A New Stereotype of West Virginia Christians

His face is red and bloated. Spittle is on the corner of his mouth. His eyes rage like the anger in his heart. He rails against sin, homosexuals, minorities--really, aren't they all the same?--and, later, handles a snake.

Who is he? A West Virginia Christian, of course.

Yeah, but there's a problem here. I don't know the guy. Oh, he exists. Somewhere. Too many places, in fact. But the Christians I know are something quite different. They call out of the blue to tell me they love me. Pray for me when I'm sick. Counsel me when I'm down. Worship with me when I'm happy.

Today, a statewide network of bloggers here in West Virginia are joining a conversation started a week ago about how we can redefine the stereotypes surrounding West Virginians. You've no doubt read about us. We're illiterate, bigoted, incestual, barefoot and pregnant. That's the common perception, isn't it? Vice President Dick Cheney thinks so. Get in line, buddy.

All of the West Virginia bloggers working on the ABetterWestVirginia project--timed to coincide with West Virginia Day (that's today, June 20; we broke away from Virginia on this day in 1863)--have their own niche. Some will talk politics. Others, art. For me, it's an opportunity to confront the same stereotypes that hound what you might call an "evangelical Christian."

But, again, those stereotypes--like those of West Virginians in general--are simply wrong. That's not to say Christians haven't made their mistakes. We've emphasized God's justice at the expense of His mercy. We are paying a steep price for that overemphasis of one aspect of God's nature at the expense of another. The Barna Group is an evangelical polling organization that analyzes demographic information about spirituality, religion and Christianity in American cultural life. As research for the book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, Barna found that of 24 million non-Christians aged 16-29, fewer than half view "evangelical" Christians "in a positive light."

Something is desperately wrong here. The story of Jesus is one of love, sacrifice and redemption. Yet somehow we've failed to communicate that message properly, and the result is that emerging generations are either walking away from the faith--or eschewing it from the very beginning.

It's especially true here in West Virginia. Socio-cultural trends are admittedly slow to take root here. A groundswell of modern Christian congregations that are embracing the need for greater dialogue and cultural relevance is taking place across the country, but that conversation is largely silent here. This must change. The Church in West Virginia must adapt and find better ways of communicating Christ's message to a new generation that, as UnChristian says "esteem(s) fair-mindedness and diversity, they are irreverent and blunt. Finding ways to express themselves and their rage is an endless pursuit. Being skeptical of leaders, products and institutions is part of their generational coding...They do not trust things that seem too perfect, accepting that life comes with its share of messiness and off-the-wall experiences and people."

Let me be clear on something here: I'm not advocating a softening of The Gospel, nor any stance that would capitulate on core doctrine. Far from it. I think society is desperate for a people with the courage to live their convictions. As a Christian, I firmly believe that Jesus is the answer to this messy thing we call life. I stand on that conviction. I trust in it. I weep because of its beauty. I am honored to stand in defense of it.

Yet the question remains: if we are to counter culture's opinions--and expectations--of Christians and re-define stereotypes not just in West Virginia but worldwide, we must find a way to communicate the Truth with courage...and just a little bit of humilty.

I welcome all comments. Feel free to comment on-page, or e-mail feedback to CandidChristian@gmail.com.