I love the feeling of walking into my church on a Sunday morning. It's the feeling of coming home. When I step in the door, it's like putting on a comfortable pair of jeans or a favorite t-shirt I've worn for years. Even for a moment, all just feels right with the world. When I walk into a new church on a Sunday morning it's a much different experience- I have new feelings, I'm in a place with new people who have their own social norms, values, viewpoints, traditions, behaviors, and even a different language!
Through my work I have the opportunity to move in and out of different churches and ministry teams. One of my favorite things to do is to observe and identify the culture that drives each church, team, and organization. What I've learned in almost every case is when you're part of the culture, it's hard to identify what makes up your culture. It's kind of like asking a fish to describe water. It's nearly impossible to see identify your culture when it's as natural to you as breathing. It's only when we step outside our own culture and experience another culture that we identify what makes ours different and unique.
How would you define your church and ministry culture? When I ask that of other church leaders, I usually hear descriptions such as welcoming, warm, accepting, inviting, comfortable and friendly. Some say they value Biblical teaching, rich worship, tradition, or liturgy. Others describe their culture as seeker-friendly, relevant, or practical. Merriam Webster defines culture as, "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization." Culture is more than just surface level observations- it finds its core in the underlying assumptions we make, the attitudes we have, and the mindsets we adopt as we live in community with others. We develop culture as we live and work together. Intentionally or unintentionally we value some things over others, think from a shared understanding, and see from a certain vantage point. Most of the time culture develops without our knowledge or direction- it slowly morphs and shifts until our culture directs and determines how we live out our mission and accomplish God's purpose in the world.
As leaders, it's important to accurately identify our culture - both the culture we currently have and the culture we would like to see. It's only when we develop an awareness of the way things are and have clarity in our purpose that we can create a plan to get from here to there. We do not need to be a victim of our culture. We have the ability to craft and shape our culture in order to become the churches and the people God created us to be. Below are some questions from 7 key areas of culture that will help you begin to assess and intentionally shape your culture.
1. Mission- Current Reality- Why does your church exist? What is your purpose? What is the unspoken mission of your church? Desired Future- What does God say your mission is? How do you believe He is calling you to live that out in your local community? 2. Values- Current Reality- What is most important to your church? What core values drive your decisions either intentionally or unintentionally? What underlying beliefs motivate your actions and behaviors? Desired Future- What does God say is most important for the church? What does God say should be the underlying motivation for His people? How can you state those values in a way that directs your decisions? How do those values align with your mission? 3. Strategy- Current Reality- How do you do what you do? What are the systems and processes that guide your execution? How do you make disciples? Desired Future- What do you believe to be true about how God calls the church to function? Where are you creating roadblocks for others? How can you eliminate those roadblocks and provide a clear pathway for others to grow in their faith? How should your strategies help you accomplish your mission? 4. Language- Current Reality- What words do you hear repeated often in conversations around your church and within your ministries? What is the effect of these words on the spiritual growth of your people? Desired Future- What words will speak life, growth, and health to the people in your church? What words will help them stay aligned to the mission of your church? How will you communicate these words? 5. Shared Experience- Current Reality- When you gather together, what types of experiences do you have? What is the nature and spirit of these experiences? What is the purpose of these gatherings? What is the outcome? How does it lead you toward accomplishing your mission? Desired Future- What does God think is important when we gather? How does each gathering give Him glory, support the body, and provide a witness to the world? 6. Actions- Current Reality- What kinds of actions are most important and valued? When you ask people to do something, what actions do you talk about most often? As you look at the people in your church/ministry, what activities occupy their schedules? Desired Future- How can individuals in the church live out your mission in their own lives? What types of actions are evidence that people are personally engaging in your mission? What are the most important actions for them to take in their lives? 7. Attitudes- Current Reality- What is the general mindset of the people in your church about your community and the world? When unexpected opportunities or challenges arise what is the initial response of most people? Are you more concerned with developing your character or protecting your comfort? Desired Future- What attitudes and mindsets does Christ call us to adopt? How should we view risk, success, and failure? Who should be prioritized- people inside or outside the church? How and where to begin these culture conversations- 1. Gather a group of leaders who are open to investigating your culture and are willing to do something about it. 2. Set a weekly meeting time for 7 weeks. Each week, explore a different area of your culture. Ask tough questions, expose assumptions, address the elephants in the room, receive hard truth without defensiveness. 3. Each week make a plan that includes things to stop, things to start, and things to work on. Set beginning dates and timelines for each item and list who will be responsible for seeing it through. 4. Each week when you gather, review the lists from the previous week and talk about what’s going right, what’s not working, and what needs to be changed. Celebrate where you see culture shifting and changing. Remember- your culture didn’t develop overnight and it won’t change overnight. Culture is a shared set of understandings so the more people you talk about it with and the more leaders who are involved in leading change, the better the results. Changing culture is slow, hard work but the result is spiritual growth and increased impact in a way that will win souls and spread the Gospel.
If you'd like to explore tools and practices for developing a creative culture within your church, read Anne's latest book, "Get Out Of That Box," where she talks about how to foster a culture of creativity in your church and ministry setting.