Character is crucial in any culture. If you pick up a newspaper on almost any day in almost any city of almost any nation, you can discern character issues in almost every headline and article on page one. Stories of triumph trumpet the courageous feats of heroes or the diligent tenacity of athletes. Stories of failure feature greedy corruption among officials or the heartless abuse of children. When good character is demonstrated—or violated—it gets people’s attention. Character is also crucial among Christians.
Character is the essence of Christlikeness, to which we are called in Ephesians 4:1 and elsewhere throughout the scriptures. In contrast to non-Christians, a true follower of Jesus Christ has greater motivation to cultivate character, higher standards of expectation, and matchless enablement on which to rely: the Holy Spirit.
The significance of character in one’s life is not a recent discovery. Five hundred years before Christ was born, an Ephesian philosopher named Heraclitus wrote, “A man’s character is his fate.” A thousand years before Heraclitus, God set character-rich lifestyle standards when he issued the Ten Commandments to Moses.
But knowing about character is not enough. Too often, our minds bow to our hearts. For example, while acknowledging the value of good character, country after country is plagued with deep-rooted corruption. For example, where is your country in the World Bank’s “Index for Control of Corruption”? You can find out by going to the web page and following the worksheet tabs on the bottom of the screen. Corruption destroys lives. It especially oppresses those who are least able to defend themselves.
Christians and Character Challenges
Christians will generally not engage in open corruption; however, they have character challenges, too. One concern is offensive outreach. In India, for example, evangelism often provokes antagonism because it is perceived to be presented in a manner which is confrontational and disrespectful. An Indian colleague described the issue for me by paraphrasing a regional proverb this way: “How can they smell a rose when we give them a bloody nose?”
Another concern for Christians is the discipleship gap. For example, North American church leaders are disquieted that there is often not a significant difference between the behavior and attitudes of Christians and non-Christians. In North America and around the world, the teaching in many churches often overlooks intentional and systematic training in Christlike character.
Addressing the Challenges of Character Development
Addressing the challenge of cultivating character has practical—and sometimes substantial—implications for international outreach and discipleship ministries. It is certainly transforming the ministry for which I am responsible. For almost four decades Mission to Children (MTC) has provided general care for at-risk children in more than a dozen countries. In addition to providing rescue and nurture, we also help equip them with knowledge and skills to prepare them for the challenges of adult life. However, we have discovered that they need more than knowledge and skill to succeed as responsible adults. Not even knowledge about God and skill in memorizing scripture are sufficient. Thousands of knowledgeable, skillful, compromised ministry workers around the world are evidence of that reality.
To prepare children and youth for responsible adult life only by helping them acquire knowledge and develop skills is like asking them to sit on a three-legged stool with one of its legs missing. What teacher wants his or her student to fail as an adult? What wife wants that to happen to her husband? What church wants that to happen to its pastor?
Here is a formula that has captured the attention of many:
Knowledge + skill – character → failure
Simplistic? I think not. Evidence of this reality is widespread in government (corruption), business (fraud), and marriage (infidelity).
Introducing Cultivation of Character as Core
Even those in ministry are vulnerable: The president of a seminary in the Middle East recently told me, “If any of our graduates fail in ministry, it is almost never for lack of knowledge (e.g., systematic theology) or lack of skill (e.g., Bible study methods); it is for lack of character.” That seminary now includes character training in its graduation requirements.
Given the importance of intentional and systematic training in the cultivation of character, the next question is: How can this be accomplished affordably, interculturally, and effectively?
Character qualities may be organized and taught in many different ways. The process began for MTC when we accepted an invitation to Romania by a partnering organization to train public school educators who wanted to help their students recover from fifty years of Communist influence.
In 2003, we researched various character education programs, seeking one that was international in flavor, attractive in appearance, adaptable across cultures, affordable by under-funded teachers, and simple to use. Not finding a compelling combination of these features, MTC worked with experienced teachers and parents to develop tools and training for adults in almost any country who influence children (e.g., teachers, children’s supervisors, pastors, parents, grandparents).
Character Solutions International
This program is now known as Character Solutions® International (CSI). CSI organizes character qualities concisely and suggests strategies that enable adults to help children cultivate character in brief segments of five to fifteen minutes.
CSI teaches ten core character qualities that lead to two desirable outcomes: personal responsibility and interpersonal respect. Accepting responsibility and showing respect are vital, biblical characteristics of all healthy communities.
The CSI program consists of two basic components: field-tested curriculum and practical training. The curriculum includes two basic resources. One is a guide designed for educators and other adults who influence children. The second is a guide for Bible teachers and Christian parents. Each resource furnishes adults with insights, stories, activities, and teaching plans.
CSI’s PowerPoint seminars equip adults to understand the concepts, learn the teaching techniques, and use the curriculum effectively. This coaching from authorized trainers is available to our longtime MTC partners and also to the staff of other international organizations when invitations are received and as funds become available. Training and materials may be used in strictly secular contexts—as with post-Communist educators—or with the additional Bible-related materials in Christian homes, schools, and churches.
Cultivating Character in School, at Home, and at Church
Cultivating character is a lifelong endeavor, a pilgrimage. It is like nurturing a seed that eventually becomes a mighty tree. This cultivation can occur at school, and at home—but also in church. What would be the combined effect upon children and adults in the families you influence if they spent a few moments each week in coordinated, consistent character cultivation at school, home, and church?
Character is crucial. It might be a reason you hired each of your staff members, but it is probably the main reason you fired them if such was required. Character affects who your children choose as friends and who they choose to ignore. Character is at the core of a healthy church. Character is at the core of a good marriage relationship. Character is at the core of our relationship with God: Christlikeness is perhaps our primary expression of worship as a way of life.