Podcast Episode 3, 26 min
Can a Pastor Change the Culture of a Small Church? EP 003
This space is now a companion to my new podcast, "Can This Work In A Small Church?" Here's what it's all about.

A church’s culture is defined as “the unwritten set of rules that governs everything a church does.”

In a big church, the pastor and staff set the culture, but in a small church it’s set by the long-time regular members and attenders – even if they don’t know they’re doing it.

In this episode I talk about the three steps that will help a small church pastor lead a church through a culture shift.

  1. Show them you understand their culture
  2. Show them what you appreciate about it
  3. Then you will get limited permission to participate with them to lead and shape it

I also talk about the main problems that small churches leaders face when trying to change a church’s culture, and how to address each one.

Culture is this: It's the unwritten set of rules that governs everything a church does. The unwritten set of rules that governs everything the church does. So first of all, they are unwritten, which means people will say things like, “well, that's the way we do it here.” And they don't realize they're enforcing culture.

Hi, I’m Karl and I'm a small church pastor. And welcome to this episode of Can This Work In A Small Church? In this episode, we're going to be asking and hopefully helping you come to an answer for the question, can a pastor change the culture of a small church? We're jumping into this because in the first episode of the podcast, I referenced this and told you we'd be getting back into it in more detail.

So here we are, and we're getting into it in more detail because the idea of a church's culture is really important. It has big distinctions in the way it's done between a big and a small church. So, it really goes to the heart of the entire reason that this podcast exists to begin with. So let's jump right into it and take a look at this idea of culture, what it is, and how it can be changed in a small church and how we do it differently than our big church friends and counterparts.

First of all, let's define the word “culture” for you because different people have different definitions of it. So here's how it's defined typically within a church context, whether small or large. Culture is this: it's the unwritten set of rules that governs everything a church does. The unwritten set of rules that governs everything a church does.

So first of all, they are unwritten, which means people will say things like, “well, that's the way we do it here.” And they don't realize they're enforcing culture. Or, “wow. That would never work in our church. And they don't realize they're enforcing culture.” In fact, that's one of the really interesting things about culture in a church and especially in a small congregation, probably the strongest culture enforcers in your congregation have no idea they're enforcing culture. They just think they're doing things the way they're supposed to be done. And so often even challenging that or pointing out what they're doing can be fraught with all kinds of roadblocks and obstacles and dangers and risks, which is why we're asking the question we're asking today for the podcast.

Can a pastor change the culture of a small church when the people who are enforcing that culture don't even know they're doing it? That's one of the biggest challenges. So let's take a look at it and let's start with taking a look at how culture is usually talked about within a big church context.

As I said earlier, culture is a big issue right now and with good reason. I think it was Peter Drucker who's generally credited with saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I've done research for it. I can't find the person who originally actually said it, I can't find it appearing in anybody's documentation. It’s one of those phrases that just seems to come out in the ether, but it comes out because it's true.

What it means is this: you can have a great mission statement. You can have a great vision. You can have a great idea. You can have a wonderful program. You can have something you want to do in your church, but if the church is not ready to receive it, that mission will die. That vision will die. That culture will not be implemented—that strategy will not be implemented—because the culture of the church will strangle it.

So, in a big church, here's what is typically taught from a big church perspective. They teach us that the pastor and the pastoral staff are the ones who establish a culture, who set the culture, who promote the culture, and who drive the culture forward. It's all on you, pastor and pastoral staff. You are the culture setters.

In a big church that is true. And in a church in crisis, that needs to be true—the pastor may need to step up like a prophetic voice and pull a culture forward out of a bad culture and into a good culture. If the culture is bad enough. But in a typical, fairly healthy, smaller congregation, it really doesn't work that way.

Imagine it this way. I want you to imagine that you walk into a really large church on a Sunday morning for the first time, and maybe you look around and you think I really like the way this church is, or maybe you look around and you think, yeah, I like some things, but I don't like other things. Are you going to stick around and see if you can change that culture to become something better? Or are you just going to go that culture doesn't match me. I'll find a different church. The bigger the church is, the less expectation the average church member has that they will be able to impact that culture. Inversely, the smaller the church, the more likely every individual member is going to have an impact on the church culture.

