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How to Build a Culture of Grace

Within a week of the team coming together, they felt safe enough to begin sharing some of the secrets they’d kept hidden for much of their lives. One young woman said, “I hate men. After what’s happened to me, I don’t trust them. How could I?” Another one described how her perfect life came to …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Within a week of the team coming together, they felt safe enough to begin sharing some of the secrets they’d kept hidden for much of their lives.

One young woman said, “I hate men. After what’s happened to me, I don’t trust them. How could I?”

Another one described how her perfect life came to an abrupt halt when she got drunk and wrecked her car.

The sharing got deep quickly as others in the team realized that this was in fact a safe place. And in the weeks and months that followed, the value of safety was tested and proven over and over.

The team formed the kind of culture that I’ve been looking for all my life in the churches that I’ve attended – a culture of grace that reflects Jesus’ gospel.

Creating a culture of grace

How in the world did we ever take a gospel of grace and twist it so that it became about sin? How did we go from a gospel of action and make it about mental assent?

I don’t know about you, but I was always very aware of my sin. I didn’t need any help remembering the condemnation I felt. Yet walk into almost any church and their message is “You are a sinner, if you want to escape hell, you need to pray a prayer.” 

When I finally met the God of grace who said, “I love you anyway,” it changed everything. 

So how do we create a culture in our families and churches that’s not one of condemnation, but of grace?

In 15 years of helping create hundreds of communities, I’ve seen that there is a process that almost always works. It is progressive and iterative. Meaning, each step builds on the one that precedes it. Each step must be tested before you can go on to the next one. And each step must be repeated over and over.

Ideally you’d begin with safety. But you can’t – people don’t feel safe with others they don’t know. And getting to safety and trust takes a long time. The only way to jumpstart the process is to establish a norm of safety that has teeth behind it. Meaning if you as a member of the community break the norm, you will face accountability.

And usually the group leader will need to go first to show it’s safe. It’s a way of showing that “you can walk on this ice – it will bear your weight.”

Once people know that it’s safe, they can begin to take risks. And as those risks get rewarded, trust begins to develop. From there you can begin to extend grace to one another instead of judgment or self-protective defensive responses. Then, this begins to characterize the culture of your group.

Vulnerability and reciprocity

So it looks like this:

Begin with a norm of safety—>then people take risks—>then they learn to trust

As people see that it’s OK to be vulnerable, they share at deeper and deeper levels. That triggers the response of reciprocity. If you and I meet in a small group and you share some difficult thing in your life, then I will feel freer to share a hard thing from my life.

Over time this sharing becomes normative, a part of culture. The culture becomes one of grace, where instead of condemnation, we feel acceptance for our brokenness.

Yes, it takes aggressive leadership that is willing to regularly confront sarcasm, criticism and other forms of unsafe behavior. But the good news is with leadership like that, you may be able to establish a culture of grace relatively quickly. Those who had a safe upbringing and have regularly practiced vulnerability will probably put a toe in the water first. But even many of those who are naturally insecure can begin to assimilate the practices of gracious living in a year or less.

And here’s the good news. Walk this out as a home group or small church and eventually it will be the kind of attractive environment that others want to be a part of. It will be the answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

It’s a dream worth dreaming – that our churches become ones where we experience the grace that Jesus wants for all of us. If we’ll dare to dream this dream with him and lead with courage, we may see the miracle of a community of grace being born in our midst.

And wonder of wonders, as we do life together over multiple years, we may find ourselves experiencing the intimacy in community that we all crave and spend our lives looking for.

Comments (12)

