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Developing a Church Culture of Goodness, part 5: Nurturing Empathy

Carl Ruby

Developing A Church Culture of Goodness       

Part 5: Nurturing Empathy

(Note from Pastor Carl: This series of posts shares the insights of a great book called A Church Called Tov by Scot McNight and Laura Barringer on what churches need to do to create cultures that are good rather than toxic. )


It’s been a few weeks since I’ve added to this series, but if you’ve been following it, you’ll notice (and probably really be glad) that we’ve finally gotten to the good stuff. Most of the first four posts dealt with the problem of toxic churches led by toxic pastors, a problem compounded by the tendency of some churches. 

Today’s post is about empathy, the first of seven qualities that define good churches (chapter 6 of A Church Called Tov). Good churches feel the pain of others, particularly the marginalized, and respond with compassion. I grew up in a branch of the church that put all of the emphasis on getting people saved, which entailed convincing them to bow their heads and ask Jesus into their hearts. It wasn’t until I was in my 50s that the power of Christ’s inaugural address began to shape my faith.

Jesus didn’t launch his ministry with an invitation to say the sinner’s prayer. He launched it with a strong statement about his commitment to justice, saying:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Mcknight and Barringer defined empathy as the “ability to feel what someone else feels,“ and it lies at the heart of justice. They added that it is the capacity to “see the world through other’s pain.”  Peter urged Christians to have “compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous” (1 Peter 3:8, NKJV). Likewise, Paul advised the first generation of Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Tov (good) churches are able to feel the pain of those most marginalized and vulnerable. This stands in contrast to bad churches that foster a sense of personal and institutional narcissism.

Empathic churches will think about what it feels like to be left out due to one’s lack of wealth, physical challenges, marital status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental health, or age. They will give careful (and prayerful) thought to what it means to treat others as we would like to be treated.  According to A Church Called Tov:

Churches that follow Jesus don’t simply take up a cause for one specific group; they develop a culture in which they hear the cries of all the distressed, all the wounded and respond with compassion. Circle of “Tov churches” will develop “empathy radar” with an instinctive bias toward acts of grace, peace, mercy, and goodness for everyone. 

McNight and Barringer close this section by talking about the importance of being empathetic to women in the church. For too long, the church has been dominated by men. Particularly white men. The authors cite a book written by a pastor with a huge following about the “spiritual giants” of Christianity. It included 21 chapters on white men and not a single chapter on women or people of color. 

A theme that runs throughout A Church Called Tov is the need to actively affirm the value that female leaders bring to the church. This requires that male leaders learn how to feel the pain of exclusion and minimization that women have felt for centuries. The church has simply failed to live up to the example of Jesus, who included and honored women. The chapter concludes by suggesting that churches should know and tell the stories of women (and people of color) in the bible, in church history, and in the history of one’s own local church. And moving forward, churches should “intentionally promote the contributions of women [and people of color] on the church’s webpage and on the platform during services.

Women have always been an important part of the ministry at Central Christian. They serve on our Board of Elders, preach from our pulpit, and administer the Lord’s table. We are tremendously indebted to them for their service. We have a long way to go in terms of representing the diversity of our community but have been intentional about recruiting and promoting a person of color to our pastoral leadership team. We hope that these practices will help us feel and understand the pain of people who have so much to offer in terms of making our community more like heaven.

This post is dedicated to Sara Landess and Violet M. Turner, without whom Central Christian Church would not exist.

To follow Scot McKnight, check out his blog, Jesus Creed, or his podcast Kingdom Roots.

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