That changes the dynamic in the way a pastor moves the culture forward because every member has a greater impact. It seems, ya know, inversely wrong. It seems like a weird correlation. It should be easier to move the culture of a small church. It should be hard to move the culture of a big church, but that's just not the way crowds work.

If you're one member of a crowd, you're just going to listen to the boss. But if you're one member of a small group, you expect your voice to be heard. So the culture is much more of a collaborative effort the smaller the church is. So, when we hear from the usual church leadership places, and when I say usual, I'm not putting it down., I'm just saying, that's the normal thing we hear. So when we typically hear about changing a church culture, that it has to be established by a pastor they're not wrong from the context that they're coming from, which is a big church context.

But the smaller the church is, the more that changes. So how does it change and how does culture get changed in a smaller congregation?

Well, here's the way it goes. If you are in a small congregation, you need to do three things to be able to help move the culture forward. And here they are. First of all, you need to understand the current culture of the church. Every small church has a very distinct culture, bigger churches have their own distinct culture as well. But if you go into a small church, you have no idea what you're going to find, right? The culture can be very strong one way or another—positive or negative, or simply culturally different. contextually different in a small town to a big city and one region of a country to another region of a country, from one country to another, from one ethnicity to another foreign language to another.

All of those things change the culture of a church. And you can have very, very different cultures in different small churches. So if you go into a small church, your first job as the pastor is to understand what that culture is and where it comes from. And it can take some time because again, what's the definition of culture? It's the unwritten set of rules that governs everything the church does. So you're not going to discover the culture by reading the bylaws. You may not even discover the culture by having one or two interviews with church members, because it's unwritten, it's an invisible set of rules. They may not recognize what the culture is themselves.

So the first thing you have to do is understand, and that can take some time if you are new to a church, but it is not time wasted. It is time well-spent to spend the time you need to spend to understand the culture of a small church. So, number one, you have to understand the culture.

Two, you have to show the church members the parts of the culture that you appreciate.Now you may be coming into a broken church, into a toxic church, into a hostile church, into a structure...into a hurting church. There's all kinds of reasons why a church may not be everything that it's supposed to be, and that may be why they called you because there are these difficulties and they want you to help fix it.

But here's the deal, even in a bad culture, if you don't show any appreciation for that church and its culture, there's no way you're going to be able to help them change it. And the smaller the church is, the more this is true. And the newer you are to the church, the more this is true. So if you're new to a church, especially, and you've just gotten to the point where you've done step number one, you think you have a pretty decent understanding of the culture.

If you then go to the leadership and say, “this church is a mess, we got to change all this stuff. “You will meet resistance. But if you go to them and you say, you know what I love about this church? I love the way we do this. I love the way we do that. I love the way we think about this. I love the way…” right?

Tell them what you love about it. Show them what you appreciate about it. And don't be fake. Don't make it up, right? But genuinely find good things about the culture that you can show a genuine expression of appreciation for it.

And tell them, “here's what I love about this church. Here's what everybody else seems to love about this church. Isn't this great? Good. Let's build on that now by moving away from some of the things that aren't so great about this church.” But you've gotta show them the parts you appreciate first.

So first of all, you have to understand the culture. Secondly, you have to show them the parts of the culture that you appreciate. And only after you've done those first two things will they give you permission to do the third thing. And the third step is this: after you show them that you understand it, after you show them what you appreciate about it, only then will they give you limited permission to participate with them in changing the culture and moving it forward.

Now that sentence had a whole bunch of qualifying words and they all matter. So let me restate it again, okay? Only after you show them that you understand the culture and you show them the parts of the culture that you appreciate, only then will they give you limited permission—there's one thing—to participate with them in moving it forward.

So let's talk about those two key issues. First of all, you only get limited permission. The smaller the church is, the more it is expected that everybody will participate in the major decisions of a church. You can think that's a positive thing or a negative thing. It doesn't matter what you think about it.

