radically affected by their environments. In the same way, values
are transferred through relational environments–kids don’t do what
we say, they do what we do.
From the new book An Unstoppable Force, discover how you can
create an environment that changes children’s lives
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Emotions are those unusual, inside-out experiences and feelings
that cannot be explained in absolute, concrete terms; and yet they
are common experiences that we all share. Webster’s definition that
an emotion is an “intense mental state that arises subjectively”
expresses the power of ethos on an individual level. Emotions move
us. They swell from within and, if intense enough, overwhelm
Like individuals, communities feel deeply. Cultures share a
common heart. We often speak of that heart as shared values. They
bind us together. They unify us without force or coercion. Hidden
beneath our communal beliefs are mutually held convictions, common
concerns, and shared experiences. If a worldview is the way a
community sees reality, then an ethos is the way a community feels
reality. Ethos is what happens when many individuals make
autonomous choices that create a unified movement. Ethos moves us
when nothing else will and like nothing else will. Ethos can be
described as a tribal emotion. Like emotions fire us up, ethos is
the tribal fire. Ethos is the fuel of our caring and the fire of
our passions. Ethos is the e-motion of a community.
Ethos (n.) The fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the
underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, and
practices of a group or society. The distinguishing character or
disposition of a community, group, or person. To simplify, an ethos
is expressed through spontaneous, recurring patterns.
Ethos is a corporate-intense mental state that arises
subjectively, not only in an individual, but also in the entire
community. When something happens, everyone feels it the same way.
When something is violated, everyone is offended. When something is
obtained, everyone celebrates. In many ways an ethos is an e-motion
that doesn’t have to be prompted, but everyone feels it equally in
response to an event.
There is something extraordinary about the invisible influence
of ethos. It is fundamental to understanding how values are
transferred, even from generation to generation.
My wife, Kim, and I are first-generation Christians. Our
parenting has been a step-by-step learning process. We don’t really
know how to raise kids in a Christian home through experience. When
my son was 3 years old, his older sister brought him to me so that
he could tell me something important: He told me that he was a
Christian. I have to be honest with you: I didn’t believe
3-year-olds could become Christians. I even grilled Patty to make
sure she didn’t coerce him into praying some sinner’s prayer. I
discovered that his decision was genuinely the result of his own
initiative, but I still didn’t believe him.
About six months later he told me he wanted to be baptized. I
was sure that was the only reason he had told me he was a
Christian. Now I knew his real motivation: He wanted to get in the
water. I told him that before he could be baptized, he needed to be
a Christian, and he reminded me that he was one. I thought that was
a pretty good memory for a 3-year-old.
When he was 4, he began to ask me when he could begin teaching
about Jesus. I began to think that maybe he really was a Christian.
Every night I would pray for Aaron before he went to sleep. So we
were sitting by his bed one night, and I said to him that since he
was now a Christian, he should pray and not just me. I’ll never
forget Aaron’s first prayer. We were holding hands, and I expected
him to repeat the prayers that I had prayed for him over the past
four years, but he didn’t. He prayed something that I had never
prayed for him. His first words were, “Jesus, make me a leader of
men.” I have to tell you that I was in shock, and I squished his
hands. He thought he did something wrong and said, “I know I’m too
little right now.”
When I left the room that night, my eyes were filled with tears.
I was overwhelmed with an incredible sense of both pride and
disbelief. I went to Kim and said, “You won’t believe what Aaron
prayed.” I shared with her his prayer. Without even blinking an
eye, she looked at me and said, “Of course that’s what he’s going
to pray. That’s all he ever hears about.” It struck me that, even
though I had never intentionally taught Aaron about leadership, the
environment we had created had a powerful impact on him.
