Fine-Tuning Your Church’s Culture

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

Fine-Tuning Your Church’s Culture

Do not quench the Spirit, Paul admonished the Thessalonians.  The context makes clear he is talking about their behavior as a gathered fellowship.  Respect those who work among you.  Encourage the timid.  Be joyful.  Whatever you do, don’t put out the Spirit’s fire.  The opposite approach is fellowship behavior that unleashes the Spirit in their midst.  As Paul wrote to Timothy, do fan into flame the gift given you.

There are behaviors congregations can do that end up quenching the Spirit.  A big one is having such rigid relationships that the Spirit can’t gain much traction to help individuals recognize their individual giftings by the Spirit motivating them to contribute to the common good.  Peter urged his people to “faithfully administer God’s grace gifts in their various forms” (1 Peter 4: 10).  The opposite is to be negligent in such organizing and encouragement.  Such was the case in pastoral leadership until recent generations.  The old way did work.  It doesn’t anymore.

How do you change the behaviors of a congregation in ways that more faithfully unleash the Spirit and fan into flame the work he does to motivate fellowship members?  You do that by sending better messages of what members and their congregation can become.

Four Sources of Messages on How to Behave in a Congregation

When I was teaching Organization Behavior, the whole point was to improve the performance of those working in an organization.  I used a scheme that analyzed the sources of messages that determine what a person actually does on the job.

1. Formal Messages are mostly expectations put into writing, like policy statements and job descriptions.  In churches these can be doctrinal formulations and vision statements.  They are important to have but don’t actually change much behavior in themselves until they are reinforced with other kinds of messages.

2. Informal Group Messages interpret what is really important in a congregation’s life together.  What does a newcomer see others actually doing or routinely ignoring?  Consider what they talk about after the formal service.  Do they reflect on the sermon and worship?  Do they share experiences with God?  Or is theirs the small talk that can be found in any social setting?

3. Technique Messages shape so much of what workers actually do, like now working from home in front of a computer screen with Zoom communication.  Churches employ many kinds of techniques for shaping their life together.  Is prayer done mostly by the pastor reading written words, or is it done informally by many?  Is the order of service taken from a hymnal or presented more informally on a screen?  Is the music done with an organ or a praise team?  Churches have their unique cultures recognized as customs, which themselves are accepted techniques.  Change techniques and you are in the process of changing the culture.

4. Action Messages are what participants find themselves actually doing.  Words have turned into action.  Does a church care enough about the action of serving others to organize events that actually get participants involved in service projects?

Such action messages are the most influential in shaping behavior, while written formal messages are the least.  Most traditional churches assume the top-down approach and too often never get to action messages.

If you want to more open more pathways for the Spirit, change what participants actually say and do.  Move beyond just preaching about it.

A Few Principles for Changing Organizational Cultures

In business, the culture of a corporation is a huge topic.  The intent is to introduce changes that will increase productivity or some other outcome necessary for the organization‘s continued success.  Edgar Schein authored the classic analysis in Organizational Culture and Leadership, a text still used in business schools.  He explains how corporate cultures tell their members who they are, how to behave toward each other and how to feel good about themselves.  If these basic functions are true in a business, think how much more they apply to a church, which is all about providing basic identity, values and moral foundations for behavior.

  • Recognize at the outset that changing a culture is anxiety-provoking. Some will lose what they have valued and resent those who seem to be gaining. When we remodeled the sanctuary, the architect suggested that we replace the red carpet with a green one.  Upset about other changes going on, a member of the Altar Guild became so angry that she flung the red carpet swatch clear across the sanctuary.
  • A second principle is that strong leadership is needed to bring about organizational change.  Without leaders that advocate change, congregations will settle back into what is familiar and comfortable.  The key leader, of course, is the pastor, who decides what to feature and who functionally has veto power over the initiatives of others.  Pastors typically have their core expertise in the ways of the old culture.  Few are prepared for the difficult task of negotiating changes to new practices with which they themselves have little experience.  Leadership for change is easier if other leaders are ready to understand and support.
  • 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 if possible.  Leading change necessitates skills in handling conflict.
  • Leaders have to earn the right to be followed in new behaviors.  In Edgar Schein’s words, “Whatever is proposed will only be perceived as what the leaders want.  Until the group has taken some joint action and together observed the outcome, there is not yet a shared basis for determining whether what the leaders want will turn out to be valid.”
  • Culture changes through shared experiences of success.  It makes sense to earn credibility by starting with relatively small changes that are easy to make and are welcome by almost all.  Negotiating easy changes will build trust.
  • Culture trumps vision. Vision is about ideas.  Culture is behavior. Culture change is all about turning new ideas into actions that past behaviors would resist.  Historic churches stress beliefs.  Behavior consistent with beliefs is now more important.

In short, until words turn into successful actions, not much will change in a declining church.  Preaching and teaching a new emphasis is a good start, especially when it is rooted in Paul’s theology of church and ministry.  But until words result in action, persistence on that theme can turn into nagging that annoys more than motivates.

Sometimes a growth spurt in a congregation is preceded by an “igniter” event.  Often unplanned, such an event allows the congregation to experience success, which brings about new energy and openness to change.

One church I know of took on a service project of cleaning up the city park nearby.  A TV crew came to interview them and produced a segment on the evening news.  With this visible success, the leaders were then ready to put more energy into exploring new ideas for ministry.

How can church leaders earn the right to change a church’s culture? How have you seen changes in your church culture that “ignited” the Spirit’s energy and resulted in growth?

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