By Jim Powell
Recently, several leaders from a local church asked to meet with me to discuss their congregation’s decline. They wanted advice on how to turn things around. When I sat down to visit with them, I noticed all of their questions were exclusively programmatic in nature. What kind of music do you play? What do you wear on Sundays? How do you present announcements? Do you serve coffee and doughnuts?
There is value in asking such questions because we need to contextualize the gospel, and having relevant methods can make a difference. Yet I was concerned that they were looking for a silver bullet—a simple answer that was going to produce rapid results.
The questions seemed to convey a belief that all it takes is a singular change or a superficial tweak of what is already taking place to allow the church to turn the corner and move forward. But this mind-set is flawed. It leads to oversimplification and idealism, usually resulting in failure.
Therefore, I shared with these leaders what I will now share with you. Rather than focusing on new programs, ministries, and methods of communicating the gospel, they needed most to address the culture of the congregation. Culture is the somewhat nebulous and complex blend of norms, beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and practices that define each congregation. Culture can be tough to grasp, but every church has one, and it has a tremendous effect upon the potential outcomes of the congregation.
I associate the culture of a church with the biblical analogy of soil. Jesus used this analogy as the basis of one of his more popular lessons—the parable of the sower. In this parable, Jesus says the key to abundant kingdom fruit is the ground in which the seed is planted. It really doesn’t matter how you plant the seed; the main thing is the dirt it falls on. Without good soil, the harvest is limited.
This lesson is especially meaningful to me because my grandparents were farmers in west-central Illinois, and as a child, I saw firsthand how this worked. A nice section of my grandparents’ land was classified as top quality, Class A soil. My uncle owned some land a few miles away. His land, though visually more appealing, was heavy in clay and, therefore, of a much lower quality. Every year, before planting their crops, my relatives knew that with the same seed, fertilizer, and weather conditions, my grandparents’ land would produce more than twice the harvest as my uncle’s. It had nothing to do with sincerity, hard work, the size of the tractor, or whether they used no-till or conventional planting. It was all about the soil.
Just as soil is a variable that influences the potential outcomes of a field, the culture of a congregation establishes the environment that often predetermines the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of God’s Word in that body of believers. It’s usually the culture of the church more than techniques, gimmicks, or pragmatic changes that influences its impact.
That’s why two churches in the same town, or even on the same street, can have very similar ministries but very different results. The churches can have comparable buildings, sincere pastors and leaders, dedicated volunteers, and even be of the same doctrinal bent. They can sing the same songs, have the same programs, and use the same Bible translation. Yet, one church is thriving, while the other is dying. When this happens, people often shake their heads and say, “I just don’t understand it.” The reason is it’s usually about the soil . . . the deeper and unseen issues that can be defined as culture.
I learned this lesson the hard way when pastoring my first church. The leaders had assured me they wanted their congregation to grow, and they were excited to have a younger pastor with new ideas. Therefore, I suggested a change to our music ministry in order to increase our outreach, but I soon discovered an influential family in the church was adamantly against this. I thought they were simply opposed to the different style of music, until a few months later, when I realized otherwise.
I was talking to the woman who was outspoken in her opposition to the music change, and was discussing a new family that had moved into our small town; the family was poor, loud, and did not take good care of their property. I commented I was building a relationship with them, and had invited them to church. At that point, the woman said, “I don’t want those people coming to my church!”
It was then I realized that several months earlier, when I thought our biggest problem was our music, the issue was really much deeper. I had assumed when this family said they wanted the church to grow, that they really meant it. In reality, they meant they wanted to reach people who looked like them, acted like them, and talked like them—not the messy, difficult people who really needed Jesus the most.
Even though this lady did not represent the entire congregation, her attitude reflected a problem within the culture of our congregation. There was a general attitude among some members that was resentful of new people moving into “their town.” More than that, they detested the thought of those people attending “their church.” God cannot bless such an attitude. Furthermore, it eventually seeps out and is felt and seen by people inside and outside the church.
Even if we would have changed the music, started small groups, or tried any number of new ideas, we were unlikely to bear much fruit. The results would have been limited regardless, because the bigger issue was not a programmatic one. It was one of culture.
