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Diagnosing and Changing Church Culture

What you need to know about your past to move forward

What do you do when you realize your church talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk? It’s an all-too-common realization, and one I’ve had myself. I agreed with all the church’s stated values, I affirmed their mission, but in reality, those written statements weren’t backed up by any action. And that made ministry effectiveness very difficult.

Three Ways Culture Emerges

One of the key responsibilities of church leaders is to manage the church’s culture, in all its forms, which I discussed in the first part of this article. In order to manage—and even change—the church’s culture, we must understand the three ways that organizational culture emerges.

Founders' Values

The most important source of organizational culture is the beliefs, values, and assumptions of an organization’s founders. How did your church get started? What were the beliefs and values that guided the church and its leadership team, and what were the events that informed those values? These beliefs can be both theological (doctrinal statements, denominational roots, etc.) and operational (what worked).

For example, I know a church has no senior leader and allows all members to have veto power at congregational meetings. This culture is based on the time and place it was founded: a university community in 1971. The church’s culture was born out of the high mistrust of government during that era, especially in academic environments.

Many churches mirror the personality of their founding pastor. Whether the pastor avoided conflict, loved to have fun, or was highly intellectual, the church culture is often based on those values. Because of this, church planters have a critical opportunity and responsibility to lay the foundations of the church’s culture. They must pay special attention to what they communicate through their words and actions, especially about what is acceptable or expected.

Learned Values

The second source of organizational culture is what people in the organization pick up over time as they face challenges. These values come up as people learn the difference between the stated values and what actually happens. As Andy Stanley has said, “What gets rewarded gets repeated.” So even if a church has the espoused value of healthy conflict, yet conflict is regularly ignored or swept under the rug, people in the church will pick up on the underlying—even unstated—value: conflict is not welcome here.

January14, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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