A few years ago, a church invited me to work with them and give insights into their leadership team processes and church culture. Of particular interest to them was why, for all their efforts and activity running ministries, people in the church just seemed disconnected and disinterested in being involved. After being around, sitting in on meetings and interviewing the various team members, I worked out why. The culture of the leaders was significantly different from the culture of the church, leading to culture clash and misunderstanding.
The Senior Leader was a good guy – gregarious, an able communicator, passionate, focused, and a go-getter. The staff were of a similar ilk, sharing many, if not all, of the same traits. The result was a leadership team that got things done, communicated well, and worked with energy and buzz. The problem was the team strengths were also its weaknesses. The leader, and the team, could be driven, demanding, tunnel-visioned, project over people orientated, and unintentionally used people in the church as tools for ministry success.
Leaders shape the culture, but the church was resistant to that proposed culture, meaning that the people who didn’t value the same ways of thinking and acting as the leaders were disengaging, or giving the bare minimum. The leadership had two courses of action – challenge people to buy-in to what they wanted to do, or slow down and rethink how they did things so they could win more people over. As active go-getters, what option do you think they chose?
What is Church Culture?
Many of us have heard the famous Peter Drucker quote:
What Drucker is saying is that any organisational strategic plans or goals can be undermined and neutered if the organisational culture is working at odds with the intended goals. Let’s say that another way: your church culture could very well obliterate any ministry goals you are aiming for.
A quick refresher: culture is the way of life of a group of people, covering beliefs, behaviours, attitudes, values, symbols, virtues and vices, rituals/ceremonies/etiquette, understanding/interpretation of the world, and heroes/role models. The people accept these are right, correct and true, generally unconsciously without thinking, and pass them on to others by communication and demonstration.
In short, your church culture is the sum of your peoples real and actual values, attitudes, priorities, preferences and biases. Note I said ‘real and actual’. Just because you have a value statement doesn’t mean that it accurately portrays your culture. It’s entirely possible people can agree with a statement, but in reality show that they have different values, and therefore a different culture, through their actions.
Culture is the lens with which we look at life. Culture clash describes opposition or conflict between two cultures and often happens around values. A culture gap is a measure of the difference between two cultures. Culture shift is the process of changing culture over time.
Why Church Culture Matters
So why is this important? Well, let’s get practical. Here are some culture facts that we need to be aware of.
1. Culture is formed whenever people join together
As soon as people connect for a purpose or a mission, they begin to shape how they will do what they are aiming to do. Opinions, beliefs and values will all influence their actions. This is culture!
2. Culture impacts every area of your church – for good and for bad
If you like your culture, this is great. If you don’t like your culture, this is less great! This is why church culture has to be intentional and leaders need to be proactive in shaping it. Otherwise, you’ll have culture drift – the culture might drift into something you don’t like that won’t serve or help your mission!
3. Culture is defined by how people live, not what they say
I’m sad to say that teaching and preaching on core values and culture won’t change it. You might influence or shape it – maybe – but until peoples lives are changed, your church culture won’t change. To change lives, you have to change minds. Changing minds is about teaching, but also modelling, demonstrating and showing by example. Culture change takes time!
4. Leaders shape your culture – and your leaders might not be who you think
The people who are considered leaders and influencers by the people are culture shapers – whether they are part of your leadership team or not! If someone preaches, lead a ministry, is on staff, or is a recognised leader, they are culture shapers. Equally, there could be people who are none of those, but because of age, experience, tenure, longevity or even force of personality, they are culture shapers as well. This is why leaders must strive for unity and shared values across the leadership. Otherwise, there will be tension and culture clash at some point down the road.
5. Culture is shaped by what you measure, celebrate, reward and condemn
The messages people see and hear – implicit messages as well as explicit – will shape your culture. When they see something is considered important enough to measure and monitor, it will shape their thinking. Likewise, hearing something praised, criticised or championed does the same thing. This is called cultural reinforcement and is a powerful tool for leaders, as well as a source of frustration if it isn’t utilised. Fortunately, there are ways you can change church culture – I highlight six key methods in particular.
Church culture matters. It can make or break your strategy and plans. The ultimate question leaders must answer is “does the culture of my church currently reflect where we want to go?” If it doesn’t, then the culture needs to change to align more with your vision. If culture isn’t formed by values derived from your apostolic mission and prophetic vision, then they are simply preferences. Preferences are much more likely to result in division or become a stumbling block to growth and expansion.
So don’t let your culture ‘break you’ and work against your efforts, but let it ‘make you’ and give you momentum missionally, visionally, structurally and strategically!
You can find out how I help leaders and churches like you in assessing and changing your culture to better align with your apostolic and prophetic purposes. Learn more about my Culture Development service here.