Using his experience growing up in the U.S. South and as a former pastor in the region, Rob Tims’ new book, Southern Fried Faith: How the Bible Belt Confuses Christ and Culture, explores the relationship between Christianity and life below the Mason-Dixon line. I wrote this about the book:
One of the biggest challenges for the church today is to see through the clutter of cultural Christianity to the unchanging, biblical gospel that creates a new kind of culture in its place. Southern Fried Faith is written by a pastor who loves the church in the South enough to affirm its beauty where possible and challenge its idolatry where needed. This is a funny, convicting, and hope-filled book.
Rob, currently a strategist for Discipleship in Context, was kind enough to answer some questions about his book, Southern culture in general, and also the culture in most Southern churches.
Trevin: You write: “While I love the South, I love it with eyes wide open.” What are the aspects of Southern culture you appreciate most?
Rob: There are basic things, of course, such as the food, the climate, and the topography (deltas, beaches, mountains … we’ve got it all!).
But my favorite aspect of Southern culture is our hospitality. I love to experience it in a personal fashion (such as sharing a meal with another family in their home) and a professional one (such as a fine dining experience).
Further, I find great joy in being hospitable to others. I credit my truly Southern parents with instilling this value in me, and I hope my wife and I can do the same for my children.
Trevin: One of the issues you faced while serving Southern churches is in the area of conflict resolution. We like to “keep the peace,” as we say, but some conflict isn’t bad, as long as we know how to handle it in a way that is pleasing to God. What are some conflicts you’ve faced as a pastor in the South?
Rob: I’ve created many conflicts out of ignorance or inexperience, like the time I inadvertently outed Santa Claus from the pulpit by way of an impromptu sermon illustration. Other conflicts came about more intentionally, as we sought to work through any number of crises large and small. Examples would include working through financial crises, personnel issues, and the like.
Ironically, some of the larger conflicts came about because of a passive-aggressive or non-confrontational approach to smaller conflicts. There were many elephants in rooms that started out as something much smaller and could have been dealt with much more easily but were not for various reasons.
The most significant conflict I had in my pastorate was between myself and a handful of other church members. These few were certain I had an alternative theological and methodological agenda with which they were uncomfortable.
Rather than speak openly and personally about their questions and concerns with church leaders, some chose alternate routes, eventually even going to the local NBC News station to express their frustration at choices church leaders had made. Many in the church suffered as a result. Some left the church; some stayed. But our hindered ability to proclaim the gospel through all that was a sad thing to experience.
The end result was a congregation distracted from its mission and disappointed with itself and its leaders. It was quite the humbling experience, and if I can help others avoid it (members or pastors), I want to, which is a big reason why I wrote the book.
Trevin: You write about being involved in church activities, but often with the wrong motivations. What are some problematic motivations that can drive church participation in the South? How can we combat these?
Rob: First, I believe consumerism is rampant in the American church, and it’s been my experience that church leaders tend to give in to consumerism when it comes to motivating their volunteers. By starting with the premise, “You should serve in this ministry because of what it will do for you,” we subtly but unquestionably make ministry about those who serve.
God certainly has good things in store for us when we serve, but that means that God is for us, not about us. So, difficult though it may be, I would encourage Christians to set aside how personally gratifying an experience might be when deciding whether or not to serve.
Second, I believe guilt is equally rampant as a motivational tool. Statements such as “You’d better get your priorities straight and come to rehearsal” or “There will be blood on your hands if you don’t participate in outreach on Tuesday nights” are church experiences many can relate to, and the end result of such poor leadership is a bitter, despondent congregation. Further, it clouds the character of God by making Him appear weak and needy.
Motivational science is a fascinating field that I’ve only waded into briefly, but this I know from the Scriptures: the gospel inspires a passion for ministry. So, any remedy to these kinds of poor motivational techniques should be gospel-centered. Some may find this idealistic, but it’s an ideal I find in the Bible and one that I’ve seen take root in the local church, so it’s realistic as well.
Trevin: You say that feelings tend to drive decisions in the South. Wouldn’t this be true of American society as a whole? If so, what are the distinctive traits you see in Southern decision-making?
Rob: Of the five things I discuss in Southern Fried Faith, none of them are exclusively Southern, but I believe they are particularly Southern. You rightly point out that emotional decision-making is weakly developed as a particularly Southern theme in the book. Ironically, that chapter is a vulnerable one in which I open up about my period of clinical depression and the havoc that played on my life.
My goal in that chapter is to bring Scripture to bear on our emotional decision-making, and Scripture both validates the role emotions play in our decision-making while simultaneously discouraging decisions that lack wisdom or knowledge. I see a tendency in the South to make choices based on what feels right, even to the exclusion of what God has actually revealed in Scripture. If David, the man after God’s own heart, did it, so do we, Southern or not. It truly is a human condition, but one that is not lost on us down South.
Trevin: Looking back over your years of pastoring in the South, what is one thing you would do differently if you had the chance?
Rob: Let me first say that it is my hope the Lord would lead me to be a senior pastor again in the South. I have multiple regrets, things that, in hindsight, I would have handled or done differently.
A chief priority would be to pray for and with the congregation in a strategic way. For example, rather than teaching on Wednesday nights, I might share that responsibility with others, but lead and join the congregation in an intentional time of prayer. I might also elevate the place of prayer in corporate worship, as it has a tendency to serve as a segue to singing or preaching and to become lost in the service.
Trevin: What is one thing you don’t regret at all?
I do not regret preaching the gospel by means of exposing congregations to the whole counsel of God. All the Bible is always good all of the time. The way I see it, wherever I go – be it a worship service, wedding, funeral, hospital visit, or graduation party – as a pastor, I’m the one in the room that better drop as much as Bible as I possibly can. Sometimes that means being a source of great joy for a suffering saint, or a thorn in the side of one who is very comfortable in their theology and life.
Either way, I do not regret preaching the gospel by means of teaching the whole counsel of God. “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).