautiful, small congregation in the sticks just north of Huntsville, Alabama. We have only good things to say about that church. God blessed us through those people.

Still. We couldn't help noticing a few things about Bible Belt culture, things we'd never before experienced. First we noticed there were a lot of churches. A. Lot. Of churches. One afternoon I found myself printing mailing labels for ladies' day invitations. Surprised we needed four sheets of labels I decided to count the churches, all within thirty minutes of our building. I counted 64. That's 64 separate buildings, 64 sets of elders, 64 preachers, 64 places with "Church of Christ" on the sign.

Every day on my drive to work, I passed seven. Not seven church buildings. Seven "Church of Christ" buildings.

This unsettled us.

Further, we began to notice the divisive ways congregations, even congregations under the Church of Christ heading, talked about each other. Have you heard how much they pay their preacher? Why do they need such a fancy building? I heard so and so left because so and so did this and that. Even the way members of one church would say the name of another betrayed their feelings.

Similarly, churches saw enormous flux in membership when a new church would crop up or an old church hired a new, exciting preacher. Attendance came in waves as people migrated liked neurotic geese.

The worst consequence of all these Christians crammed into the same space seemed to be this: they began to forget who they were. Because we'd grown up in spiritually sparse communities, Justin and I expected to be in the minority. We expected people to disagree with us. We expected people to mistreat us. We remembered that our citizenship was in Heaven, because it for sure wasn't in Clearwater, Florida.

In Huntsville, you could pull up to a light and, odds are, one of the six cars stopped with you would carry a member of the Church of Christ. Four more (that's 5 out of the seven total) carry evangelicals Christians. Those odds are decidedly not stacked against you.

Justin and I became convinced that not only was this intense concentration of Christians in one geographic area bad for the nationwide growth of the kingdom, it also seemed bad for the too-packed Christians.

That's when we decided to get out.

We sat down at our dining room table with a map of the United States, a list of major city populations and a list of the number of Christians in every major American metro area.

We typed numbers into a calculator and decided to move to New York City.

The entire time we lived there, in Brooklyn, we met only one Christian (outside of a church building or personal introduction). The people we met were fascinated by our way of life. They asked all kinds of questions. They wanted to know how it was we were married and still liked each other.

One night at a party, Justin found himself cornered by a woman who had never met an actual Christian. She said, "Really? You're really a Christian? Like you believe the things in the Bible actually happened?"

In that moment, we knew we were exactly where we needed to be.

We stayed in Brooklyn for a year. We'd have stayed a lifetime if we could have. We're just outside Austin, Texas now, and the two cities aren't that different. Both places desperately need more Jesus. On any given Sunday 85% of people in Round Rock (our part of the Austin metro area) don't go to church anywhere.

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Just so you can understand the ungodly concentration of Christians in the American southeast, consider this map from Gallop:

Do you see the dark green? That's where the light is. Do you see the khaki? That's where the light isn't. Because Christians don't live there.

Even this map doesn't tell the story perfectly, because it doesn't account for the significant discrepancies between Christians in urban areas and Christians in rural areas. States like Florida (and Texas barring Dallas) are statistically more Christian because of the significant rural concentration of Christians. The cities are much less densely populated by believers. For some reason, Christians avoid cities while everyone else flocks to them.

Let's be clear, there's nothing sinful about gathering with like-minded people and living in light-blessed communities. But there is something sinful about hoarding the light while others suffer in the dark.

Jesus told us to "Go into all the world." He said, Be salt and light. He said fish for men. He said the harvest is plentiful and the workers few.

What are we doing clumping together in saved places?

You might say, "Well, what about people like your friend Matt? Clearly there are people to be saved in Huntsville, Alabama." And to that I'd say this: Matt almost didn't become a Christian because of the Christians in North Alabama. He was exhausted by the judgmental signs and the obvious division. He didn't know which church to try and when he tried one and hated it he hesitated to try again. Matt didn't need more Christians. He needed better Christians.

As far as I can tell, Christians are better when they spread out a little, when they have a clear sense of mission and a sizable mission field to keep them busy. When they don't spend so much time bumping up against one another.

So, am I saying you should move? Am I saying you should pack up your life and move away from your family and quit your job and buy a house in Detroit or L.A?

Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying.

Of course there are exceptions. A few exceptions. Of course some of you have health problems or six kids and need to be near family. Some of you are doing great, sacrificial kingdom work with significant results right in the middle of Nashville. Some of you make a TON of money in Birmingham and send it all to churches in Africa or India. I get that. I'm not talking to you. We don't all have to move.

But some of us do. A lot of us. Many more of us than are willing.

Friends, I'm not asking you to plant a church. I'm asking you to move out of the Bible Belt and attend a church that's already there. I'm not even asking you to move to a big city or a bad school district (though those are worthy callings). I'm just asking you to, at the very least, move to the safe suburbs of San Francisco or Phoenix or Boise and live like Jesus.

It's not okay for me to meet a person who has never met a Christian at a party in Brooklyn. It's not okay for Christians to be so under-represented in socially liberal states that they're easily made into stereotypes and caricatures. It's not okay for me to spend an entire year church-shopping in Dallas while my friends in Vermont drive into another state to attend the closest church to their house.

Will it be inconvenient to move? Yes. Will the church you find in your new place have all the programs your suburban Kentucky church did? Nope. Will your kids have as many God-loving friends. Probably not. Will there be a Chick-fil-a? Can't guarantee it.

But you'll have a chance to do the most important kingdom work there is, carrying God's light to dark places, partnering with God to rescue people waiting for your help.