I’m also reminded of Mariah’s school open house in the second
grade. All the parents walked into the room to enjoy their
children’s artwork and scholastic achievements. As I walked up to
one of the walls, I noticed that my little 7-year-old girl had
written that when she grew up, she wanted to be a singer. She
listed six or seven countries she intended to visit to perform
concerts-from Indonesia to Australia to New Zealand. Beneath that,
she had listed the titles of about 10 songs she had already
written. I realized that I was staring at ethos made manifest. She
was growing up in an environment that was both global and creative.
She not only felt that she had permission, but she felt it natural
to see herself traveling the world, using her creative gifts and
This is the power of ethos. Human beings are sponges that draw
in whatever is around them. We know, all too well, that children
are radically affected by their environments. Negative environments
raise negative and broken children. Healthy environments give
children their best opportunity to become everything they were
created to be.
In the same way, values are transferred through relational
environments. When our children grow up, they mirror what we’ve
really cared about. If our children do not do what we say, they do
what we do. And often they don’t become what we’d like them to
become; they become a response to who we are.
The power that a given environment has over our lives doesn’t
end when we become adults. It affects us throughout our lives here
on earth. Healthy environments move individuals toward health.
Unhealthy environments accentuate brokenness and dysfunction.
Many of us grew up under the influence of Star Wars, with the
concept of “the Force.” In the movies, this invisible, spiritual
energy can be tapped from either the side of good or the side of
evil. As Christians, we immediately reject both the impersonal and
dualistic view of God, but we need to realize that there are
significant, invisible forces that shape our lives. Some of them
relate to our connection to the invisible kingdoms. Others are part
of an invisible force, which we call culture, ethos, and
environment. For too long we have underestimated the power of this
READING THE INVISIBLE SIGNS
We can see the power of ethos through experiences in everyday
life. I live in Los Angeles. Going to the beach and taking your
shirt off is no big deal. It’s an everyday experience for
beachcombers. Yet in the summertime, when our building can be
swelteringly hot, not one guy takes off his shirt. We have no rule
against taking off your shirt in our church building. It is not
unethical, immoral, or unbiblical; yet I’ve never witnessed anyone
even attempting to do it. I can say pretty confidently that not one
guy has even thought about it. But every guy who comes to our
church will drive to the beach and, without any instructions or
posted signs, know exactly when it’s appropriate for him to take
off his shirt. When he leaves, he will also know exactly when to
put it back on.
I was recently speaking with some Christian leaders in the
Midwest when the issue of the appropriateness of wearing
sandals-rather than shoes-came up. In that particular culture,
wearing dress shoes was considered nonnegotiable. But a new team
member had come from a culture in which wearing sandals was
perfectly okay. He had gotten himself in trouble because he hadn’t
picked up on the cultural cues that were being sent out.
Maybe you can remember a time when you didn’t like brushing your
teeth. In my experience, many children do not like brushing their
teeth, or at least they forget a lot. As parents, one of our common
questions is, “Did you brush your teeth?” It’s okay to remind them
when they’re 5, but if you still have to tell them when they’re 15,
you have not accomplished the task.
Somewhere between 5 and 15, brushing moves from what was once an
irritation to a discipline to, eventually, a value. At some point
in between, kids do it because they know it’s required. One day
they don’t even think about it anymore. They don’t wake up and say,
“I need to brush my teeth.” They do it from a subconscious,
automatic response. One day it just becomes a part of who they are.
They’re not brushing their teeth because their parents told them
to. They’re not even brushing their teeth because other people
appreciate it. They’re doing it simply because it’s what one
WHEN LAWLESSNESS IS GOOD
Remember when seat belt laws were implemented? If you are in any
way like me, it was an absolute invasion of privacy! I did not want
to buckle up. It was uncomfortable; it was irritating; it wrinkled
my clothes; it was uncool. It really hampered the entire style and
essence of dating.
At first I only buckled up when I saw police, and for the first
several months there was a grace period. The police would pull you
over and give you a warning, but there was no ticket or penalty
involved. When that grace period expired, you were required to
buckle up at the risk of penalty. Many of us reluctantly conformed
to the law. We were not necessarily convinced that we would be
safer or even that the government had a right to invade this area
of our privacy. In those days, any parent who would let us jump in
the back of a truck and carry 10 of us down the freeway to the
baseball game was the coolest parent in town.
