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A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture

By May 3, 2024May 29th, 2024No Comments

by Scott McKnight and Laura Barringer

Laura Barringer and her husband were in shock as they read the news report The Chicago Tribune: their long-time pastor, Mark Hybels, whom they greatly respected, had been accused of sexual misconduct. Their first reaction was disbelief, but then they read the names of the women who were alleging it. Because these were women they also respected, they were thrown into a profound state of cognitive dissonance as previously held beliefs about the character of the accused and his accusers collided. They couldn’t both be true.

Laura called her father, Scott McKnight, a professor of New Testament,  to get his perspective. He said he thought the allegations were likely true. “How do you know?” she asked.  His answer was both that it was highly unlikely that all the witnesses were making up a story and that the pattern of the church’s response of denial and planting seeds of doubt about the accusers was a highly predictable one, seen frequently when scandals arise regarding a church leader.

Have you ever been in this situation, when a pastor whose sermons you’ve appreciated and whose leadership you’ve respected, has been credibly accused of misconduct?  If so, or if you’d like to be proactive and be part of a church culture that cultivates the kind of tov that makes this unlikely, this book is for you.

What is tov? It’s the Hebrew word for goodness. “And God saw all that he had made and it was very tov.” Gen  “You are Tov and do Tov.” Ps 119: 68   “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is Tov!” Ps. 34:8

Their experience at their church motivated them to do something constructive: to paint a vision —both theological and practical— of kind of church culture that is resistant to abuse of power, and instead is a place of tov.

Their vision of a “Circle of Tov” is a church with a culture that intentionally nurtures empathy, grace, putting people first, truth, justice, service, and Christlikeness.

Overview and some key quotes:

Part 1  helps the reader begin to discern the elements of their own church’s culture and to detect elements of toxicity in its culture.

“Two early warning signs of a toxic church culture are narcissism and power through fear.”

“The selfish drive for importance compels the narcissistic pastor to surround themselves with admirers…[and] gravitate toward enablers.”

“Those approved by the pastor gain “status enhancement” as they are admitted into the inner circle. ” This is one of the 8 stages of power through fear.

“When something goes wrong in a church…the pastor and other leaders often seek to control the narrative to protect the reputation of the pastor, the church, or the church’s ministries.”  They may do this through strategies such as discrediting the critics, portraying the wrongdoer as the victim,  suppressing the truth with NDAs, or offering fake apologies.

Part 2 paints a vision of a church with a culture of Tov. A church with a culture of Tov will nurture:


Building on the proclamation Jesus made at the start of his ministry that he was sent to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed (Luke 4: 18-19),  McKnight and Barringer note that the ministry of Jesus was primarily to people on the margins. “He sees them because he has the eyes of God.” “Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels, to exit our own feelings and enter the experience of others.” “Compassion is the outworking of empathy.”  “A goodness culture… will touch all corners of the church.” That is to say that it will have the eyes of God toward those the world (and the church) often views as not worthy of being taken into account.


“Grace-filled goodness begins in forgiveness, forms into freedom, and resists fear—all because it knows that God’s design for the church is love.” “The gift of grace…makes us all siblings of each other.” (No one is deemed more important or superior to another.) “Creating a grace-based family of siblings requires trust, the invisible glue that binds people together. Power and fear can undermine trust, but grace creates it.”

A people-first culture

“Seeing church primarily as an institution creates a culture in which empathy, compassion, and grace can be pushed aside ….. The church may not do this intentionally, but as any organization grows, there is a tendency toward “institution creep” in which the needs of the organization…begin to supersede the needs of the people in the organization.” “A people-first culture instinctively treats people as image bearers and as siblings.”


  “Christianity makes the astonishing claim that truth is not merely an ideal or a set of ideas or a philosophy; instead, truth is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.” “Telling the truth, then, is who we are as Christians. When we don’t tell the truth, we deny our identity and our calling. “

“God’s judgment is against those who “suppress the truth” and create false narratives. False narratives are not just “spin” or even “brand protection,” though they may be that, too. They are darkness.” “What motivates false narratives is a zealous ambition to protect a brand, defend a reputation or preserve  the glory of an ambitious leader, a zealous church, and its board of leaders.”

“[The prophets] were called to the platform of public proclamation. When leaders in the church suppress the truth, it is profoundly biblical to go public. Anything less than bringing the truth to light is profoundly unbiblical.”


 “A justice culture knows what justice is; namely, doing what is right at the right time. The ‘right thing’ will always conform to the character and life of Jesus and his mission to establish God’s kingdom on earth.”

“Those who would form a goodness culture of justice will do the right thing regardless of the fallout. Sometimes this means admitting fault and confessing sin, and sometimes it means coming under attack and taking hits.”

“In most cases, loyalty is a virtue, but not when it obstructs justice and prevents people from doing what is right before God.” “Sadly, in many churches today, Christians are asked to choose between loyalty [to the leader or a brand] and justice.”


A culture of service contrasts with a culture centered around a “celebrity pastor.”

In a celebrity pastor culture, “[t]he size of the church does not matter. What matters is the size of the pastor’s ego.” “The celebrity pastor finds a way to make it all about garnering praise for himself—his vision, his ministry, his success, his glory.….the only narratives that are told are those that prop up the pastor’s vision and success; and loyalty is the supreme virtue.”

Congregants play a role: “Behind every celebrity pastor is an adoring congregation… Many people want their pastor to be a hero or a celebrity at some level.” “The congregation.. begin[s] to think of themselves as a celebrity church–… “better than most…”

A culture of service:

“A servant culture forms when the pastor, other leaders, and the congregation take on the culture of servanthood….” “Those who might otherwise be seen as high-status people in the church—pastors, ministry leaders, prominent parishioners—should turn service into a spiritual discipline .”

“A life in service to others is not heroic. Rather, it is ordinary people helping ordinary people who happen to be in their path as they travel through life.” “Jesus served everyone on his path…his spontaneity in service annoyed his disciples, but it was on mission for Jesus.”


A culture focused on Christlikeness is in contrast to one based on the “achievement and accomplishment” measures of business culture.

“In a society focused on achievement and accomplishment, the challenge we face in the church is to avoid being…shaped in that image.”

McKnight shares his observations made as the church began to transition to calling pastors “leaders” as the business world defined leadership:

  • “Pastors became leaders, entrepreneurs, or visionaries—and wealthy ones…in some cases.”
  • “The church now needed a vision statement and a mission statement, both terms that came out of “best practices” in the business world. This led to churches “branding” themselves….”
  • “The bottom line (another business term) was that the church now needed a bottom line, typically measured by butts in the pews, ‘giving units,’ or dollars contributed.”
  • “It turns pastors into leaders whose primary aim is the success of the organization—based in some way on achievable metrics…”

A culture of Christoformity

“Church as a people, not as an organization, business, or enterprise, is the means by which other people are enfolded into God’s family.”

“A pastor is someone called to nurture Christoformity in himself or herself and in others.”

“Preaching is only one dimension of a comprehensive task.” “A ‘come hear me preach’ culture is not tov.” [When it becomes so, congregants can] “become consumers and evaluators” [viewing their purpose on Sundays as] “Listen to the Speaker.”

“The gospel ….says success is not measured by numbers. It says pastors and churches have an entirely different agenda—namely, helping others grow in Christlikeness. That is a lifelong process and pursuit… based on love, not on business management or leadership principles.”

 A Church Called Tov  This link to the book on Amazon is provided for your convenience. It is not an affiliate link.