That's reality and the smaller the churches, the more that is true. Everybody participates in the big decisions about where the church goes. So they will give you permission, but it will be limited permission to help move the church forward because they will want to participate with you, which leads to the second part: to participate with you in changing it.

So you have to get buy-in from them. That's why the first two steps matter so much. That's why you have to understand what it is, because if your expression of the culture is inaccurate, they're going to go, how can he help us? He doesn't even get us. And secondly, if you do get them, but you don’t express positive aspects of it, well, they’re at the church, there's something about the church they like, or they wouldn't be there. So you;ve got to show that you have common ground in the things that you all appreciate about it to be granted that limited permission so that you can participate with them in moving it forward.

Now, when do you move forward? Let's say you've done that. Let's say you understand the culture of the church. Let's say you appreciate certain parts of it and you have expressed it to them. And you're all in agreement while we love these parts of the church. But we also know these other things need to be changed and they are ready to grant you that limited permission to participate with them in moving it forward.

What do you do then? Well, the best instruction that I have ever seen about helping to change the culture of a church is found in a book that I guarantee you, you are familiar with. You probably have a copy of it fairly near you, and it may be bound in leather. Yes, you're right. The best instruction about changing the culture of the church is found in scripture.

In fact, very specifically it's found in the teachings of Jesus in what we call The Parable of the Sower. It's a parable that appears in three of the gospels. John, of course, has no parables in it. So it's the only parable, I believe, that appears in all three of the books that have parables. It's in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. And if you look in those three places, you will find what's called The Parable of the Sower. And I'm talking to a bunch of people who have probably preached on it before, so, you know, you, you know exactly what I'm talking about, but here's how Jesus tells The Parable of the Sower.

It is a parable about culture change. And I, I want to express huge appreciation to my friend, Jim Powell, who wrote about this in his book, Dirt Matters. He's the first one that drew my attention to it. And it's the central focus of his book, Dirt Matters, which is a short book and easy read and such a helpful book to read. If you have not yet read Dirt Matters by Jim Powell, I encourage you to pick it up and read it. But here's the essence of how he describes it. I hope I do him, and of course, Jesus, justice in this.

Jesus describes a sower who goes out to sow seed. And he randomly scatters the seed. And I remember even as a little kid, I was maybe 10 years old sitting in church and hearing this parable, even as a little kid living in the city who didn't know anything about agriculture, I remember as a little kid thinking, that's the worst farmer I ever heard of. Even as a little kid in a city, who'd never lived on a farm, I knew you don't just randomly scatter seed. You dig a specific hole and you put the hole in the specific seed so that you know that seed in a specific hole will grow. Even I knew that as a kid. But of course, so did Jesus hearers, right?

He's talking to people who live in an agricultural society. So when he starts talking about a farmer sowing seed and he scatters it randomly on all kinds of different land immediately, they go, oh, this isn't about farming. Cause that's the worst farmer we've ever heard of. He must be speaking about something else. Jesus did that intentionally so that it would not be mistaken as a lesson about farming. It's not a lesson about farming.

Okay, so the sower goes and he randomly scatters the seed and it lands on four different types of land. And Jesus describes the four types of land. And I'm going to compare them now to four different types of church culture. I want you to imagine that you've got a great idea, a great strategy, a mission statement, whatever it is, a way of moving the culture forward, you bring this statement to the church and every time you bring that statement to the church, the response is “we don't do it that way in our church.”

That is Jesus' first soil. He talks about the seed landing on hard soil. It doesn't penetrate and the birds of the air come and they pick up the seed and they take it away. And there's no harvest because the soil is hard. This is the stubborn church. There are some churches that are stubborn and simply will not participate in any attempt to change the church.

Now, why? When Jesus says that the hard soil is actually the pathway—it lands on the pathway—now, how does dirt in the first century.go back. Because “pathway” to us today is like a paved area. But if you go back to the first century or if you go to any agricultural place in the world today, a pathway through a field becomes a pathway, why? Because people have walked on it.

