by Andrew Hebert
Perhaps the single most helpful development from leadership studies to aid the church in Great Commission work is the study of organizational culture. In fact, in his groundbreaking work on organizational culture, Edgar Schein notes that “leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin.” Leaders neglect the reality of their church’s organizational culture to their own detriment.
Shifting the focus away from pragmatic church growth methodologies, organizational culture studies allow a church to analyze the extent to which it is being faithful to the Scriptures. Pastors Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro call the church’s organizational culture “the most important social reality” in the church.
What Is Organizational Culture?
So what is church organizational culture and why is it important? Schein, an organizational development expert who taught at MIT, defined an organization’s culture as its “artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions.” Aubrey Malphurs adapted this definition for the purpose of understanding church culture and said that the make-up of a church’s culture included a church’s behavior, values, and beliefs.
According to Malphurs, a church’s behavior includes “all that you would see, hear, and feel as you first encounter the congregation.” Worship style, the nature of the sermon, the ways in which members interact with each other, church signage, etc., are all behavioral artifacts of the church’s culture. If church culture were an apple, behavior would be the peel. It is easily observable and forms the outer layer of culture.
A church’s values are the beliefs that the church actually live out. If the church believes evangelism is important, it only becomes a value when church members actually evangelize. Values denote what the church cares about the most. In the cultural apple, values form the meat.
A church’s beliefs are presuppositional in nature. Malphurs says, “a belief is a conviction or opinion that a person holds to be true about the church and its world as based on limited proof.” Significantly, the church may not always act on its beliefs (when beliefs are acted upon they become values), but they all have beliefs. Beliefs form the deepest layer of culture. The church’s beliefs are the core of the cultural apple. Any organizational change in values and behaviors must occur at the level of a church’s beliefs or assumptions, which is the most difficult level to change.
Analyzing things such as the church’s leadership, values, vision statement, structure, worship services, and the activities of members during the week can reveal a church’s culture. Culture is important because it shapes everything about the way things are done in the church. Strategies easily come and go, but culture is deeply imbedded and difficult to change. Peter Drucker, a pioneer in management research, once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A key to effective church leadership is to understand a church’s culture as it is presently and shaping it in Biblical ways for the future. If you can shape the culture of your church, you can change the trajectory and total life of the church. The following are three practical ways to shape the culture of your church.
The Power of the Word of God
Effective leaders will shape their church’s culture in ways that reflect obedience to the Word of God. Scripture is “profitable” to equip believers “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). The most powerful way to shape and change a church’s culture is through teaching what God’s Word has to say about the church. When Jesus wanted to change the culture of the temple in Jerusalem (the way things were done behaviorally), He did so by confronting them with God’s Word (Mark 11:15-19). “It is written…” is the most effective way of addressing change.
In order to change the observable artifacts or behavior of a church, the values of the church (what they care about) must be changed. But to change the values of the church, the presuppositional underlying beliefs of the church must be changed. The most effective way of addressing people’s deeply held assumptions and beliefs is to teach God’s Word. Many people will not change what they belief simply because the pastor believes it. They need to be shown from the Bible why such-and-such a proposal is being made, or why a particular objective in the church is being pursued. Demonstrate to the people that the particular change initiative you are proposing is rooted in Scripture and they will see recognize the need for change and attribute the kind of authority to that change that goes beyond the influence of the pastoral leadership.
The Power of Leadership
Everything rises and falls on leadership. Research has shown leaders provide more influence in shaping a church’s culture than any other organizational factor. Leaders shape culture in a number of ways.
First, leaders set direction and cast vision. The focus of church members on the future of the church is vital. If the vision is focused inwardly, it will not take long before the culture of the church is selfish and inwardly focused. If the vision statement calls for great sacrifice in reaching the nations, the culture will begin to reflect an expectation of sacrifice in all things.
Second, leaders shape culture through the use of language and terminology. Whether it is in the pulpit, in the vision statement, on church signage, etc., language impacts the way people behave, what they value, and ultimately what they begin to assume and believe. Often, the church will begin to use the language the pastor uses. If you can get the key leaders of the church to speak the same language and emphasize the same terms, the church members will soon learn to care and think about those ideas. After a few years, the church reflects the leadership. Be intentional about the things you emphasize.
