Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ethos Part 2: Altering a Church's Ethos

Ethos is powerful. You've probably seen it yourself. One group is demoralized and distracted. They don't seem to know for sure why they show up. Another group is crackling with energy; people can't wait to serve. In one group, people are puzzled when someone doesn't want to go all out for God. People in another group are just as puzzled by full commitment. During the next series of posts, we will examine how leaders assess and lead change in group ethos.

A group’s ethos can be altered. You see this all the time when formerly powerful and lively churches turn drab and decline. You see the opposite as well. But just as rocks roll downhill rather than up, a church’s ethos tends to slide downward unless it is carefully nurtured and even re-inserted at times.

Maintaining good ethos isn’t easy--both during “in season” and “out of season” times. Leaders and members have to watch sensitively for shifts in people’s attitudes and outlooks and be ready to reassert truth. Otherwise, they may soon find themselves in a group that is nothing like the one they used to belong to or lead.

Changing a group’s ethos from something negative to something exciting and biblical is a major project. It involves a lot of work and time--maybe even a fight. But the payoff is awesome! In a group with a healthy ethos, people take upon themselves the tasks involved in building up the church without being asked. Initiative replaces inertia. Generous out-giving love can become so commonplace that people can’t imagine a group without it. Instead of leaders endlessly pleading to heedless members, they will find themselves scrambling just to keep up with the rapid movement of events and the urgent need for equipping.

The Bible and ethos

Since a group’s ethos includes both objective beliefs (belief in truths that stand whether we believe them or not) and subjective values or interpretations, we cannot easily turn to passages in the Bible that set us straight in these areas. However, the Bible is not silent on the subject.

New Testament churches had an ethos of their own, and some of that is embodied in explicit precepts or instructions we should follow. By reading carefully, we can detect other aspects not explicitly taught but demonstrated by example, and we should seriously consider trying to incorporate those as well.

Notice how the ethos was different in various New Testament local churches. Compare the ethos in Corinth with that in Jerusalem in Acts 2-7 and you see a striking difference. Notice how a strong group like that in Philippi, developed an unusual giving ethos from the beginning and never lost it (Philippians 4:10-19), while each church addressed in Revelations two and three seem to have a different ethos.

When we see how ethos shapes every aspect of behavior and outlook in a group, the question quickly becomes, “How do we get this healthy ethos in our group?” That’s where the book, Members of One Another comes in. To build healthy group ethos, you have to have a clear picture of where you’re heading. Carefully studying what the Bible says about the church is the most important step you can take toward that goal. Then, you need practical ideas for how to move from your status quo to the new position.

The New Testament picture of church life is definitely possible today. We are not talking here about something exotic that God reserves for the few. This outlook is God's will for all of us. If we don’t have it, that’s probably because we’ve departed from his teaching, or have accepted definitions and values that come from our modern, individualistic culture.

Consumer Christianity

In the modern west, the definition we most likely have imbibed (often without realizing it) is a consumer version of Christianity.

When you go to the store, you’re a consumer. You’re looking for something. You know you’ll have to pay for what you get, but the point is you want some things and they had better be good. If the products are lacking or over-priced, you’ll probably go to the competitor’s store next time. The store is there to provide things you want.

When the consumer mentality goes to church, nothing changes. The question for the Christian consumer is always the same: What’s in it for me? A church might “meet my needs,” or maybe we hear rumors that a different church down the road is better.

Church leaders realize they have to compete--who will provide the biggest blessing? Who can make people feel most satisfied with the weekend’s program? Who will put on the most impressive performance?

The New Testament picture of the church is incompatible with this consumer perspective. God declares in his word that the community of God is a gathering where I go intending to give out, not to receive. To the extent I do receive blessing, that’s only so I’ll be better equipped to serve. Instead of existing to “meet my needs,” the body of Christ exists to equip me to meet others’ needs. Ironically, according to Jesus, I will probably feel better in an out-giving, ministry-oriented church, but that’s incidental. My focus needs to be on self-sacrifice, as Jesus explains:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it (Luke 9:23-24).
This passage and its many parallels in scripture may well refer to one of the least understood concepts in western Christianity today. Nothing could be further from the consumer concept. Experiencing what Jesus describes will be very costly. There will be sacrifice. Taking up a cross is something you do when you’re getting ready to die. A cross is a place of agony. Ease and comfort are incompatible with this picture.

If you’re a modern western Christian, you may have some things to unlearn. Your whole view of Christianity and the church may be at odds with what God teaches in some very serious ways. In Members of One Another, we examine biblical images and teaching that paint a dynamic picture of the community of God, and those pictures may contradict what you have assumed so far.

If you just want reassurance that all is well with the western church as it is today, you probably won’t enjoy this book. But if your heart longs for something deeper, this could be a good first step toward actually experiencing what God has in mind for you.


Anonymous said...

Dennis, in your post you briefly profile common characteristics of a consumer ethos, and lament their appearance in the church.
However, your Xenos website commends house groups in language that seems to belong to a typical marketing pitch: "Our Home Group Connection is designed to help you find a home group that suits your needs and interests. There are a wide variety of groups within our church. We can match your interests, lifestyle and location with a like-minded group, and we look forward to hearing from you." How do you want to be understood?

Dennis said...

You're right. That is a really market-driven type add. I've actually noticed a similar pitch before and got them to change it (I think it was on a brochure) but didn't notice this one. Needs to change.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dennis. My experience and observations lead me to conclude that motivating folks to "the next step", even within common church culture, necessitates that folks be convinced that what's being offered has to pay better than what they'd otherwise be doing with their time. It's not an easy sell!
I got to your blog by following a link that you posted on recently. Blessings as you continue to discover the riches that reside in Christ.
Jim London