A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing

by Mary Stahl | February 04, 2021
Cover of A Church Called Tov

A Church Called Tov, co-written by Scot McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer, addresses the importance of creating and sustaining a good (Hebrew tov) church culture. The book is written in two parts: the first four chapters (1) discuss the nature and significance of church culture and (2) diagnose characteristics of a toxic church culture. The remainder of the book describes and elaborates on seven aspects of a tov/good church culture.

The remaining eight chapters focus on how to recognize and nurture a good/tov church culture. The authors begin with a discussion of the breadth of meanings found in the concept of tov, ultimately showing that Jesus is the embodiment of tov/goodness. The rest of the chapters use these meanings to cast a vision of what a healthy, Jesus-like church can look like, outlining how congregations can cultivate empathy, grace, valuing people above institution, truth-telling, justice, service, and Christlikeness in their church cultures.

The authors’ premise is that toxicity in a church is not about one person, one leader, or one event. When toxicity is exposed, it is integral to the church culture as a whole and must be addressed as such. The book focuses primarily on three “case study” examples. The first is Willow Creek Community Church and Bill Hybels. Barringer attended Willow Creek in 2018 when Hybels’ sexual sin was exposed; McKnight had previously attended and still had many relationships with members of the church. (At some points, the book feels a little like an exposé on the Willow Creek situation, and while certainly not vindictive in nature, it is a clear calling out of Hybels and the church leadership surrounding him.) The other two primary examples are Harvest Bible Chapel (James MacDonald) and Sovereign Grace Ministries. The book also contains several lesser-known examples, but each is equally relevant.

In the same way that toxicity is not one-dimensional, goodness in a church culture is not about one person, leader, or event. It is also part of the culture as a whole and can be fostered and nurtured in a healthy, Christlike community. Most of the book is focused on how to cultivate this Jesus-like community.

While not specifically addressing gender equality, the book holds value for readers who have experienced harmful actions and attitudes toward women in their church cultures. Most of the examples of toxicity revolve around the abuse and marginalization of women in the church, and one chapter (Tov Churches Nurture Empathy) specifically focuses on the treatment of women—acknowledging, “How the church treats women is often a barometer of its culture and how it will treat people in general” (104).

McKnight explicitly states that the discussion around the theology of women’s “roles” in the church is beyond the scope of the book:

Because most churches have a male-centric culture—whether it’s because of narcissistic male leadership or simply due to a particular reading of the New Testament—women are often invisible contributors: useful but not central, necessary but not necessarily valued. Yes, there is a long history of biblical discussion and theological debate about the “proper role” of women in the church—what they can and can’t do—but that is well beyond the scope of this present work. What we were addressing here is how people are treated in the church, and we're advocating for a culture of empathy and compassion. Women don’t always experience much of either.

A church called tov will empower women (and others) in their giftedness and encourage these gifts to flourish within the body of Christ and in the world (106).

A Church Called Tov would be a beneficial read for any church member. For those who feel they are in a safe, healthy church community, it highlights any subtle messages that may be “warning signs” of negative aspects which may not be evident on the surface. It also gives a good summary of topics to study which can be introduced to a church if not already part of its culture. On the other hand, for those who feel they might be in a toxic church environment, the book outlines characteristics that will help put “words to feelings” for the messages that are being projected. The seven characteristics of a good/healthy church also can be used as a barometer for how any church is faring with actively pursuing goodness in its culture.

In summary, in A Church Called Tov, McKnight and Barringer diagnose the ideas that create and foster the toxicity that has become so pervasive in our modern American church culture. It is an open acknowledgment of the real abuse that happens in the context of the church, and the difficulties for those who resist and expose that toxic culture. Following their diagnosis, the rest of the book gives the reader practical, biblical wisdom to equip church members and leaders to create a church culture that exemplifies the goodness—the tov—of Jesus.


A Church Called Tov is available through CBE Bookstore here.

Book info