Growing up southern is a privilege. If you’re from the South, you understand my sentiment. The food alone is enough to justify permanent residence: fried okra, white rice with butter and sugar, green beans sautéed in bacon grease left over from breakfast. The South has good food and great people. I believe the nation’s kindest, best-humored people are Southerners. They will butter you up as they butter your corn bread.
Perhaps the thing I love most about the South is the church. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when the community had great respect for the local church because the local church served the community well. These are things the southern church does well. We are heartbroken and angry at the loss of virtue we see taking place in our country. We are hardworking people who want the best for our children and grandchildren. We see the Bible and its Judeo-Christian ethics as foundational to a healthy society, and we are not about to simply let it slip away without a fight. This is an admirable thing, but the great threat to such churches is that they fall in love with the work they do for God in place of God Himself. And God has nothing to do with such churches.
In some ways, the Southern church resembles the first body of believers in Laodicea. Jesus chastised that church for resembling its culture more than it resembled Him. In the same way that the Laodiceans found their identity in their community’s wealth, the church in the South tends to find its identity in being “southern.” Rather than resist the sinful tendencies of our culture, we tend to embrace them as part of our Christian personality. In doing so, we essentially operate without Jesus in the same way the Laodiceans did. Indeed, God would just as soon let a church full of hard-working, truth-loving, culture warriors disappear if they loved being that way more than they loved Him. As Jesus said to the church in Ephesus, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5).
Jesus had loving, straightforward messages for both of these churches. He urged the Ephesian church to do three things: remember Him, repent of their sin, and live accordingly. He called upon the Laodiceans to “open the door” and rekindle their relationship with Him. These same actions are called for today in churches across the American South, for we have grown comfortable with being southern more than being like Jesus. How, precisely?
First, we have an inclination to trust our emotions to guide us in making key decisions, often ignoring the truth of Scripture. While feelings are crucial to our faith, they must not be what we place our faith in.
Second, we prefer peacekeeping to peacemaking. We tend to avoid conflict all together or cave to whatever makes certain people happy or causes the least amount of turmoil. Keeping the peace is admirable, but making peace is biblical.
Third, we relish in our accomplishments more than Jesus’ accomplishment. In our quest to love others and help people walk with Jesus, we fall in love with our efforts and become legalistic people. As a result, we judge others more than we love them. We separate ourselves from them rather than live life among them.
Fourth, we have made church about us. We’ve come to believe that God and His church revolve around us instead of us around Him. As a result, we resort to personal gratification and guilt manipulation to coerce one another to participate in the church and its mission.
Finally, we fight harder for our earthly citizenship than our heavenly citizenship. We have fallen in love with the virtues that make our country great, treasuring them more than the gospel that brings them to bear. Love of country is biblical, but not at the expense of allegiance to the Kingdom of God. Early church history shows that the Ephesian and Laodicean churches did, indeed, remember, repent and act, restoring Jesus as their first love. The question before us southern Christians is whether we will follow in their footsteps.
This was an excerpt from Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt by Rob Tims.
Rob Tims has been married to Holly for 17 years. They have four children: Trey, Jonathan, Abby, and Luke. He has served in the local church for 20 years as a children’s pastor, student pastor, and senior pastor. He currently serves on a team at LifeWay Christian Resources that develops customized Bible studies for groups and teaches two classes for Liberty University School of Divinity Online. He is the author of the book Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt.