A lot has been written lately about the church and culture; most of it, however, refers to the culture around a church. Just as important is the culture within a church, the shared attitudes, values, and beliefs that define a church and shape its practices.

Fresh out of seminary, my husband and I began ministry at an established, 850-member church in a large city. During the interview process, we were impressed by the church's forward-thinking mission and values, and we were excited to join such an apparently dynamic ministry.

As time passed, however, it became clear that there was far more bark than bite at that church, missionally speaking.

Oh, the church leadership certainly talked the talk—about the need to be an "outward-focused" church, about the importance of having staff members who demonstrated "proven character and proven ministry," about the priority of "people over programs."

But in reality, the church was not growing, evangelism was not a priority, staff members were allowed to bully others as long as they got the job done on Sundays, and heaven forbid that a program be dropped, even when it was no longer effective.

It took several years to realize that the problem was not a lack of resources, expertise, or a clearly worded purpose statement. The problem was that the church's actual culture didn't reflect its stated mission.

As with any organization, a church's culture can be encapsulated into an "ethos," or a statement that summarizes its true guiding beliefs. The ethos is almost never officially articulated. It's something that is felt. This ethos is often hard to define, but that doesn't mean it is any less powerful. Ideally, the ethos of an organization should flow out of its purpose, but when it doesn't, ...

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