What kind of culture does your church have?
For many years, the denominational tag told people everything they needed to know before they walked in the door. And not just theologically. Even the style of clothing and music were similar throughout each denomination.
In recent years, many of the denominational barriers have fallen as a primary determiner of church culture. Now we tend to adopt our style and culture from some of the more influential churches in our society.
Brent Colby discusses this phenomenon in his article, Submissive Church Culture and Your Lack of Identity, based on the writing of Thomas Sowell.
According to Colby, many churches have either a dominant or a submissive culture. A dominant church culture not only blazes their own trail and establishes their own identity, but they serve as a template from which other churches – the submissive ones – draw cues.
In short, some churches lead and other churches follow. Not always with good results.
If you're copying another church, you’re not being the church God called you to be. And the kingdom of God is poorer for not having your voice in it.
Your Church Has Its Own Voice
God didn’t call any church to be a lesser version of another church, no matter how wonderful that other church is.
Sure, we can use curriculum, methods and products from other churches. And the still-new trend of churches working together to form multi-campus networks has great potential for renewal, health and growth.
But, while we should help each other and share great ideas, we must be careful not to submit to any other church’s culture to such a degree that we’re no longer being ourselves.
Small churches can be especially susceptible to this submissive tendency. After all, most small church pastors don’t have a lot of time for leadership training, vision-casting or sermon prep, so it’s tempting to lean more heavily on other churches for a lot of that. But that doesn’t mean we should give up our unique identity.
Think of the irony of the following situation. A pastor preaches a message about how each member of his congregation is unique before God. Be who God made you to be. Find your purpose. There’s no one else quite like you. But the pastor didn’t even preach their own message – they downloaded it from another pastor’s website the night before.
If we want to help our church find their own voice and establish their own culture, instead of trying to be a lesser copy of another church’s culture, it starts with us, pastors. And it starts, even more specifically, behind the pulpit.
How to Establish Your Own Voice
It’s not easy to develop your own style and learn to speak with your own voice. But if you keep parroting words and ideas from other pastors, you’ll never get there.
Here are a few tips I’ve used over the years to get to the place where, for good or ill, a message by Karl Vaters is very obviously a message by Karl Vaters. And, taking a lead from that, our church has a fresh voice and culture of its own, too.
1. Stop Plagiarizing
It isn’t necessary for every word of every message to be original. That’s not even possible. But passing off the exact words, outlines or specific ideas of others as your own is a lie. Yes, I meant to say it that strongly. It’s a lie.
Journalists get fired for it, students get kicked out of school for it and authors lose lawsuits over it. Pastors should hold at least that high a standard.
You don’t have to verbally footnote every time you use someone else’s idea. That would make every message a brutal task to sit through. But a quick “thanks to so-and-so for several of the points in today’s message” or a note in the bulletin saying “check out such-and-such-a-book for more info on today’s topic” gives credit where credit is due.
2. Trust God, yourself and your congregation
People come to your church to hear the gospel through your heart and in your voice. Trust that God can do that through your voice if you’re listening to his voice.
If your congregation wanted to hear a message written by TD Jakes, Mark Batterson or Max Lucado, they’d listen to them or buy their books. Actually, many of them already do. That’s another reason why it’s important to give credit.
If you found that sermon online, they can too. And they do. I’ve worked with embarrassed pastors and angry congregation members over just that issue.
3. Know the People In Your Church
The culture of a church is best, not when it trickles down from the pastor, but when it bubbles up from God speaking to and through a healthy congregation.
As pastors – especially small church pastors – we need to spend enough time with the congregation to know them, not just spiritually, but emotionally, socially and more. What sports do they play? What music do they listen to? What do they spend 40 hours a week working at?
A well-researched sermon that was written by a pastor of a white-collar, big city, suburban megachurch won’t have the same impact if you’re in a small church in a blue-collar, agricultural community.
4. Let New Ideas Simmer
When you get good ideas from a blog, book or seminar, don’t preach on them right away. Let them sit in your heart, mind and spirit for a while.
In time, those new ideas will link up with God’s voice, your life experiences and other good ideas, which will morph into something that starts sounding like you.
More than Preaching
Preaching isn’t the only element in establishing a unique culture for your church. But it can spark an atmosphere where discovering, appreciating and ministering in and through that culture becomes more possible.
It doesn’t take a bigger building, more money or a PhD in creativity to establish an innovative church with a culture all your own. It takes listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit as he speaks in your church and through your church. Then from your church to your community.
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