So think about this. There are churches out there that have grown hard because they've been stepped on year after year after year. People have hurt them. People have stepped on them and in order to protect themselves from being stepped on again, they grow a hard surface.

If you find a church that’s stubborn and will not move, it may be angry now, but that anger did not start as anger. It started as hurt. The anger is a protective layer to stop them from being hurt again. So how do you get through to a stubborn church? Well, how do you get through to hardened soil? You’ve got to pour a whole bunch of water on it.

You just have to let the water soak in. Anybody who's ever done any gardening at all knows if you've got hard soil—I live in California. I live in a desert area. So if the soil is hard because it has been walked on and it has not had any water, what do you do? Do you start jackhammering it away? No, you pour water on it and you let the water do its work and then you can dig it much more easily.

So what do we do? We pour the water of the Holy Spirit upon them, we let the Holy Spirit just simply sto often their hearts. We don't go in with a jackhammer that will not work. You've got to go in with a softer approach. You got to feed them. You take thirsty souls and bring water to them.

You’ve got to bring kindness. You've got to bring nourishment to them. That's what you do. And it will take a long time before it can soak in, because initially that water's just going to wash right off, but you keep doing it. You poke a little hole in here and there, and you let the softness of the Spirit and the softness of fellowship and the softness of love and cooperation get through to people to where they realize that you understand where they're coming from.

This is what the first two steps that I talked about earlier are about: understand the culture and show them that you appreciate the culture. When you show them you appreciate the culture, that's like pouring water on hard surface. They will start to soften up and start to hear what you have to say, rather than letting the water just wash off their back. Right? So when you do that, we soften the surface. That's the first type of soil.

Second type of soil is this. You come up with an idea to the church and you present it to them and they say, “That's a great idea, Pastor!” And then nobody shows up for the planning meeting. That was the case in the first church that my wife and I pastored on the coast of California deep in the redwoods. We'd present an idea and everybody thought it was a great idea. But when we'd come to the planning meeting, for the people actually helping out, nobody showed up. Why?

Well, the second type of soil, Jesus says there's a type of soil where the seed goes in. It grows up really quickly. But then the heat of the day withers it away. Why? Because the soil isn't deep enough to take root. So, the second type of church culture that needs to be fixed—the first one is the stubborn culture; it won't penetrate at all—the second one is the shallow culture where it goes in just a little bit to really look promising, but then it dies because they don't have maturity. A shallow church is an immature church. Just like a shallow soil is an immature soil. It needs to go deeper in order to create roots.

So how do you approach a shallow culture in a church? Well you help them go deeper? You help them understand what the mission of the church really is. Remind them again of what Jesus called us to do. Bring discipleship in so that they're not just hearing about the Word, but they're actually doing it and participating with you in reaching their neighbors and in growing in faith and understanding the mission of the church. We need to help a church grow deeper. So, if you've got a group of people who are willing but they're not following through, we need maturity. We know that in anybody, right? One of the greatest signs of maturity in anybody of any age is do they follow through on their promises?

Immature people don't follow through; mature people follow through. And mature church follows through. An immature church doesn't follow through. So we have to help them mature. We have to help them go deeper. So that's the second type of culture, shallow culture.

Third type of culture presents itself like this: You bring the idea up and again, they go, “that's a great idea, pastor. Let's add that to the 17 other things we're doing this week.”

That's the busy church culture. That's a church that’s got their fingers in so many different pies, in so many different ideas, and maybe even in a non church things during the week that are sapping their energy because they're not healthy things for their spirit, their hearts, and their emotions. But in a lot of churches, they simply just...they're busy, a lot of churches are over-programmed. In fact, I'm going to make this absolute statement. I don't make many absolute statements, but this one I know is absolutely true. Churches are over-programmed and most small churches are way over-programmed. We're trying to do too many things. And so we're not doing them well. We're too busy. So we need to simplify, simplify, simplify. Again, that's something we'll approach in a future podcast. How do we bring simplification into a congregation that's been too busy?

