Culture Check: The Walk
Culture is the “unspoken rules about the way we do things around here." Unspoken. Unanalyzed. Unchallenged. Unquestioned. Every church has a culture.
Doctrine involves spoken rules, written rules—easy to analyze, challenge and question. Doctrine is definitive and precise. But culture? Not so much. We don’t often talk about the culture of our churches, but we should. Our church culture can eat our doctrinal statement for lunch. What we claim to stand for on paper can easily be undermined by our collective attitude in practice. That’s true in here and out there.
Take the Ellen Degeneres debacle, for example. She champions equality, demonstrates radical generosity, and adopts the motto “Be kind” for her show. That’s good “doctrine.” But recently, allegations surfaced from within her own production family—eleven allegations, to be exact—claiming the work culture is toxic. There are now accusations of racism, bullying, sexual harassment, and intimidation. What’s going on? The culture is out-of-sync. Ellen may be the nicest person on the planet, but the work environment of her show is apparently anything but “kind” to the employees.
Doctrine is easy. Culture is difficult. Culture is caught, not taught. For better or for worse, culture is contagious. That’s why an issue every church should examine is whether or not their community represents a safe place to confess sin, forgive sin, and ask for help. In other words, will this church commit to walking in the light together? Will this church stay honest?
That’s John’s concern for his readers. He writes: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” -1 John 1:6–7.
The punch line of his charge is surprising. You’d expect him to say, “If we walk in the light, as He (God) is in the light, we have fellowship with HIM.” That’s not what John says—though it’s true. If we walk in the light, where God is, then we have fellowship with ONE ANOTHER. John’s argument is simple: If you long to connect deeply with others, the cost is honesty. Stop pretending. Step into the light, out of the darkness.
It’s possible to be together but feel completely alone. A man who understood that truth was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Life Together, he wrote:
“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone…Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unconfessed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.”
Did you catch that last part? Pious communities are not exempt from secrets. I believe James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another,” is one of the most powerful and neglected commands in the Bible. That’s why I sometimes ask our congregation, “When is the last time you confessed sin—to another believer—or asked someone to forgive you?”
Understand, not walking in the light will cost you. You’ll forfeit vulnerability, authenticity, freedom, and joy. Your environment will be tense, neurotic, and fragile. Fear will be a controlling factor. Secrets will reign. Struggles will be suppressed. Sins will remain unconfessed. And people in our church will be “leading lives of quiet desperation.” Why? Because God never intended for His people to “fake it till you make it.” “Never let ‘em see you sweat” is a terrific line to sell deodorant, but a terrible church culture to live in. That’s spiritual smog, and it’s more common than we think.
One of my favorite movies is the psychological thriller “The Village.” A small community in Pennsylvania lives in isolation from the rest of society. The village elders are obsessed with keeping their community safe from outside corruption. They do that in two ways: with exaggerated tales of the wicked townspeople, and by cultivating fear of mystical creatures who live in the forests. “Those of whom we do not speak.” Monsters, ready to pounce on trespassers who venture beyond the village borders. The entire community is built on lies. Fear, manipulation, deception. Terror reigns.
One of the elder’s teenage sons, Lucius Hunt is played by Joaquin Phoenix. At one point in the film, he says to his mom “There are secrets in every corner of this village. Do you not feel it? Do you not see it?” It’s a powerful scene, and I cannot watch that movie without thinking of some church cultures where secrets hide in every corner, carefully kept by both leaders and members. Walking in the light is merely another point of doctrine.
Now, every believer longs for fellowship. That word means a mutually shared life. Communion. Joint participation. Deep, meaningful connections with others. Genuine unity. According to John, that fellowship comes only when we actually walk in the light together.
Light is welcoming and cheerful. It provides clarity, beauty, and warmth. It’s illuminating and life-giving. Light is also beautiful, pure, and clean. There is no such thing as dirty, ugly, or deceptive light. For John, light is synonymous with God and truth.
God is not hard to find. He’s waiting for us in the light. He invites us to join Him. And self-denial is exhausting. Walking in darkness, withdrawing, pulling back, hiding in the shadows—nobody can thrive in a culture like that. But God invites us to drop the façade, get honest, and walk in the light. In the light, we can look around and find incredible company. It’s honest. It’s open. It’s safe. No shame. Cleansing.
As Ray Ortlund says: “Walking in the light is an honest relationship with Jesus and one another, so that we’re free to grow.” I love that! No more faking it. No more hiding. No more pretense or swag. No more secrets. Just honesty, freedom, growth, and renewal!
Are we not surrounded by deception, dishonesty, and manipulation? It’s often the air we breath. We reflect this reality when we say things like “Can I be honest?” We regularly feel the need to qualify our truth-telling.
The world mistreats and takes advantage of us. It exploits us when we’re honest, and we can never measure up. It's harsh and critical. We expect that out there. But here, in the company of the redeemed, under the glow of God’s truth, we find sympathy, cleansing, and healing. We find space to rethink our lives and discover power to change at a deep level. We can be brutally honest about our sin, experience God’s forgiveness, and finally belong. In the light is where we grow together into the likeness of Christ.
Remember, Jesus was willing to leave the light and be plunged into darkness. Why? To rescue us from our darkness, to clear a path back to the light—back to Him. Are we walking in that light He won for us? Are we enjoying the benefits of His life, death, and resurrection?