Why a Church's Culture Always Trumps its Vision
In my over 25 years of overseeing a church and ministering to senior leaders, I have seen countless pastors (including myself) become frustrated because those in their congregations either do not catch or follow the vision of the church, or because the vision they are preaching does not seem to make much of a difference.
I believe one of the main reasons for this is because the culture of an organization or church must change to match the vision that is being declared before that vision can really be implemented. This cultural transformation is a process that takes a long time (at least three years or longer). Unless you engage in this arduous process it does not really matter how much time you spend crafting a nice vision statement or how much you preach it from the pulpit; it just won’t work!
Before we continue, let’s identify the word “culture.” A corporate culture has to do with the habits, patterns, words, dress, appearance, goals, and motivation that has been adopted and tolerated as the norm or even celebrated from the top leadership. Each nation, city, community, organization, and church has a particular corporate culture or unspoken set of rules by which they expect everyone to play by.
For example, in certain cultures it is expected that dinner guests burp to show they fully enjoyed their meal, while in other cultures this would be an embarrassment! Also, in certain cultures such as some remote tribes of the Amazon jungle, it is acceptable for women to be topless; in most other cultures this would be considered immoral. These are examples of accepted norms that everyone perceives even without the employment of a sign or written code laying out the rules of engagement.
To further explain, although most Evangelical churches share a common goal of winning people to Christ, even declaring so from the pulpit and having it in their mission statements, most of these churches do not employ a soul-winning culture as part of their strategy since they have adopted so many Christian subcultures that make new visitors uncomfortable. Hence, the essence of the Gospel message, which bridges people to God through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, is not received because churches are employing patterns of vocabulary, behavior, dress, and styles of worship that are foreign to the average new person.
To illustrate by personal experience: Years ago our church leadership decided to gradually stop the spontaneous waving of banners in our church as expressions of our worship because new people in our community come from a traditional Catholic or mainstream Protestant background in which banner waving would be considered weird. (One pastor friend of mine once told me that a new visitor once quipped, when asked how he liked the worship experience in his church, that he was waiting for the planes to land when he saw flags being waved!) Although we allow choreographed dancing with banners, spontaneous use of banners was slowly (and quietly) taken out of our church worship services.
Also, one of the main things that turned me off to the Gospel as a teenager was when I visited a church or spoke to Christians and they continually used religious lingo like “praise the Lord” or “amen” or “hallelujah” in every sentence, even in casual conversations. In our church, I tell those making Sunday morning announcements to sound normal and not like some weird religious robot that is programmed to say “amen” or “hallelujah” every other word! I believe we can have a powerful move of God in our services that feeds mature Christians without adopting some of the religious patterns that appeals only to a particular Christian subculture and are not a fundamental part of the Gospel message.
To illustrate further, one time my wife brought a new person into our sanctuary during a church service, and one of the worshipping members was standing in the back of the sanctuary, trying to help the Holy Spirit by making intense motions with her hands in which she was “pushing forth” so that we could have a breakthrough in the Spirit. This new person started looking at this church member in a state of shock and, when my wife saw the look on her face, she quickly escorted her out of the service and into her office.
You see, until our church members understand how unchurched people view our services and rid them of unnecessary religious behavior, the Sunday morning experience will never attract multitudes of the unchurched no matter how much soul winning is part of the vision of a church.
In my experience I have found that we can have shorter services, lift up our hands, sing during worship, and have normal conversations and down to earth church announcements without compromising a powerful move of the Holy Spirit.
If a church is really serious about having a culture of soul winning, they need to begin by critically reviewing their church through the eyes of a new visitor and then begin lapping off everything expressing a religious subculture that is not essential to the Gospel and a pure move of the Holy Spirit.
Many Christians become confused and think that the Holy Spirit cannot move unless they are screaming, shaking, and gyrating, oblivious to the fact that an unbeliever may find it strange and even a stumbling block for their salvation!
Churches need to have a multi-layered plan of dialogue with every level of their leadership and continue the discussion regarding the development of a church culture conducive for seekers before they can ever seriously consider obeying the Great Commission. They will especially have to consider how their Sunday worship experience appeals to seekers if indeed Sunday is the main day they present the Gospel to new people. Also, if your church does not have many new visitors every week, it may be because your church members are actually embarrassed to invite their friends and family because of the strange religious behavior exhibited.
Lest someone try to categorize our local church in a certain way, let me say that we do not have a typical “seeker sensitive” church, because our services are usually at least an hour and a half long and are still replete with strong passionate worship and high commitment messages that include the whole counsel of God. I still preach messages on eternal salvation, damnation, repentance, and the like. My attitude is this: If a sinner is going to be turned off and tuned out, let it be because they are rejecting Christ and not because they are rejecting our religious subculture.
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