Cultivating a Healthier Culture
This begs the question, can the culture of an existing church be positively changed? The answer is yes! A primary way to do so is to focus on developing and enhancing healthy values in the life of the church. Values shape, nurture, and sway the culture of a congregation. In essence, they provide the nutrients that help facilitate a healthy environment for God’s Word to provide maximum impact in the hearts and lives of people. Without healthy values, the soil will always have limited productivity.
Values are commonly held attitudes, beliefs, and characteristics that are at the core of what is important to a church. They undergird and bind together all the various facets of a congregation. More specifically:
• They are guiding principles that provide direction.
• They influence conduct, behavior, activity, and mission.
• They help define how things will be done.
• They provide a foundation for determining what is most important.
• They are passionately believed and emotionally owned.
When a church takes the time to clarify and embed healthy values into the heart of the congregation, it is influencing its culture and nurturing the environment for maximum impact.
Really Good News
Once a church understands the importance of culture and how values shape it, the next question is, what kind of values are essential for a healthy culture? To answer that, let me go back to the soil analogy.
There are literally thousands of different soil types in which seeds can be planted. In my state alone, there are more than 700 specifically designated types. Many of these soils are healthy and productive, while others are unhealthy and unproductive. Yet, the main point is this—there is no one correct soil type.
It’s common to have different soils that vary in nutrients, content, feel, and appearance, and yet all of them can still be considered good ground. In the same way, there is no one culture that works for every church. Each congregation is a unique body that must forge its own values in order to shape its culture in a way that glorifies God and enables it to reach the community.
The main thing is a church must be clear, intentional, and committed to the values it espouses. Having this commitment over an extended period of time defines and molds the culture.
It Can Be Done
Part of the challenge of this message is that changing culture by instilling healthy values is not a quick solution. It can take years for new values to become rooted in the heart of a corporate body of believers. That’s why when I came to my present church, I tried to focus more on culture than on changing programs and methods for the first several years. It was a church of 65 people that had never averaged more than 130 in attendance. They were great people who sincerely loved the Lord, but there were some mind-sets that had to be changed in order to release our redemptive potential.
While I worked with our leaders to develop our mission and vision statements, I asked questions, made observations, and began to take notes on what I felt were the healthy values that could be built upon and the unhealthy ones that needed to be changed. There were a handful of values that needed to be addressed, but one that stands out was a flawed understanding of evangelism.
Our church was so committed to outreach and missions that it was actually giving away 35 percent of its annual budget, and the goal was to give away 50 percent. On one hand, this sounds very noble, and it illustrates the church’s commitment to outreach. Yet, on the other hand, it was also a sign of what I call a value gap—an area where healthy values are lacking or an unhealthy value is in place. Let me explain.
In spite of its generosity, the church was struggling to keep its doors open. The church was not reaching people in its community, and it was not producing new disciples. Many members had no relationships with lost people, and the ones who did had no real burden to reach them. Furthermore, the fact that we were giving so much money to foreign missions meant we were hamstringing our ability to reach our Jerusalem. In many ways, the church was a holy huddle where we took up offerings and then sent them to others who were doing the real work of evangelism.
Therefore, I had to teach, or reteach, our people the values of growth and outreach. I commended them on the great missions work they had done and were presently doing, but I had to show them that outreach starts at home. I had to challenge people to build relationships with neighbors, coworkers, etc. I had to point out that sharing the gospel was an expectation and that giving money to others was in many ways a cop-out. I had to highlight that Jesus wanted his church to grow locally as well as globally.
It took a long time to reshape and instill a more holistic view of outreach into the heart of our congregation, because it had to be consistently, creatively, and redundantly taught and modeled. Ultimately, the people were receptive, and the culture of our church became healthier and more vibrant as a result.
The people began to pray more for the church and for reaching the lost. The people became more intentional about building relationships with people who didn’t share their faith. They started to invest more money in local outreach. And they were more amenable to changes in our worship service in order to make it relevant to visitors and non-Christians. As a result, the church began to grow.
Today, we are a congregation of more than 1,400 people, and we still believe our best years are in front of us. The challenges of cultivating a healthy culture are still not completed. It is a never-ending process. Yet the journey has been worth it, and I am convinced if your church will focus more attention on nurturing a healthy culture, it will be worth it for you as well.
Jim Powell serves as lead pastor with Richwoods Christian Church in Peoria, Illinois. He is also director of the 95 Network, a ministry dedicated to inspiring and equipping the 95 percent of churches in America that average 800 or fewer in weekly worship attendance.