Third, the way the pastor responds in critical moments in the life of the church shapes culture. For instance, when a pastor responds to a crisis with a calm confidence in God’s sovereignty, the people will learn from that. These are great moments to disciple the people and shape the culture of the church.
Fourth, leaders shape culture by what they praise and what they rebuke. If leaders celebrate baptisms, the church will learn to value baptisms. Leaders get to define “the win.” Define this carefully, because if you value the wrong thing as a leader, the church may follow. If evangelism is praised and gossip rebuked by the leadership, the members will begin viewing evangelism and gossip in ways consistent with those actions.
Fifth, leaders shape culture through personal example. A church is unlikely to develop a culture of mission involvement if the leaders of the church never go on mission trips themselves. Leading by example is one of the most powerful ways to shape the culture of the church. Servant leadership encourages others to serve. Missional leadership encourages others to be mission-minded. To be a disciple is to be a “learner.” The teacher can shape the behavior, values, and beliefs of the learner in significant ways through example.
Sixth, leaders shape culture through the power of persuasive personal influence. There is an interesting theme in Luke’s gospel. There are great moments of influence that occur in the context of hospitality and meals. One of my favorite examples of this is the story of Zacchaeus. After eating together and being around Jesus one-on-one, Zacchaeus pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times what he extorted from others. If you are a leader, don’t underestimate the persuasive power of your personal influence. Often the squeaky wheel in the church can be greased through a personal touch.
The Power of Community
A final method for shaping the culture of your church is through the power of community. There is a tipping point at which people in the church will adapt to change, and the tipping point is when they see people in the church that they trust support the vision. Researchers call these people “key stakeholders,” those who hold influence over others in the organization. Peer influence is powerful in shaping culture. This is why church discipline is so powerful, as an example.
If you can connect with the key stakeholders in your church, you can help change the culture. In the church in which I was raised, the youth group had an contagious passion for missions. One of the reasons for this (beyond other cultural elements in our church such as an annual missions conference) was that the teenagers who were popular leaders took mission trips. This had a profound impact on others who looked up to these individuals. Church staff, deacons, small group leaders, and other lay leaders can help lead innovative change by using the power of their collective voice in making the change initiative turn from an individual vision (that of the pastor) to a community vision.
In the New Testament, the early church understood the power of community influence. At the Jerusalem Council, for instance, “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” used their collective voice to influence the church at Antioch (Acts 15:22). When the church at Antioch received a letter from Jerusalem with instructions, “they rejoiced because of its encouragement” (Acts 15:31). I believe one of the reasons the Jerusalem letter was so effective was because it carried the weight of the entire community. A church’s culture develops only when it develops broadly throughout the entire body. Therefore, to change the culture of your church, you need for it to be widespread throughout the membership. Learn to use the power of others in persuading the church to adapt to a vision or change initiative. Only when the entire community adapts has there been an actual change in the culture of the church.
The Benefit of Shaping the Church’s Culture
For so many years, the emphasis in church leadership research has been on pragmatic church growth methodologies. There has been much good that has come as a result of the conferences, books, and leaders this movement has produced. Yet, one of the church growth movement’s leaders, Bill Hybels, acknowledged a few years ago that while the church has learned how to increase attendance, it still lacks health in many ways.
The conversation that the next generation of leaders must have is how to ensure church health. My belief is that the most effective way of creating healthy churches is to create church cultures that reflect Biblical norms. Until we produce a culture of evangelism and discipleship in our churches, for instance, we will never have healthy churches, regardless of whether our services have a crowd or not. Wise leaders will learn to understand and shape the culture of their churches to reflect faithfulness to the Scripture.
In his message to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1985 titled “Whether We Live Or Die,” W.A. Criswell ended with these words: “When Alexander the Great lay dying, they asked him, ‘Whose is the kingdom?’ And he replied, ‘It is for him who can take it!’ It will be we, or somebody else.” The future of the church lies in wait for those who will take it. The Lord graces us with the opportunity to lead His people. Leaders who shape their church’s culture in ways that are faithful to His Word will bring much glory to God and great benefit to the kingdom.
Andrew Hebert is the lead pastor of Taylor Memorial Baptist Church in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is a graduate of Criswell College and is currently finishing a doctorate in leadership at Southern Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @andrewhebert86.
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