Sociologists like me tend to focus on institutional arrangements and organizational culture when analyzing particular moments. It’s not that we don’t care about individual action, it’s that often those actions are contingent upon these larger issues. So that what seems like an individual action really needs to be examined in its broader context.
Given my preferred mode of analysis, I was particularly excited to recently read A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Having read Scot’s earlier book on congregation life, A Fellowship of Differents, as part of a Sunday School class I lead, I knew it would be worthwhile.
I was pleased to find the book much more than “worthwhile”. It spoke to serious problems in some local churches and paid attention to the organizational and cultural forces contributing to those forces right off the top. In doing so, it painted a picture of what is required for “institutional repentance”, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In a blog post six years ago, I wrote the following:
Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).
Tov begins by acknowledging wrongs the church would often prefer not to discuss. It opens with the Bill Hybels crisis at Willow Creek Community Church, telling the story of what happened at WCCC and examining the variety of factors that allowed the abuse to go on for so long and to be covered up by a culture than minimized wrongdoing, celebrated celebrity, ostracized critics, and denied the truth (even after it was reported in the mainstream press).
McKnight and Barringer elaborate on the nature of toxic church culture by exploring the issues in Harvest Bible Church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, the story of Jules Woodson and Andy Savage, and others. They write of the myriad ways in which dysfunctional cultures frame narratives, protect insiders, and demonize critics.
The second half of the book refers to the title: Tov means Good. Church cultures should be about the production of good in all segments of church life. Those cultures require empathy, grace, truth, justice, and service. If these last eight chapters of the book were all there was, it would still be a good book about what healthy culture looks like. But it would have likely seemed like just so many platitudes and would certainly fail to be as important of a book.
McKnight and Barringer tell the truth about dysfunctional culture and then work from there to explore how to repair cultures to their intended state. It quickly reminded me of the Restorative Justice class I taught every couple of years. The purpose of restorative justice is to restore things to how they ought to be.
I always started that class with Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu writes that there was danger in simply moving on from the atrocities of apartheid as if nothing happened. There was also danger in Nuremberg style tribunals. The “third way” was to allow people to tell the truth of what happened, for those responsible to admit their role, and to then move toward healing.
This is precisely how Church Called Tov opens. It forces us to see the wrongs that were done, to lament those wrongs, to hear repentance from those responsible, and to make the necessary changes in structures and changes for the Church to be Good.
Since I finished the book, Carl Lentz of Hillsong NY was forced out of his congregation for an affair involving an imagined identity. The stories that followed the initial news have wrestled with celebrity culture, power and control, and even the hip personal of the tattooed pastor in skinny jeans.
The Jerry Fallwell, Jr. story continues to swirl with new and more salacious details. The Southern Baptist Church recently refused to take any meaningful steps in holding accountable those who knew of minister transgressions. The Cardinal McCarrick scandal was apparently known by the Pope but nothing was done.
Telling the truth about dysfunctional institutional structures and organizational cultures is vitally important. It is needed in Higher Education as universities shed trusted faculty members. It is needed in our political circles where power is preeminent and any means necessary thinking is far too common. It is needed in our churches where younger Christians find themselves on the outside for supporting their LGBTQ+ friends. It is needed in city governments and police departments who fail to recognize the myriad ways in which their structures and cultures harm people of color.
If, rather than seeking to defend existing turf, these various institutional structures began by naming those dysfunctional elements of their culture and systems, we’d be in a place where we were more attentive to what is Tov for everybody.