Saturday, January 29, 2011

What is Church Ethos?


Adapted from Members of One Another

A local church’s ethos is the collection of beliefs and values that animate people’s view of church life and ministry. Here is where people’s theology and their values system intersect to form the outlook and attitudes of a group.

Ethos is a broader concept than theology. It includes theology, but has less to do with the group’s formal statement of faith, and more to do with underlying judgment calls involving expectations and application of truth.


In most churches, people generally buy into certain assumptions about what is appropriate and what should be expected from one’s self, from others, from groups, and from meetings. Many of these assumptions include a combination of theological and attitudinal content. Consider different possible answers for the following examples:

  • How much time should people devote to fellowship, discipleship, and evangelism? What should be the balance between time devoted to the things of God and time devoted to career, sports, entertainment, etc.? These questions have no exact answer in scripture, even though we could argue for some general conclusions like those in this book.

  • What does it mean to be adequately equipped for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12)? That’s a judgment call. We will see that churches answer this question in wildly differing ways.

  • What makes for a good Christian meeting? Different believers would answer that so differently that they would find it difficult to tolerate each other’s versions.

  • What is the proper balance between politeness and honesty in the body of Christ? What about confidentiality (or privacy) versus transparency? In other words, should believers talk about others’ lives and problems, or not? How deeply should Christians be involved in each other’s lives? When would a group be considered disengaged? When are they enmeshed, or lacking boundaries?

  • Where do ministry results fit in? How should we interpret poor results? Are good results always necessarily compatible with faithful theology? Will faithful theology necessarily lead to good results?

  • What elements should we see in those we consider leaders?

  • How responsible should individuals in any meeting feel for the quality of that meeting?

  • How responsible should members feel for the spiritual well-being of other members of their church?

  • What goes into a good time of corporate prayer? Anyone who has spent time in different groups knows how differently people answer a question like this.

  • How should Christians show love to one another? What constitutes a loving community? Here is a good example that demonstrates the importance of priority--many people might agree on most items we could assemble in a list of answers to this question. But what are the priorities? Which ways of loving are more important and which are less so? Should real love include discipline?

  • What should church leaders emphasize in their discourse? What should they teach, but not really emphasize as much? The issue of emphasis often accounts for the vast difference we see between different churches.

  • What kind of shortcomings and foibles in people should we largely ignore and forgive? What behaviors or attitudes are so negative something should be said?

  • How much should we depend on celebrity personalities, or complex organizational structures for advancement toward our mission goals? How much should we look to every-member ministry as the key to healthy growth?

  • What is the balance between efforts expended bringing people to Christ versus building them up in the faith?

  • What should be the balance between expending time and effort on things that benefit people in our group versus those outside our group?

You can see that these questions (and many others we could mention) contain theology, and that’s important. A church won’t have good ethos without careful study and teaching of the theology of the church. But these questions also contain subjective values that vary greatly from group to group.

Sometimes we find ourselves unable to even state the reply to such questions in words--the answers are too subjective for that. Yet, people in a given group will often look at a case in point and share a similar opinion: “That group is too soft,” or “those people are disengaged.” “That group is too man-centered,” or “that group expects too much from its members.”


When a group has strong ethos, people in the group will voluntarily adopt an eager, serving attitude. They think it's normal to suffer hardship, and that sacrifice is reasonable. They can't wait to give out, and are actively looking for chances to minister. New people coming into the group begin to pick up on these attitudes without any need for directives or pressure. Good ethos has an almost magical effect on a group as God calls certain models to members' attention and makes them want to follow.

Groups with good, energetic ethos are well-led groups.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm 111 pages into this book and what keeps ringing true is biblical example applied to contemporary western church imperatives. I agree with the your argument that prioritization of pragmatic methods for growth has unfortunately replaced the 1st century model of spiritual ethos laid out by Jesus, the disciples, and Paul. I like the idea of remaining faithful to gospel principles outweighing the results-at-all-costs driven economy that exists in most American's church experience.

Dennis said...

Agreed. Another aspect to consider is the difference between short term and long term results. I think what we're seeing today is leaders focused in showing massive results in a few years, often because they plan to move to another church soon. Long-term strategies like disciple making and equipping the saints don't show the massive numeric growth you can get by putting on a good stage show.

Anonymous said...

Wow. So leaders often want their churches to grow because they plan to move to a new church soon? If you know them well enough to know their motives, hopefully you are helping them see how this is completely illogical.

Dennis said...

I don't necessarily know them personally, but they report their motives in several studies on the subject, such as James Draper's study in Facts & Trends September/October, 4, 5, 6.

ric said...

Hey Dennis our leadership team is looking forward to getting stuck in to MOOA when the book arrives on our Irish shores next week. Even more excited now having read your post!

Dennis said...

I should go ahead and send you guys a couple copies. I think I'll do that.

tom said...

wow, I really wish this was my experience at xenos for more than a decade