And a lot of the smaller churches, the reason we were so busy is because maybe the church used to be bigger. If you're at a church maybe in a small town where everybody in town used to go to church and now far fewer people do, you may have a big building that you're stuck in the middle of, and you may have a busy schedule that you're trying to match, and you have fewer and fewer people doing them.

And as the congregation shrinks, most churches don't stop doing this full array of programs. We just try to keep trying to prop them up and not doing them all that well. So, what do we need to do? We need to simplify.

So, what is the soil that Jesus is talking about? The seed goes in, the seed grows up, and what happens? It says it grows up among the weeds or thorns or thistles, depending on the translation that you're reading. And so that's what happens in the church. The seed grows up, the idea takes root, and it actually grows, but there's so many other things that all of the other stuff going on in their lives crowds out the mission.

So, we need to simplify. We need to get rid of the things that are crowding out the main core of the mission. And in most small churches, we need to decide we're going to do one or two things and we need to get rid of everything else. Some of our churches are just too busy.

So, some cultures are stubborn and the mission won't penetrate. Some cultures are shallow and it won't go deep. And some church cultures are so busy that the good idea can't find a breath of fresh air among all of the other busy-ness that's going on around them. And so each of those needs to be approached differently until we finally can become the fourth soil, which is soft, which is deep, and which has been cleared of weeds. A church that is not stubborn anymore, that is not shallow anymore, and that is not trying to do too many things.

Now, most of you have probably recognized—if you're in a church that's difficult and you've been trying to move forward—most of you have probably recognized your church in one, or hopefully not more than one of those descriptions that we get from The Parable of the Sower. But if you have recognized your church in that, hopefully now you have a tool to begin to look at it in a healthier way to understand, I've got to stop trying to put good seed on bad soil.

And this is one of the hardest lessons for pastors or because we want to get to mission right away and understandably so. The mission of the church is why we are there. But if you're in a church with a bad culture, you need to stop thinking mission and you need to start thinking culture transformation first because you cannot sow a good mission into a bad culture. Think about The Parable of the Sower.

Again, the seed didn't change. The seed that landed on all four soils was exactly the same seed and it only grew and multiplied in one soil. The difference wasn't the seed. Wasn't the mission. Wasn't the idea. The difference wasn't the strategy. The difference is: what soil did it land in? What culture are we trying to plant it in?


You may have a mission that is direct from God and that you know for sure and that actually is the mission from God to that congregation. You may be dead right about mission. But it doesn't matter if the culture is bad. So, for some of us, we're going to have to do the hard work of swallowing hard and going, okay, I'm going to have to lay that idea aside for now, I'm going to have to leave mission aside for now, and we're going to have to change this culture. We're going to have to help people soften their hearts if they've been hurt. We're going to have to help simplify. If things are too busy, we're going to have to help bring discipleship and help them to mature and get stronger if they're shallow.

Whatever it is, we're going to have to change that culture so that it can then receive the seed of mission and the mission can actually grow and be a benefit to other people. Culture eats strategy for breakfast culture eats mission for breakfast, culture eats vision for breakfast.

This is not my idea or Peter Drucker's idea or some new business person's idea. This is really a simple modern day interpretation or understanding of Jesus’ principle of The Parable of the Sower. Make sure that you're putting your good seed into good soil. And if the soil you've been called to isn't good now, it can become good. We can bring softness to hard hearts. We can bring depth to immature churches and, with God's help for all of this, we can also bring simplicity to a bigger, to a busy church. And then from there we can sow the mission that God has given all of us into the church, so that the culture grows stronger, so that a church becomes healthier. And so that healthiness spills out into health fullness for the people all around so that we'll be on mission with Jesus together.

Thanks for checking out this episode. I hope you'll come back for some more, but for now, this episode was produced by Veronica Beaver. It was edited by Jack Wilkins. The original theme music was written and produced and performed by Jack Wilkins. A transcript is available The Pivot Blog at ChristianityToday.com/Karl-Vaters. All of that info and more, including references to Dirt Matters the book by my friend Jim Powel,l can be found in the show notes.

Thanks very much for being with us today and for listening to Can This Work In A Small Church?

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July 1, 2021

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