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Cultivate an Unstoppable Force

Erwin McManus

From the book An Unstoppable Force, discover how you can create an environment that changes children's lives.

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 us.

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.

HEART TRANSPLANTS

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 talents.

ENVIRONMENTAL SPONGES

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 invisible force.

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 does.

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.

UNCOMMON COMMONALITY

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 they had.

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 transformational community.

Exerpted from An Unstoppable Force by Erwin Raphael McManus (Group Publishing). Erwin is the senior pastor of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles.

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