I’ve been thinking a lot about the all-too-frequent stories of failure and abuse in the church. Having written about the ripples caused by the fall of ‘celebrity pastors’ I wanted to think more about this theme, so I picked up a copy of Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s recent book, A Church Called Tov.
This is an important and timely book. It’s a tragedy it needed to be written. But it did. And it needs to be read.
The authors were part of Willow Creek church for a number of years, and have drawn insights from their own experience and observations, coupled with research related to the Bill Hybels scandal, and other similar situations. They explore many of the common elements that lead to abuse and toxic leadership within the church, but then – crucially – they chart a way forward and cast a vision for a church characterised by goodness.
This is a not a book designed to create scepticism about the church, or stir up division, but rather to call the church to be what it is meant to be: a safe and beautiful place of healing. A family.
The authors write,
‘This is a book about defending the redemptive value of the church while at the same time accepting the truth that broken and fallen people within the church – including pastors and other leaders – will sin, sometimes in shameful and damaging ways… Above all, this is a book of hope – about a better way, a way we’re calling the Circle of Tov (from the Hebrew word for good), and what it takes to form a culture of goodness in our churches that will resist abuses of power, promote healing, and eradicate the toxic fallout that infects so many Christian organisations’A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p7-8
The book falls into two parts. The first half looks at the importance of culture; how it is formed, and how it forms us. There are many brilliant insights in this section. For instance, about the way that unhealthy cultures are almost never created solely by a single toxic leader, but in partnership with a congregation who enable and facilitate it.
‘The leaders guide the organisation toward a particular culture. But they’re not the only ones who have a say in the matter. The congregation, too, is involved in shaping the culture of the church. So, though it is true that the leaders lead and thus have a decisive and sometimes overriding voice in the formation of culture, it’s more accurate to say that leaders and congregations form the church’s culture together… Over time it is the interaction of the leaders and congregation, the congregation and leaders, that forms the culture of a church. In that sense, everyone in the church is “complicit” in whatever culture is formed, good or bad.’A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p14-15
Take for example, the strange phenomenon of the ‘celebrity pastor’. Such a thing could not come about if there weren’t a culture supporting it. A culture in which both the pastor and the congregation are involved.
‘Celebrities don’t form on their own. Behind every celebrity pastor is an adoring congregation that both loves and supports the celebrity atmosphere. The development of a celebrity culture also doesn’t happen overnight. It begins when a pastor has a driving ambition for fame, but it can’t take root unless the congregation supports that ambition. Unfortunately, many people want their pastor to be a spiritual hero or a celebrity at some level. They not only want it, but they also expect it and find themselves believing it about their pastor. Some pastors devour this attention and take it to the next level.’A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p184
In the chapters that follow, the authors unpack some of the early warning signs of a toxic culture (narcissism and power through fear) and then look at how toxic cultures respond to criticism and create false narratives to protect themselves, discredit their critics, and maintain the ‘brand.’ These are uncomfortable chapters to read, partly because some of the examples are so sickening, but partly because so many were recognisable!
One of the most helpful sections of chapter 3 addresses the common (ab)use of key scriptures about church discipline, lawsuits, and accusations against elders (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 6; 1 Timothy 5). The authors show how these Scriptures are often held up as the correct ‘biblical’ approach, but in reality put the victim in an inappropriate situation, protect the leader, and undermine the quest for repentance, restoration and healing.
If these chapters on culture feel heavy, it is an appropriate heaviness. It’s tempting when reading material like this to think about how it applies to others. And it’s easy to read it through the lens of high-profile stories. But these chapters should really lead all of us – whether pastors or congregants – to examine our own hearts, ministries, and church cultures, to ask whether we are contributing to a culture that is toxic or tov. So I found these chapters challenging.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is good news about the power of culture. McKnight and Barringer write:
‘The bad news and the good news about culture can be summed up in the same statement: A rooted culture is almost irresistible. If the reinforcing culture is toxic, it becomes systematically corrupted and corrupts the people within it. Like racism, sexism, political ideologies, and success-at-all-costs business, a corrupted culture drags everyone down with it. On the other hand, if the reinforcing culture is redemptive and healing and good (tov), it becomes systematically good. A tov church culture will instinctively heal, redeem, and restore.’A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p17
With this in mind, the second half of the book casts a vision for a healthy culture, built around what the authors call The Circle of Tov.
The Hebrew word tov means ‘goodness’ and appears more than 700 times in the OT. You could say that the Bible is the book of tov. In fact,
‘The word gospel could be translated as “the message of tov.” … The gospel is about God’s tov coming to us in Jesus, who is tov, and thus making us into agents of tov.’A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p94
A tov church will proactively:
- Nurture empathy, and resist a narcissist’s culture (ch6)
- Nurture grace, and resist a fear culture (ch7)
- Put people first, and resist institution creep (ch8)
- Tell the truth, resist false narratives, know Yom Kippur, and form a truth-telling culture (ch9)
- Nurture justice, and resist the loyalty culture (ch10)
- Nurture service, and resist the celebrity culture (ch11)
- Nurture Christlikeness, and resist the leader culture (ch12)
The last of these essentially summarises the whole circle. A tov church will be a Christlike church.
‘The pastor’s calling and the church’s calling are to nurture people into Christoformity – to nurture people into tov. God is good, Christ is good, and to be like Christ is to be tov. We have come full circle now. The entire Circle of Tov is swallowed up and comprehensively expressed by Christlikeness.’A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p127
These chapters are insightful and practical. Some highlights, for me at least, include:
- Guidance for how to pray a healthy liturgy of repentance (ch9)
- How to build a genuine serving culture that runs right through the church, whilst avoiding the pitfall of ‘self serving’ – serving in order to be seen and celebrated (ch11)
- How pastors can guard against the celebrity mindset (ch11)
- How to resist the pull towards a ‘leader culture’ defined more by the business world than the Bible (ch12)
If I had any frustration about the book, it was simply this: it was frustrating how obvious the Circle of Tov is! That the church and her pastors need to be reminded of these practices of empathy, grace, service, Christlikeness, and so on, is shocking. And yet, we do.
In short, I’d highly recommend this book to pastors and church members alike. It’s an uncomfortable but important read, and I hope it can play a part in calling the church back to its purpose, to embody and work for tov.