A Book Called Meh
I don’t often recommend books I haven’t yet read, but I recently did with Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture (Tyndale, 2020). Partly this was because I thought the topic to be timely. I’m sick of hearing about prominent “celebrity” pastors failing and their ministries’ toxic celebrity culture brushing off victims and voices in opposition. McKnight and Barringer (McKnight’s daughter) had both attended Willow Creek in the past with front-row seats to their handling of Bill Hybels’ fail.
I also recommended the book sight unseen because I very much like and trust Scot McKnight. I thought the idea of developing church culture around the concept of tov (Hebrew for “good”) sounded brilliant and I looked forward to what this world-class biblical scholar had to say.
So I was super disappointed when I read the book. So much so that I felt the need to follow up with those to whom I’d recommended the book, and have even been inspired to blow off the dust from this blog and post about it. (Has it really been since 2016?)
The book falls into two parts. Part 1 (Forming and Deforming a Church’s Culture) introduces the toxic celebrity culture that has recently emerged (famously) in American ministries that have enabled the scandals (and poor handlings of them) at ministries like Willow Creek, Harvest Bible Chapel, and others. The book gives a rudimentary introduction to what culture is, and the narcissistic and fear-based leadership that typically hallmarks toxic celebrity cultures. It concludes with language for common “false narratives” often used in these contexts to shut down victims’ voices.
In Part 2 (The Circle of Tov), the authors express how to create a culture of goodness (tov) in chapters that discuss each: nurturing empathy, grace, people-first, truth, justice, service, and Christlikeness.
As far as it goes, there’s nothing the book says wrong. There are some nuggets there to help churches identify narcissistic leadership and giving victims categories to recognize techniques that that shut-down their voices. And nobody would object to the suggested characteristics of a tov church culture.
I thought Barringer’s description of her second graders’ fascination with Greek and Roman mythology was a great way to introduce the topic of narcissism (p. 26), and scrutinizing Jesus’ instructions on handling conflict is an important reminder of the limitations of biblical texts:
“It’s one thing to set this procedure in motion when someone has said something ugly about another person or has wrongly taken credit for something. But when a woman or child who has been sexually abused is required to meet one-on-one with the perpetrator, it becomes morally inexcusable and psychologically violent to insist upon legalistically following Matthew 18. Such an approach becomes a cynical dodge and is almost always designed to protect the leader or the church” (p. 49).
Another practical nugget includes the essential practices of a people-first culture:
“What can we do to regain a people-first culture in our churches? We’d suggest five essential practices: (1) treat people as people, (2) enfold others into the community, (3) recognize all people as made in the image of God, (4) treat people as siblings, and (5) develop Jesus-like eyes for people” (125-26).
I also liked the juxtaposition between the narcissistic and servant pastors, where the authors note that both “have all the same standard equipment. They both preach and teach and form committees and share the vision and administer missions and motivate and encourage and all the things we’ve come to expect from our pastors.” But whereas the narcissist makes it all about him- (or her-; but usually him-)self, in a servant culture “People are first, grace matters, empathy is a first response, truth is told, and doing what is right shapes the mission of the church” (p. 176).
So, there are some good takeaways here, and the book scores points for talking about abuses of power and enabling victims to speak and identifying a growing problem of narcissistic leadership and celebrity church culture, especially in the US.
So what’s my problem, then?
My problem is that the book is simply insubstantial. Basic. A white bread response to feed a multi-grain problem. Besides calling out the very public failures of celebrity ministries like Willow Creek, the book is impractical, ivory-towered idealism with little correspondence to the everyday experiences of everyday leaders.
There isn’t one leader to whom I recommended this book who will find anything in the discussion of tov culture they wouldn’t already have thought about for their churches and ministries. Of course they’ll value empathy, grace, people-first, truth, justice, service, and Christlikeness – Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek board would all have nodded enthusiastic ascent to each of these, too!
I found myself especially chaffing at the final section of the book on tov as Christlikeness. Not, of course, because I believe the church is not to be facilitating peoples’ formation into Christlikeness – of course I do! But because the chapter revealed an agenda I’ve seen increasingly since Hybels’ fall that connects the demise of the church to the church’s embrace of corporate leadership principles.
