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The Importance of Church Culture
By: Bill Easum

Have you ever wondered why some people see things differently than you do or appear to be impervious to what’s obvious to you? There is a reason...they grew up in a different culture than you did. By culture, I’m not necessarily referring to the culture of a country.  Instead, for our purposes, I’m referring to culture of our family, our region of the country, and, most importantly, our church. Every church has a culture that determines how that church thinks and acts. Knowing the nature of the culture is important to growing the church or turning it around. Often, our church culture gets in the in the way of our seeing the reality of the situation.

Church culture is the unwritten assumptions, rules, and prejudices that affect how we think and act. It is based on the church’s past experiences. The older a church becomes, the stronger its preconceived notions become about what will or will not work because, “We’ve always done it this way.” And, here’s the kicker...lasting change in our attitude or actions cannot happen without changing the church culture.

Here are five shifts occurring today in effective church cultures.

1. The machine driven culture is being replaced by an organic culture.
The machine-driven culture is based on non-living things that require as little maintenance and care-taking as possible. Church leaders believe a little spiritual oil now and then offers a quick fix to most church problems. In this culture, the whole is the sum of the parts. The machine is composed of parts that mesh together. People in this culture think in terms of pieces and parts that make up the whole.

Where I see this culture the most is at worship in established churches. The service is a combination of many pieces, each standing by itself, not having much to do with the other pieces.  We act out this piece, then we do this piece, and then we do this piece. There is seldom an overarching theme that ties it all together. 

The organic culture is based on living beings that require regular nurturing. Health is based on a long-term view. The relationship between the organism and the environment is crucial. Organic beings have to adapt ahead of the changing environment. The whole is far more than the sum of the parts because of the many relationships between the organism and the environment. People in this culture think holistically and envision systems and processes that go far beyond the whole.

2. The institutional culture of mission is being replaced by the spiritual culture of mission.
The institutional culture is concerned with funding our programs, doing church and denominational work, balancing the budget, and keeping buildings clean. Faith is seldom seen as a life and death issue. This culture is evident in churches that place a lot of emphasis on administration, credentials, denominationalism, meetings, and defending the faith. 

The spiritual culture is concerned with carrying out the mission at all costs and living out the DNA. The mission is defined by the Great Commission. Their goal is to share Jesus and to make disciples who share Jesus. Healthy churches are not concerned with the continuity of programming or with protecting a heritage that no longer carries out the DNA.  Present ministries that do not carry out the DNA are discontinued.

3. The committee culture of representation is being replaced by a team culture of empowerment.
The committee culture believes that laity is empowered when it “runs” the church. Going to meetings and making decisions is the role of the laity. Getting laity to do what the institution needs done is the role of leadership. Feeding the machine takes precedence over feeding God’s sheep. Activity and involvement in the machinery is the mission. In such a culture, control of what people do is the key.

The team culture believes that laity is empowered when they are equipped to serve others. Laity is encouraged to follow their gifts not the organizational needs of the institution. Autonomous teams carry out the mission of the church without interference from the top. In this culture, accountability is more important than control.

4. The entitled culture or leadership is being replaced by a servant culture of leadership. 
The entitled culture of leadership believes pastors are “hired guns” brought in by the church to do the ministry of the church for the laity. “Pastor fetch” is a primary role of the clergy. Whatever the laity need them to do for them, pastors are suppose to do.

The servant culture of leadership believes that everyone can be a leader because of their spiritual gifts. Spiritual leadership is a given to each person. Staff’s primary role is to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples. The stronger the leadership, the more empowered the laity. Staff exists to equip laity to do ministry. An understanding of John 14:12 is a crucial. This church exists to serve the people who are not yet here.

5. The problem-solver culture of local and regional denominational leadership is being replaced by a consultant-oriented culture.
The problem-solver culture believes that the role of denominational leadership is help dysfunctional churches work through their conflict. Denominational leaders spend the majority of their time with small and conflicted congregations that have little chance of survival or health.  The role of subsidy is paramount in this culture. Denominational leaders feel it is their duty to either “save” dysfunctional pastors or to move them to another place of service in the hope they will get help, or to protect them since they are part of the “union.”

The consultant-oriented culture believes that the role of denominational leaders is that of a consultant to individual congregations. Denominational leaders spend most of their time with a handful of healthy congregations that want to be more effective.  It is not uncommon for them to do triage (intentionally deciding which churches to ignore or to let die). This culture requires that dysfunctional pastors get help instead of being shuffled off to another church. In this culture, lawsuits initiated by clergy are not feared as much as they are prevented. 

New Cultures Can Be Created
If church culture determines most of what we do and think, and if they keep us from seeing the obvious, how do we change our cultures? The first step is to recognize that we have them and that they may be the reason we aren’t as effective as we’d like to be.

The next step is to name the culture that affects us and decide if we want to do something about it. Perhaps this would be a good time for you to stop reading this article and write down the unwritten assumptions, rules, policies, and prejudices that are holding your church back from being effective. 

The next step is to decide if your leaders are willing to pay the price of changing the culture. People soon learn that changing the culture results in a change in their basic beliefs. The stronger the belief system, the harder and more painful it is to change the culture.

The final step is to imagine a new reality. What if our church did live up to the Great Commission and commandment; what would it have to believe and be willing to do?

Quit listening to what others tell you to do. Don’t follow the rules just because they are the rules.  Be willing to dream and imagine a world where your life does make a drastic difference. Then ask, “What would I have to believe and do to live up to that vision God has for me?”

If you are contemplating messing with your church culture, I strongly suggest that you invite a coach to join you in your journey. Your efforts are usually more productive.

Bill Easum is president of 21st Century Strategies, Inc. a full-service church consulting group since 1987 whose mission is to equip Christian for global impact, www.churchconsultations.com

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