In recent years there have been numerous revelations of abuses in our most respected churches. Author and theologian Scot McKnight and former Willow Creek Church member Laura Barringer have written the book A Church called Tov to paint a pathway forward for the church during these times. Scot is a Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Illinois, USA and Laura works in education in Chicago. Here they provide a timely reminder for us all about the need to develop and nurture healthy cultures in our churches and faith-based organisations.
The world’s widely-respected founder of modern management theory, Peter Drucker, laid down the claim that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” By which he meant no matter how clever your plan is, no matter how detailed your strategies for working out that plan, and no matter how gifted your workers, if the culture of the workplace is toxic, the strategy will fail. I am no one to consult for management, but I do have something to say about culture.
But before we get to that I want to bring in David Brooks, an expert observer of American culture and politics. Brooks once wrote that we should “never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are. When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the sort of person who works in that company.” (The Second Mountain, p22).
Culture matters as well in a church. Perhaps even more so because churches make the bold claim to be more than cultures. Brooks is right: where we work and where we go to church are cultures that make us into their image. The longer we participate in a workplace or a church the more it will form us. Drucker is right, too: culture is more important than strategy.
"Peter Drucker, laid down the claim that 'culture eats strategy for breakfast.' By which he meant no matter how clever your plan is, no matter how detailed your strategies for working out that plan, and no matter how gifted your workers, if the culture of the workplace is toxic, the strategy will fail."
But behind culture, however, is character. Ancient Greek thinkers like Theophrastus and Aristotle wrote extensively about character and virtue, and though our Bible doesn’t use the term “character” or “virtue” the way these Greeks did, we can see glimpses of much the same idea in two texts, one from Jesus and one from Paul. Jesus taught that a good tree produces good fruit, which is another way of saying a good person, a good character, produces good behaviours. Here are Jesus’ words: “In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:17-18).
The apostle Paul comments on the image of Jesus by saying the “fruit of the Spirit” and then lists nine-character traits (Galatians 5:22-23). For Paul the tree of Jesus is the Spirit of God in us transforming us into good fruit! Both Jesus and Paul are speaking of the importance of character. A person is being transformed into the image of Christ by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18) by gazing upon the Lord Jesus as the Spirit forms us into the image of Christ. One’s transformed person is one’s character.
One of the fruits of the Spirit is “goodness” just as Jesus spoke of a “good tree.” We don’t hear much anymore about being good or about goodness, and it is probably because our Protestant instincts have taken over. We are all taught in catechism or in gospel preaching that there is “none good, no not one” (Rom 3:12). If no one is good, why then talk about good?
Good is a master term for the character God wants formed in us through the Spirit. If Jesus wants us to be “good trees” and if Paul says one of the fruits of the Spirit is “goodness,” then we need to gaze upon the good Lord Jesus often enough for us to be transformed by God’s grace into good characters.
"Culture matters as well in a church. Perhaps even more so because churches make the bold claim to be more than cultures. Brooks is right: where we work and where we go to church are cultures that make us into their image."
Behind strategy is culture. Behind culture is character. Churches are called by God’s Spirit to concentrate their efforts on forming the character of goodness in each person, in each family, in each leadership team, and in each church as a whole. Goodness is not an option because it’s the divine vision. God, the Bible tells us often enough, is good (Ps. 119:68) and everything God does and everything God touches is good. The Bible’s first chapter is all about God doing and then evaluating. God’s evaluation of all God does is “good” and when God’s all done God says “very good!” The Hebrew word is tov, with a long ō (as in she drove the car). Jesus was known for going around doing tov or good, and Peter is the one who tells us that (Acts 10:38). The paired word with tov or good in the Old Testament is “evil” (ra). In the Garden of Eden was a tree called the “knowledge of tov and ra” (Gen 3:5), and over and over in the Bible God’s people are called to resist evil and do what is good (Ps. 37:27). When it is all said and done, what matters most is God looking at us and saying “She’s tov” or “He’s tov.” This is God’s term of approval and it is a master term.
It is a term about character, about persons who are transformed by God’s grace from agents of sin into agents of goodness. Good people, like good trees, produce good cultures and good cultures accomplish the strategies of the culture. But without character, the culture cannot flourish and the strategies fail. Sometimes, so it appears to me, we focus on the wrong thing: we want our strategies of success to flourish but haven’t worked on the deepest factor of all: character.
Pick up your Bible today and watch Jesus in the Gospels, and you will see Tov Incarnate in action. Watch him, listen to him, gaze on him. Over time this gazing will work on your heart as God’s Spirit guides you into a character about whom God will say “Tov!”