This month’s issue of Wineskins is on “Creating a Christ-like Culture”. To kick off this issue I want to share a few thoughts on how church culture works: what it is, where it comes from, how it shows up and how it is formed. So bear with me as this is not a traditional theme-kickoff post but I think is an important starting point in discussing how we can continue to shape churches to have a healthy culture.

One of the fundamental laws of the way churches and organizations work is that culture is constantly being created. Whether we like it or not and whether we are intentional about it or not…culture is being formed. If you want to ignore the importance of what kind of culture your church, ministry and leadership is creating, that creates a culture of its own…one where people don’t know what is going on or where the church is going. If you want to be intentional about the kind of culture that is being shaped, intentionality also breeds and feeds a certain culture…one where people know what to expect and where purpose and direction in ministry are highly valued. Culture is always being shaped and what you are experiencing in ministry now (for the good and the bad…as a volunteer or paid staff) is often a product of years of a certain kind of culture being formed by those who came before you (some of whom may have left and some may still be around).

Driven by Core Values
Culture formation is driven by our core values. The values we have drive the culture that is formed. For example, if your leadership values an absolute, exclusive strangle hold on the truth that will produce a culture of exclusion, alienation and arrogance…where people are fearful of being wrong, hesitant to ask questions and who eventually learn to take on a co-dependent position to not rock the apple cart. If you value transparency and openness, the culture that results will encourage people to share and investigate matters of faith openly…where they can ask their questions and express their doubts in an environment that is safe to do so. The things we value have a direct relationship to the culture we create.

Expressed in practice
The practices we perform perpetuate the cultures that we produce and continually reaffirm the values that we hold most dear. For example, if tradition is a core value of a congregation (let’s say…they might not say it is but everyone knows it is the case) then the things you do (practices) must perpetuate the traditions of the church (core value), maintaining a culture that is comfortable to those “in authority”. In that instance, if communion has only been passed one direction (front to back) then that is the only way it can or will ever be passed, not because scripture speaks to that (or that it even matters) but because tradition is highly valued. If you change the practice (pass back to front) the reason so much anger can be generated over such an insignificant decision is not because the practice is that important but because by implementing the change, you brought the underlying value system into question – and people don’t like their core values to be under the microscope (especially when they are weak to begin with).

How culture is formed?

Here is how J.R. Woodward explained how culture is formed in his excellent book, “Creating a Missional Culture” (p.32),

According to cultural theory, culture is largely made up of artifacts, language, rituals, ethics, institutions and narratives. In other words, the language we live in, the artifacts that we use, the rituals we engage in, our approach to ethics, the institutions we are a part of and the narratives that we listen to have the power to shape our lives profoundly. As we look at the culture around us, here are some questions to help us understand how we are being shaped:

  • What is the guiding narrative of our host culture?

  • Which institutions most shape our lives?

  • What ethics are we developing in light of the stories and narratives that bombard us from every side?

  • What rituals, practices and liturgies are we engaging in that shape our desires, our idea of the “good life” and the kind of people we are becoming?

Creating culture is complex and multifaceted. It runs the gamut from the power of our meta-narratives to scripture’s meta-narratives to the institutions that currently exist to those that previously existed (early church culture) to our language and ethics and practices. There is a lot that goes into the culture that we currently live within and a lot that must go into any future culture we believe the church or a congregation needs to shift toward.

Culture formation is slow, painstaking work. It will take years to work out with no guarantee of success but it is essential that we continue to try to move our congregations to be healthier. My generation of 30 somethings ministers can get easily distracted when things don’t go quickly or when success is not assured…we don’t like beating our heads against the wall and will quickly move on to something else or someone else who is more willing to go the direction we believe is necessary. We must be mature. We must look to the generations who will follow us and the values, cultures and practices they will inherit from us. Those in church leadership bear a heavy burden in the legacy they will leave to those who will come after them. We must be wise and part of that wisdom is being in tune with the culture that exists in your congregation.