Until I assumed a role where I became responsible for leading an organization and managing the lives and conflicts and needs and idiosyncrasies of the many people serving in it, I admit I also used to criticize importing business leadership models into the church. Then I suddenly found myself on the other side of the leadership table and undefined concepts like “empathy” and “people first” needed to be more concretely articulated into processes and procedures I could implement in real life.
I maintain that Willow Creek’s failure was not that it traded “good” biblical beliefs for “bad” corporate practices; it’s that they didn’t practise the practices they preached. In recent years, GLS presenters at Willow Creek have emphasized repeatedly corporate leadership values of trust and vulnerability and approachability and accountability. These are hallmarks of regular GLS favourite, Pat Lencioni, of Joseph Grenny (author of Influencer – one of the leadership terms this book disparages), of Adam Grant, of Brené Brown, of Sheila Heen…Willow Creek itself facilitated all sorts of advice that, had they heeded it, would have identified and corrected its own toxic celebrity culture.
Equating the problems of celebrity culture with the “leadership craze” of the 1980s and 90s is unhelpful, and it’s a false binary to imply pastors embracing good leadership principles will fail to focus on spiritual formation, leading to toxic culture (p. 208). I serve with mostly small and rural churches that have not remotely bought into this craze and they are not inherently the better for it! What about small-church dynamics, where the narcissist isn’t necessarily the pastor but The (singular) big-tither, or the legacy family who perennially occupy power positions on the board, or whose congregations are toxic and chew up and spit out their pastors? On the contrary, both large “celebrity” churches like Willow Creek and everyday small and rural churches could all benefit from basic human-resource and “leadership” practices, consistently applied.
One reason the “leadership craze” took off as it did in the 80s and 90s is because governance and volunteer and personnel management in churches is historically so poor and the subjects have been historically ignored by the colleges and seminaries preparing church leaders! Hybels was a critic of the seminary for this reason, but so is James Emery White, pastor and former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who admits “how little my seminary education had actually prepared me for the day-in, day-out responsibilities of leading a church” (What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary [Baker, 2011], p. 14). This is a major reason the institution I serve at has embraced a competency-based approach.
In all of this, the book is a practical disappointment. It doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but it just could have been so much more.
McKnight is a world-class biblical scholar, and maybe that’s the problem. Maybe he hasn’t been in the leadership trenches enough to know what to say to real-life leadership problems. Or maybe he didn’t think these concepts beyond, as he shared in one interview, sketching them on a napkin with his daughter. (Incidentally, Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam is another great corporate book!) The book is an ideal, eminently impractical.
Indeed, with one hand the book removes from pastors and Christian leaders the practical, procedural advice found in corporate leadership literature, and with the other dismisses the practical, procedural advice given by Jesus in Matthew 18. Of course we need Scot to explain the hermeneutics of how “legalistically” following Jesus’ prescription there is nonsense for sexual assault victims. (Just this morning, I actually recommended Scot’s book on hermeneutics, The Blue Parakeet – which I have read!) But tell us, then, how practising Jesus’ prescription does work in a healthy community? And instead of glibly remarking that we don’t know who the pastors were at Corinth or Ephesus or Galatia because they weren’t celebrities (pp. 188-89), reflect on the implications that much New Testament scholarship suggests there probably wasn’t a specialized office of “pastor” at these churches but an empowerment of various people! In a book making theological prescriptions of tov, talk to us also about the human condition of ra (evil) that affects leaders and congregants, big and small churches alike. And while resisting a leadership term like “organization” for the church, how about one like “corporation” (Lat. corp- “body” [I can play with the language, too! 😊]), the concept of the “body” as an organizing principle for an assembly of people used by both Paul and his philosophical contemporaries (those extra-biblical “leadership” gurus of his day). Go beyond simplistic aphorisms (“Christlikeness”…of course Christlikeness!) to give real-life leaders some concrete ideas on what it actually looks like to be a tov community practising life together. Bonhoeffer this book is not.
In my opinion this book is … OK. It’s a quick read, so you won’t waste a lot of time with it. And it definitely has some good nuggets and takeaways. And I wouldn’t not recommend it, especially to someone who’s maybe presently in one of those toxic cultures. But the book is an impractical, ivory-tower ideal, definitely not a book written by someone in the real-life leadership trenches. I guess that’s my disappointment and maybe a lesson in recommending a book sight unseen. My expectations were too high. But it could have been so much more!