Leaders Think Culture

I’ve done things in my life that I’m not proud of, and after the fact, I have thought to myself, “That’s not me.” Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. We can probably all relate to those times when we surprise ourselves by how bad we can be. What motivates us to do those things? While our own remaining corruption within our inner person is always partly to blame for our actions, I also think those times of surprising badness testify to the fact that we’re often more influenced by our environment than we care to admit. The environment, or culture, that we exist in exerts tremendous influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And most of the time it’s invisible to us. It’s like that old joke where an older fish is swimming through the ocean and comes upon two younger fish swimming together. As the older fish passes by, he says, “How’s the water, boys?” The two younger fish swim on for a while and then one turns to the other and says, “What the heck is water?” Our culture is often “invisible” to us yet it shapes us in profound ways, for good or for ill.

We see the formative role that culture plays in Scripture as it is described various ways in the Bible. The two most prominent ways the Bible speaks of culture’s formative power is the “world” and “this age.” The apostle Paul describes the human experience outside of Christ in Ephesians 2:1-3. According to Paul, human beings are spiritually “dead in their trespasses and sins” (2:1). All people enter the world separated from Life Itself, God. They are under his judgment and destined for an eternity in Hell. Notice what motivates the sinful actions of people: “dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world” (2:2). Paul explains that all people also walk on a “path” which is leading them somewhere: to destruction. In other words, the human experience is complex. People make sinful choices, but they are also influenced by the “world” or environment in which they find themselves in. Outside of Christ, there is no hope to break free from the enslaving nature of sin and the world.

Paul elsewhere speaks of “this age” which has a (de)formative influence on believers. He writes in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world (Literally, “age”) but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Paul acknowledges that there are values, practices, thoughts, and behaviors associated with “this age.” These things are antithetical to Christ. What is significant is that Paul apparently believes that Christians can be “conformed” to these things. In other word, there is pressure upon believers to “get with the program” of this age, the culture.

To put it simply: we influence and we are also influenced. Everyone belongs to a culture, exists in a culture, and is formed by culture (Remember the old fish joke again). Because of the formative role that culture plays within the human experience, ministry leaders must concern themselves with establishing a godly culture in their groups, ministries, and churches. Leaders must exert purposeful effort to infuse the culture of the ministry with godly values and direction so that the culture, then, in turn begins to form mature disciples. It’s like the old saying goes, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” Leaders must “sow” godly actions into the culture so that the culture changes and adopts those godly virtues. The culture will then begin to form mature disciples with a destiny leading to the kingdom of God.

The leader’s calling, then, is not to micromanage the ministry or have a “vision” from God and then have ministry minions carrying out the vision in a highly structured chain-of-command. Instead, leaders must be “empathetic crafters of culture” as General Stanley McChrystal argues. For example, we may say that we believe in the sovereignty of God, but when people enter our ministries they may be able to perceive the all-pervasive sense of anxiety and worry that hovers over our lives due to an incessant focus on current events rather than a deep study of Scripture.

Culture Change is Not for the Faint of Heart

Changing culture, any kind of culture, is extremely difficult. It is so difficult because it involves changing ourselves first. And as you are probably well aware, the hardest person to change just might be yourself. The difficulty of changing ourselves validates McChrystal’s assertion that leaders must be “empathetic.” If we know ourselves, and if we know how hard it is to change ourselves, then we will be much more prone to show grace to those serving in our ministries when they fail to change or fail to change at the rate we would like. When we display empathy for those serving in our ministry, we are really just displaying the characteristics of love as Paul explains:

“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Therefore, the hard work of culture change is, bottom line, the hard work changing people, ourselves and those around us. The difficulty multiplies because change involves relentless intentionality and accountability. As human beings, we typically default to the path of least resistance. Any positive change in our life takes work, and lots of it.

As ministry leaders, we must grow comfortable with putting in a lot of effort and not always seeing much return. In fact, one of the largest church leadership hang ups I see these days is a preoccupation with measuring “growth.” Now, some kinds of growth, like numerical growth are easy to measure. Are more people coming? Is financial giving up? Those are easy things to track. But some leaders push the emphasis on measurement into spiritual matters. Usually such efforts yield little profitable information. Why? Because spiritual growth notoriously difficult to measure. And if it’s difficult, or even impossible to measure, maybe we shouldn’t. Instead, we must live by faith, trusting that the investments we are making into forming a godly culture will pay off.

One of the difficult aspect of addressing the culture of our ministries is that it is so often invisible to us. You can’t change what you don’t see. Therefore, the job of a leader is to make it visible: to get it down on paper so that you can see it. Now, you may have noticed that I haven’t actually defined culture anywhere yet in this article. That’s because it’s such an all-pervasive concept that it’s difficult to define. But here’s an attempt, borrowed from The Vine Project: the collection of your beliefs and practices. In other words, it’s the underlying beliefs that you talk about in the ministry, and your practices, what you actually do in the ministry. So making your culture visible might begin by asking a couple of questions:

  • What are the most common beliefs of our ministry? What do we talk about the most?
  • What are the practices of our ministry? What do we spend the most time doing?

For example, many ministries and churches say they are committed to prayer, but do they actually have a culture of prayer? Well, you see what a church’s culture of prayer is like, it would require surveying it’s beliefs and practices. How much of the teaching in the church (formally and informally) centers on prayer? How much time in its Sunday morning services is devoted to prayer? How much time outside Sunday morning is devoted to prayer? Does every ministry in the church plan time for prayer in its events and program? By answering questions like those, a church could get a better handle on its culture of prayer.

How Do We Craft Godly Culture?

Attempting to answer a question like, “How do we craft a gospel-centered, godly culture?” is sort of like trying to answer the question, “How do you build a life for yourself?” It involves so many different yet interconnect aspects that it can seem overwhelming to even get started. Here a couple of suggestions in how to begin the journey of crafting a godly culture in your ministries. You need to remember that these are by no means comprehensive or even the only possible way to get started. They are just how I think about.

Lead. Crafting godly culture begins with leading yourself first. Attempting to change your ministry culture without changing yourself is recipe for hypocrisy. All real change in a ministry must first happen in you, the leader. Here are five essential habits to get down in your own personal life before trying to implement any new changes. If your own life and leadership are not in order first, you will not be able to build a healthy culture.

Feed. Take time to teach the principles and practices of the culture you’re trying to establish to a small group of leaders in the ministry. Mentor them to be the kind of leaders who live out the values of a gospel-centered culture. As you mentor these leaders, commission them to be disciple-makers themselves. Put an emphasis on producing reproducing leaders. As you reproduce the kind of culture you want in a few leaders, they can, in turn, reproduce that kind of culture in others.

Equip. Equip those in the ministry to recognize the ways that ungodly culture may be influencing them. Give them the tools to read the Bible for themselves, and live authentically in Christian community. One of the great needs within the church today is to help believers live in community. Due to the digitalization and polarization of our times, many people do not know how to have authentic human relationships. They do not know how to handle conflict and disagreement well. We will be unable to adequately forms disciples if the tenor of our ministries is one of a bitterness and unease.

Protect. Once you have established a certain kind of culture, you will need to protect it. Many forces, both from within and outside, will seek to co-opt the culture of the ministry. For example, many ministries that once started out with a deep commitment and culture of prayer can lose such a focus if the time for prayer is taken up by focusing on pragmatic concerns. Prayer is a lot like cardio…if you wait until the end of the session, you’re never going to do it.

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