Church culture matters. As we live in our culture and also into our culture, our culture begins to live in and into us. A good culture will shape us toward goodness; a toxic culture will shape us toward evil. Yes, we can resist and change the culture of a church, but resisting, at times, is like trying to slow down a hurricane.
–Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, A Church Called Tov: Forming A Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing
I’ve stood directly in the path of not one, but two Cat 5 spiritual hurricanes in my life, and the fury of the storms has nearly destroyed me. I’ve been in a number of other storms that have done significant damage to the lives of everyone in their path, and alongside too many others who’ve experienced collateral damage from the flying debris.
Dr. Scot McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer stood in a hurricane as the abuse of power and sexual sins of alpha leader Bill Hybels, the founder of influential megachurch Willow Creek Community Church, were brought to light in early 2018. McKnight had attended the church for many years and maintained many relationships there after he’d moved on to another congregation. Barringer was involved in the church for more than 20 years. Scot’s series of posts about the issues at his popular Jesus Creed blog offered important analysis as the story first unfolded. One key discussion point in not only the Willow story, but the story of neighboring megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel (and too many other unhealthy smaller congregations that don’t merit a headline) is the way in which noxious church cultures form and persist around unhealthy leaders.
A Church Called Tov addresses the way in which church cultures of all kinds form members, warning signs of toxic church culture including narcissism and power through fear. Scot and Laura also name the ways toxic church cultures respond to healthy criticism. Their overview summarizes the core factors of toxic communities, but is not designed to be a full exploration of power dynamics, abuse, or cover-up. (There are a number of other books and blogs that have delved into these subjects in greater detail, many of which are referenced in Tov’s endnotes.)
The book’s emphasis isn’t on sketching out the rotten, but instead focuses on what it takes to create a goodness culture in a church – tov, in the book’s title, is the Hebrew word for good. Scot and Laura contend that good churches are not perfect churches, but they are committed to cultivating empathy, grace, people above institution, truth, justice, service, and Christlikeness in and into their unique culture.
…creating a grace-based family of siblings requires trust, the invisible glue that binds people together. Power and fear can undermine trust, but grace creates it. Without trust, there can be no genuine siblingship. To trust someone is to believe in that person in ways that make the world safe. Sadly, in fear-based power cultures, trust breaks down and makes life as siblings nearly impossible. When a collection of siblings called a church has untrusting relationships, the family breaks down into cliques and tribes and interest groups.
I was brought to tears more than once as I read their descriptions of tov culture, in part because my old scars still ache when I read words like these, and in part because I have tasted tov in enough other faith communities to know what Scot and Laura describe is not ivory-tower theory, but submission to the kingdom of God at work shaping and refining church culture.
When I was a student at Northern Seminary, I was privileged to take a New Testament course with Scot in 2014. He invited us to read and comment on the manuscript for his then-forthcoming book on the church, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. Published in 2016, the book’s thesis was that “The church is God’s world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family.” I really enjoyed the book, but found myself wishing for a bit more in one key area. I wrote about that area in my response paper at that time:
The book ends with a note about suffering. “The Christian who endures becomes a more mature Christian because of the endurance. Suffering, in other words, becomes a means to flourish.” I appreciated this conversation and affirm that suffering is spiritually formative. However, I wished for further clarification on this in your text. I have suffered at the hands of other Christians. My need to be a part of a family, for instance, left me vulnerable to the machinations of a spiritually abusive pastor when I was in my twenties. It took me years (and work with a counselor) to recover from the trauma. Because I am a woman with a teaching/writing gift, I have been shamed, gossiped about and marginalized by a few male leaders over the years who used their theology as a club to verbally shove me into a dark, silent corner. Should you decide to revamp this section (of your manuscript), I would welcome an expanded discussion about how to navigate the suffering we in the church may experience with one another. What does fellowship look like when there’s been a split over doctrine? Or an elder has stolen money, or a youth pastor has been sexually abusing middle school boys?
What I was looking for then was the material found now in A Church Called Tov.
The book is filled with empathy for those who’ve resisted toxic culture, as well as practical guidance for all of us – leader and member alike – who are involved in creating culture in the local church. The book is both diagnostic tool and love letter, and deserves to be discussed honestly and prayed through with unflinching humility by every kind of congregation: aging denominational churches, megachurches, and church plants.