  • Seth, Your posttook me back to the second Mission trip to Philly for men where the evening program was men sharing their stories. Long form with no time constraint. The first two were typical stories, reserved and safe. The next was open and vulnerable and transparent about a battle with porn of decades. After the response was nothing but supportive and graceful, with one guy admitting the same battle, everyone opened up and shared things never shared before. Safe space. We ended up taking an entire day to allow everyone to share. Two example stories come to mind:
    One affair confessed for the first time. 10 years earlier, only known by the other lady, the wife, himself and the counselor. Wife had forgiven him BUT he had been eaten up with guilt, regularly reminded of his worthlessness by the father of all lies. Humanly alone but hearing regularly from the evil one. His confession in this setting brought the loud rebuke of “Satan’s lies” by other men, support from other men as they shared their similar failings, that he was not the only one, that he was not alone , that all was forgiven.
    The second was a big vietnam vet who described himself as a coward. A squad leader in Vietnam, he had been slow to react In a firefight and lost a man. never told anyone else. 30 years of satan blaming him convinced him he was a coward. First time he had ever shared this with anyone. Two other Vietnam vets jumped up and, loudly rebuked the lies of satan. One had been in a similar situation and lost all but his radio man. “The cowards went to Canada. You showed up! Of all you know, you could have lost more men if you had not done as you did! I rebuke the lies of Satan”.
    I can see those events of 18 years ago like it was yesterday. both men were changed for ever. The marriage was healed and I heard from others “ What happened to ——— , that trip changed him?
    The vet I see Irregularly, and he looks different still. No longer stooped over in shame but erect
    and Forgiven and reflecting Christ.
    Both these men brought up that trip on occasion over the years. That was real church. Let’s get more of that. Safe places we can step away from being alone in our dealings with Satan and find support and grace and have the “not good to be alone” design we walk in addressed by the brothers and sisters God uses to come along side of us. Loving one another by getting to know one another. What Jesus suggest we are to be known for.
    The first two stories were from men that are still leaders in church organizationally BUT measured, reserved, a ways holding something back. I know them both still but not really. I wonder what they are hiding. No intimacy. You can not love someone you do not know. If You holdback, I can’t love you because I don’t know you.
    I’ve been looking for an environment like that weekend brought together ever since then. Let’s pray for a way to recreate that and make it available. Three To four days away from normal. Serving others. Group living. allowed to share. Open. Safe. RealChurch.

    • That’s so good, Jeff. I remember you telling those stories. We men really need that. The average guy has 2 friends and no outlet for the stuff that bothers him. I miss those men’s mission trips.

      Maybe we could do a 3-day weekend retreat at the AIM campus once it is safe to begin coming out of our hobbit holes again.

  • Yes. This. Exactly. And I’ve found that the best way to establish that safety is for me, as a leader, to lead by example and be vulnerable. If I can be real about who I am and who I have been, and who Jesus is in the middle of that, then those around me can feel safe to be vulnerable as well. The scary part is that they will most often only go as far as I go. But this intimate community is worth it, and we look back and realize we’ve found what we always wanted and needed. Thank you, Seth!

    • That’s true, Wendy. That’s why I love our Beauty for Ashes retreats for women who are brave enough to lead with vulnerability. It defangs shame unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

  • This is very timely for a personal family situation. I have yearned for this and wrestled with this desire for years. Get plenty of Condemnation and almost absent Grace. I seek to extend it but fail often. And often received the harshest judgement from those who purport to be l
    Spiritual leaders.

    I choose to extend Grace.

  • Seth,
    This is insightful and caused me to recall a scene in Colorado Springs in 2006 with friends who mostly represented leaders in the ministry community. After watching our social network of couples sip their last bit of tye same wine I was sinfully using to deaden the pain of my own failures and betrayal of others I opened my heart up to share areas I needed deliverance in. When finished I paused, looked around then asked, “What about you? What’s God telling you needs to change?” The answer? Silence. It was a devastatingly instructive moment where I learned vulnerability can be a weapon in the hands of some you thought walked a common path but don’t. Someone once said, “Loyalty is never so regarded as in those moments where betrayal rears an ugly head.” Love you, Seth.

  • Awesome piece, Dad! Grace is risky but unsafe places and unsafe people are riskier. The longer we stay in a “dark room” it begins to become normal, until without warning, someone turns on the light. You’ve turned on the light here. If it feels uncomfortable, change should be the apt response. Thanks for being who and what you are for many of us.

  • I’m sorry for that lingering memory. The good news is I’ve watched you get stronger in letting that pain do what it was there to do and be able to use your pain to set others free, Butch. We’re all wounded. Some of us get to also be wounded healers.

  • Jeff,

    I’ve been looking for that all my life. I’ve had intimate transparency with a few people in my life. But for the most part I’ve never experienced that in a group. You’re right if a person does not show intimacy with other people you can’t love them. And they can’t really love you because intimacy is what it takes to show real love. Love isn’t just a bunch of words. Love isn’t just giving your body to be burned or preaching A good sermon are going out and handing food bags to the homeless. Although those are very admirable things to do. But true relationships that will last and will grow and will bring deep satisfaction require transparency. I have been transparent on more occasions than I care to admit and received nothing back. I feel more transparency on this blog that I have and almost any church I’ve ever been to. It’s wearisome trying to reach out and not seeing people be real. Everyone has a big smile on their face when you come in church but then you never see them outside of church and if you do it’s a Bible study and they’re still smiling. I don’t know what it is but it seems like every group I get in has to have a format or an outline in order to get through it. When is the holy spirit going to be allowed into our meetings to the point where we are really changed? Where is God taking us through this pandemic? What is he trying to teach us through this? These are questions that I ask myself and God all the time. I don’t know where to go from here. I wish somebody new. God knows and I need him to tell me.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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