Fine-Tune Your Congregation’s Church Culture

Congregations have a church culture. Each is unique in some way but shares much with other congregations in the same church body. One denomination’s general culture is different from that of another.

When traditionalists want to preserve their tradition, the necessary question is which tradition: the church culture of the 1970s, which is different from that of the 1930s, which is different from that of the 1880s, which is different from the church culture in the 18th century back in the homeland. Church cultures change over the generations in sensible ways. Leaders are continually fine-tuning what they do and how. Seldom does a congregation’s culture change abruptly and completely, however, that is the fear of many who resist.

What does change are the ways of communicating and organizing. Techniques and technology for doing both have evolved much in recent decades. Most members view small changes here and there as reasonable. But often old timers feel less valued when the attention is on reaching out to new people. Their resistance has to be anticipated. When we remodeled the sanctuary, the architect suggested that we replace the red carpet with a green one. A member of the Altar Guild was so angry over this change that she flung a carpet swatch clear across the sanctuary.

Edgar H. Schein authored the most popular business-school textbook on organizational change. He stresses that changing a corporate culture is anxiety-provoking. A business’s culture provides members with a basic sense of identity and defines the values that provide self- esteem. If that is so in business, how much more does it apply to churches, which provide basic identity, values and moral context for behavior?

A second principle, according to Schein, is that strong leadership is needed to change organizational culture. In churches, the key leader is the pastor. But recognize that going more contemporary will be difficult for the pastor, whose core competence is in the old culture.

The third principle is that culture change inevitably brings conflict between those who like the old and those espousing the new. By personality, most pastors are inclined to avoid conflict. To lead change necessitates new skills in conflict management.

The fourth principle is that leaders have to earn the right to be followed in the new behaviors. Whatever is proposed will only be perceived as what the leader wants. Until the group has taken some joint action and together observed the outcome, members don’t have confidence that what the leader wants will turn out to be good. Some sort of success for the new ways is crucial, especially in churches.

The fifth principle is that culture arises through shared experiences of success. It makes sense to earn credibility by starting with relatively small changes that are easy to do and are welcomed by all. Negotiating these easy changes will build trust.

Finally, the sixth principle is that culture trumps vision. So declares Samuel Chaud. Vision is about ideas. Culture is behavior. Changing a culture is all about turning new ideas into new actions that would have been resisted previously.

Christian Schwarz is a contemporary German theologian and church researcher. He offers a framework for recognizing and describing key church dimensions in his Natural Church Development Survey ( This helps members of a congregation assess their culture according to eight qualities or characteristics: Healthy churches generally score high on:

  • Empowering leadership
  • Gift-oriented ministry
  • Passionate Spirituality
  • Inspiring worship service
  • Functional structures
  • Holistic small groups
  • Need-oriented evangelism
  • Loving relationships

There is no one program out there which will make your congregation healthy. The journey to church health is years long. It happens in the Spirit’s time and power. Look to him to increase the spiritual energy level of your church, and with it the energy you will find to pursue more effective ministries.

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