Look how the world has changed. Today if you see an unbuckled
child in a car, your thoughts immediately turn to his negligent
parents. Children tell their parents to buckle up, not because
8-year-old kids are concerned about the law or the ticket. They
believe it’s immoral not to be buckled. It’s simply wrong.
Our seat belt experience as a society is an example of a
successful transition from law to value. What we were once required
to do-even though we felt it was an invasion-we now do because we
believe it’s right. In fact, many of us don’t even realize that
we’re buckling up. We just get in the car, strap the belt across
us, and turn the key without any conscious thought.
Other attempts have not worked as well. Prohibition, the attempt
to legislate sobriety, was a miserable failure in changing cultural
values. If anything, it created a context for the development and
strengthening of the Mafia, rather than the development and
strengthening of a moral position against drinking. For many of us,
driving the speed limit is now on the bubble. How many of us drive
the speed limit because we really have an emotion that tells us
it’s right, rather than a deep desire to keep our license?
One of the limitations of laws is that they cannot tell you what
to do; they can only inform you of the consequences associated with
certain actions and activities. If you don’t agree with a law, you
can commit the offense and try to avoid getting caught. Laws cannot
control unsupervised activity. Only ethos has this kind of affect
on our decision-making. When we combine all those things that shape
ethos-beliefs, values, worldview-we find something far more
powerful than laws.
Ethos has the capacity to influence and shape everything in our
lives-from activities such as personal hygiene to dramatic shifts
in cultural values, beliefs, and understandings of reality. In
fact, when a culture begins to lose the power of its ethos, it
begins to become overdependent on its laws. Laws are born out of
values. They attempt to enforce cultural values, but they
themselves are not the source of ethos. If the laws do not express
the genuine ethos of a society, the laws will remain powerless in
the end. It is far more important to shape the values of a
community than to set the rules.
When we sense the dissipation of our ethos, we begin to undergird
it by establishing more laws and more rules. And that has been the
experience of the church. In seeking to keep people moving in a
common direction, the church has become far too dependent on rules,
guidelines, and laws.
One of the unusual things about a commonly held belief or value
is that the law or the rule isn’t necessary to keep people within
its boundaries. If you have to try to make someone do something,
then you have a real problem. As long as you’re making people do
things, it implies that they don’t want to. This may work with
children, but it is destined to fail with adults.
When the church neglects the development of ethos, legalism
rules. After ethos has long disappeared, only rules are left. So
this leaves us with a critical question: Can the church create and
shape culture? I am convinced that the answer is yes. In fact, this
entire book is built upon the conviction that, more than anything
else, this is what the church must do.
Acts 2:44 says, “All the believers were together and had
everything in common.” We often refer to this description to
highlight the unity that existed in the first-century church. That
alone is an extraordinary achievement! But the description that
surrounds it is just as inspiring. It’s the development of the
first-century community: “Every day they continued to meet together
in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate
together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying
the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number
daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47).
Acts 4:32 describes the binding together of the hearts of the
new believers. It says, “All the believers were one in heart and
mind.” The idea fleshed itself out because no one claimed that any
of his possessions were his own. Instead they shared everything
One of the mysteries of the first-century movement was that it
was both unifying and expanding at the same time. Every single day
the church expanded. It grew outwardly, reaching new people and
bringing new complexity to the situation. And at the same time, the
church is described as growing together with common purpose, common
values, common vision, and common movement. They had a common
e-motion. Their hearts were wrapped around the heart and values of
God. Their minds were being shaped by the mind and perspective God.
Everything else recorded in the book of Acts is the outcome and
overflow of this apostolic ethos.
No empire is more powerful than ethos. The force of this
embryonic movement would soon turn Rome upside down. Jesus Christ
began a revolution that transformed individuals and created a