Cultivating a Church Culture of Goodness

We were avidly discussing the state of the church and lamenting our experiences of the church in our usual hangout in a chachaanteng (Hong Kong-style café) one summer. Around the table with us were other female seminarians, and while gender parity was visible at our seminary, we all had stories of encounters of leadership from our time in ministry that were not borne out of cultures of goodness.[1]

Two years after that summer, we had the chance to do something different: we planted a (virtual) church in the pandemic.

By “planted,” we mean we were pointed to a potential (and metaphorical) patch of ground and began the work of both sowing seeds and pulling weeds, of evaluating which was healthy growth and which other bits of the garden needed encouragement. This work is heart-work; we had little desire to replicate what we came from, which means this was really about paying attention to the Gardener—the Holy Spirit—as he goes about this sacred work of perfecting and invites our participation. Due to our previous formation in power-through-fear cultures where leadership is top-down and personality-driven, orbiting around an (often charismatic) individual or a privileged few who keep(s) others in line using fear,[2] our understanding of what church structure and leadership “should” look like has been difficult to change.

None of us want such a culture. While our church has enthusiastically embraced women in leadership and has begun to adopt other life-giving practices, our actions have indicated a belief that if we replicated our previous systems where we became the privileged few, then all would be right. This is partly because many of us have never experienced a healthy church culture or even one that hasn’t been tainted by the power-through-fear culture. But this switch is only a superficial modification: the power-through-fear culture remains, as do all the toxic ramifications for both those in power and those without. The solution to toxic culture is not more of the same toxicity—structures that prop the wrong things up as their gods will continue to do so and cannot be confronted with their like. Formation must instead be turned another way.

Two concepts have been helpful for our church in pursuing this other way. The first is through the lens of what theologian Scot McKnight calls the “Jesus Creed” (love God, love others). McKnight and Laura Barringer list seven elements of a circular goodness culture in A Church Called Tov: (1) empathy and compassion, (2) grace and graciousness, (3) treating people as God’s image-bearers, (4) truth-telling (confession, lament, and repentance), (5) justice, (6) servanthood, and (7) Christlikeness, which undergirds the other six.[3] McKnight and Barringer suggest that ultimately this culture of goodness will produce “Spirit-soaked, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-directed life,” where love, being the first fruit of the Spirit, will thus encourage the formation of people who are “open to the Spirit” and “love God and others.”[4] These individuals—indeed, this community—will be filled with goodness.

The second concept has been the reality of the social Trinity, that is, the perichoretic and collegial nature of the Trinity, without “privileges and subordinances.”[5] The Spirit imparts that sense of perichoretic and collegial intimacy in our community as part of his perfecting work, empowering our collective vocation as image-bearers to more fully be as the imago Dei was intended. Further, our calling as the church is “to be the agent of God’s purposes and the community of people among whom the Triune One dwells.”[6]

Much of this new culture has to be “caught” rather than “taught”—as the saying goes, the distance from head to heart is the longest… and the most difficult.[7] The journey of untangling has been slow. As such, we have begun our journey in prayer. It is the Spirit who guides us, not “the leadership.” As pastor Aaron Gerard puts it: we’ve made Jesus our pastor. Giving up control is a constant struggle, but the invitation to wait for Christ “in the dark” calls us to greater dependence upon the Spirit and towards a culture of communal discernment.[8]

Explicitly, we have disciplines guiding our praxis. We make space for communal discernment by mutually submitting to one another, stewarding our power by giving any sense of ownership of power to Jesus. This mutual submission is an act of weakness. Theologian Marva Dawn suggests that weakness subverts the powers; for when we give up the powers to their rightful place, the power of Christ can “tabernacle upon us” (2 Cor 11:30; 12:7–10).[9] We thus try to make our decisions from a posture of humility and through a process of active listening—both to the community and to the Spirit who dwells among us. This happens in regular dialogue and weekly rhythms of prayer. Our leadership is polycentric: we serve one another and our communities interdependently out of our God-given gifts. In choosing mutual submission and weakness—where the power of Christ (dynamically exemplified in kenosis [Phil 2:1–11]) solely defines us—we begin to be identified by steadfast lovingkindness, loyalty, faithfulness, and the sacrificial covenantal love of God, which establishes our witness and determines our participation in the mission of God.

Together, we also endeavour to centre weakness by paying attention to and listening to the margins. We listen to our elders and our youngest. Our hospitality is not contingent on sameness but springs from the love of Christ, who welcomes all to his table. The wounded are welcome to come as they are, and together we learn what it means to be image-bearers and to see ourselves rightly as the Divine Gaze sees us (Mk 1:11). We intentionally centre non-dominant cultural expressions of faith, understanding that we get a fuller experience of God’s kingdom by doing so (our current expression of this is hearing scripture in multiple languages in our Sunday gathering). We openly lament and confess our complicity in systems of oppression and injustice, and we’re learning together how we might subvert and call these systems back to their created intent.

In pursuit of this goodness culture, the perichoretic dance of the Triune God invites us also to whimsical, courageous creativity and prophetic imagination. The Creator reminds us that part of being image-bearers is to participate in co-creation for his redemptive purposes. The story of God invites us to risk for the sake of the good news. Together, we are inspired by the Spirit to pursue holiness and justice in a world that longs for healing. These happen in the ordinary: right relationship in our networks and neighbourhoods, for instance. Our artists, too, are beginning to explore how to create in response to God’s faithfulness to our community. We model to one another a culture of transparency and appropriate vulnerability, where neither the individual face nor the face of the institutions is saved, and where sin is not concealed. Instead, we actively extend honour to those who have been shamed and expose our darkness to the light.

We’re an imperfect and messy church, and we don’t always get it right. But by the grace of God, together, we repeat these good things by word and deed, so that we can love God, one another, and our communities better. Ultimately, we hope that our goodness culture might invite others to experience God’s love, too.

 

by Xenia Chan and Dawn Chow, with Tabitha Mui and Zoe Chan | Selah Community Church

 


[1] Cf. Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2020).[2] McKnight and Barringer, A Church Called Tov, 34–39. McKnight and Barringer list eight phases of a power-through fear culture: (1) power and authority vested in an individual, and others become sycophantic who enhance the individual’s power, (2) the power individual’s approval becomes the gold standard, (3) those approved by the power individual gain ‘status enhancement’, (4) power is also used to keep people in line via disapproval and ‘status degradation’, (5) power-shaping culture transitions into a fear-shaped culture, (6) judgement and decisions are rendered behind a wall of secrecy, (7) behind the wall of secrecy is a perpetual fear of status degradation, (8) banishment is the ultimate form of the power individual’s disapproval.

[3] McKnight and Barringer, A Church Called Tov, 96–97. See image, “The Circle of Tov: Nurturing Habits of Goodness.”

[4] McKnight and Barringer, A Church Called Tov, 88.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (New York City, NY: Harper and Row, 1981), 157.

[6] Marva Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 35.

[7] Donald Coggan in Alister McGrath, “Loving God with Heart and Mind,” Knowing and Doing (2002), 1.

[8] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 23. Coakley notes that darkness must be differentiated from mere absence or deferral. Darkness as the condition of revelatory presence is the space where it is no longer the human that grasps, but that humans have the sense of being grasped, as the Spirit erases human idolatry and reconstitutes the human selfhood in God.

[9] Dawn, Powers, 41.