Scot McKnight: A Church Culture of Goodness

My wife, Kris, and I attended Willow Creek for 10 years. My daughter, Laura, attended for something like 20. She met her husband there, and they were very proud of their church. So when the story broke in the Chicago Tribune in 2018 about Bill Hybels’ abuse and the church’s cover-up, I said to Kris, “This is going to be the downfall of Willow Creek. This is true about Bill Hybels.” For me, as a theologian who teaches at seminaries, it felt as if a pastor were betraying those of us who have used Willow Creek as an example of all the good things it was doing. For my daughter, there was a sense of personal betrayal. And this was the common experience of many people at Willow, and at any church where similar abuse and denial has occurred.

Abuse by a pastor can happen in any church, but churches that have no accountability above the pastor are most vulnerable. I think the independent, autonomous church model provides the perfect habitat for the narcissistic pastor. The same is true for megachurches. I’m not against megachurches as a rule. I know too many good pastors of megachurches. But there is a greater temptation for megachurches and Christian mega-organizations to attract mega egos. With power, you have the potential to corrupt character. You have to have an accountability team that knocks people off their perches on a regular basis.

Congregations should have a respect for and trust in their pastors. That, however, is not automatic. It’s earned. The trust that members of Willow Creek had for Bill Hybels came from a persona rather than the truth. Many people in the church perceived what happened there as a betrayal of honesty. It was hypocrisy.

Some Christians leave the church over leaders who abuse. Non-Christians who are looking for a reason not to believe or who are looking for the kind of witness and testimony that is totally credible and compelling may have a harder time believing and trusting. Church abuse causes Americans across the map to become cynical of the truthfulness and the transparency of all pastors. I’ve had numerous pastors say to me, None of us is trusted now. That hurts evangelism.

We need to be honest and even candid about the gross sinfulness of some of these leaders when we’re witnessing to our non-Christian friends. Diminishing these sins makes us complicit. Honesty and candor are first. God is dealing with broken people in this world to redeem them, so being perfect is not a requirement. But pastors are held to a more rigorous standard of Christian behavior, and should be.

What churches need is goodness. Goodness goes a long way with people who are wondering about the truth of Christianity. But we never talk about being good, because of Romans 3:10: “There is none righteous, no not one.” People are afraid of saying they’re good, but a fruit of the Spirit is goodness. The Old Testament is filled with this Hebrew word for good, tov.

How do you move from a toxic culture to a tov, or good, culture? Organizational transformation people say it takes seven years to change the culture of an organization. And change starts when people form pockets of tov: small groups that are committed to empathy and grace, to knowing people and telling the truth, to nurturing service and justice and Christlikeness. These people see things and say, That’s not right. Then these pockets have to begin to grow or multiply in churches, and before long, they begin to grow together, and the broader church culture starts to move toward tov. Then it becomes an instinct to resist narcissism, to say, You’re using your power through fear, and that’s not right. We don’t do that kind of thing around here. We put people first. We don’t want any celebrities. The only hero in our church is Jesus.

With tov, we can focus on redemption. I’m concerned about teaching future pastors and current pastors that they need to work hard at nurturing a culture of tov in their churches. If they are tov, they will tell the truth and be humbled before it. They will serve others and do the right thing. They won’t pursue narcissistic power and fear and celebrity and hero cultures.

It takes a special character to have a huge, flourishing, successful church or organization and to do so with Christian grace and character. Every person who claims the name of Christ and who is a leader of a church or organization has an obligation to operate in as Christian a manner as is possible. This impacts the testimony of the church.

The term we use for pastors matters, too. When you call yourself a leader, you see yourself in front of people. They’re following you. When you call yourself a pastor, your responsibility is to nurture the spirituality of people. There is a big difference between those two. Yes, pastors lead people. But not all leaders are pastors. And the fundamental category for those who are called to churches is pastor.

We have to have multiplication of pastors who are actually pastoring people. The bigger the church, the more pastors. That’s expensive, so we’ve learned to centralize. But in centralizing we lose pastoral relation with people. And maybe one of the biggest problems in the church today is that very thing right there: a lack of pastoring pastors.

I want churches to ask, How tov is my church? I would love for people to focus on being a tov church instead of a “successful” one. Tov is the ultimate success.

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Jessica Hanewinckel
Jessica Hanewinckel

Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.