Questions of Faith: Pastor Tim Tatum

As part of Metro Pulse's ongoing discussions with local religious leaders, we present a rural Baptist minister who'd like to reclaim believers who've been hurt before

Name: Tim Tatum

Age: 45

Title: Pastor, Thorn Grove Baptist Church in Strawberry Plains

Thoughts on Faith: "Billboards, magazines—the world is trying to tell everybody who they are. God tells us in his word who we are."

The people whose feelings have been hurt, that's who pastor Tim Tatum is coming after. With a shaved head and still light on his feet in his mid-40s, Tatum is all energy. Already full-time as the pastor at the 140-strong congregation at Thorn Grove Baptist Church in rural Strawberry Plains, he's the brains—and heart—behind a new venture. His smallish church is starting a second entity, the nondenominational Carter Community Church, come Easter 2012, to reach out to those who have given up on the Protestant faith. They've been publicizing the enterprise on Facebook, with 122 likes so far, and a website that's had 1,200 hits to date—proof that Tatum's aim may reach quite a few potential targets.

"In 14 years as a minister, I've seen a lot who have been hurt by churches of various denominations," says Tatum. "They've been hurt by the structure, by differences of opinion, by personalities and various and sundry things. The churches are not meeting their needs; they're preaching at them but not teaching what the word says. They think, ‘If that's what church is like, I don't want to go back.'"

According to statistics Tatum says he "got hold of," there are 8,000-10,000 people in a seven-to-nine-mile radius of the Carter community who don't attend church anywhere, and he's going to try to reach those folks at a weekly service held at Carter High School. Sunday, March 4, they held an informational meeting and had 25 attend. The grand opening on April 8—Easter Sunday—will probably be even better attended.

"We want to plug them back in, help them use their spiritual gifts to help the kingdom of God and also the community where we live," he says. Tatum comes from a working-class preacher's family and grew up as a "Tennessee city boy" right in Old North Knoxville, but his next phrase trips right off his tongue like he says it openly, often, and without embarrassment: "We want them to hear, ‘We love you.'"

One group Tatum hopes to reach out to are the ones who got divorced and had a church let them down because of it. "Some churches take this position that instead of helping people through a divorce, they're going to take the Bible and beat them up with it. They won't let divorced people serve in church. It's almost like a stigma has been put on them."

That, says Tatum, is wrong. "The Bible does say God hates divorce, in Malachi. But if we all were perfect, we'd all be in heaven. Divorce is not God's ideal, but God also knows that we're fallen creatures and we all need help."

The attitude toward those with failed marriages has gotten better in the past decade, says Tatum, but when he was growing up in North Knoxville and attending the independent Baptist churches where his dad preached, it was "almost like a plague. Divorced people are just one example of where people are hurting, and need help, and don't find it at church."

Doubtless when Tatum preaches at the new place, he'll bring the open rapport and easy sense of humor that's held him in good stead at Thorn Grove for more than a decade. This is a guy who on at least one occasion has ended the service with the remark, "You all have been an extra-good audience today. I'm going to give you an extra sin this week."

And his preaching style is all his own, largely because he came at it all backward.

In high school, he wanted to be an electrician and was going to go to trade school but decided instead to work at an electric motor shop. He began preaching the year he got married, 1991, at age 25, at West End Baptist in Knoxville, later becoming associate pastor when West End merged with Belmont Heights. "I just felt like preaching—that's what I should be doing, but no one ever taught me how to preach," he says.

Two years after starting, he decided to study his vocation, and went to Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville, Ky. Along the way, Tatum, who studies the New King James version of the Bible, says, "I've gotten dumber. I tell people, when I first started preaching I thought I knew a whole lot. The more I study, the dumber I get. I thought I had all the answers."

Which isn't to say Tatum doesn't have a few ironclad convictions.

He believes only those who accept Jesus as their savior will go to heaven. "The Bible's clear on that," he says.

And he's just as convinced that salvation and redemption are within reach. "Here's what Jesus says—this is a paraphrase," he says easily, with a laugh. "Sin is anything anybody does that is wrong in word, thought, or deed. Everybody does it. Redemption, here's a good illustration of that. When Jesus died on the cross, he wrote a check. At the resurrection, the check cleared the bank. That's redemption."

He himself was saved at age 12, encouraged by a neighbor who lived across the alley. "He shared the Gospel with me."

It's not a sensation he can describe, being saved, says Tatum. "It's not a feeling. Just an understanding that I had been forgiven. I'm still earning what took place that day."

One of his favorite sermons he's ever delivered touches on another topic he's entranced with: the idea of grace as expressed in John Chapter 4, the parable of the woman at the well. "Of course she was not a very popular lady," says Tatum. "No one wanted to spend any time with her. She would actually go to that well when no one else was around—she got tired of ladies making fun of her because of her ‘lifestyle.' One of the things I did with that passage was talk about Jesus going to that place, even though as a Jew, he wouldn't go that route, because Jews and Samaritans hated each other. But he went to Samaria to talk to the woman at the well. What happened when Jesus went there—well, when grace touches guilt, it changes everything.

"I tried to bring out the fact that lots of us are guilty, and make mistakes, and we don't want to be around people who are making mistakes. But the grace of God touches everything."

Tatum says that's why he's starting the CCC, even though he'll have to hustle from an 8:30 a.m. service there over to the Sunday morning worship over at Thorn Grove, and he's had to drop duties he's had as a Knox County Sheriff's chaplain to fit it all in. Tatum's already been contacted by at least 150 people who say they're coming, and there's that Web and Facebook following.  "I never dreamed I'd be talking to followers over social media, but all the ways to communicate can work for good, or for evil," he says.

He will be nervous to stand before others and share God's word—he says he always is. "That's the biggest thing—I feel responsible. I don't want to get up and say anything stupid." But never mind that.

"I don't mind the expectations, they're doable," he says. "It's just so important to show them, ‘Here's what a Biblical church looks like.'

"I've been put in a great place."