After 30 years as a pastor I came to realise (I’m a slow learner) that one of the most important ingredients differentiating poor, good and great churches is church culture. Does a church have the right kind of culture for it to be a good or great church?
The unexpected disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has made the issue of church culture even more important.
For one, the cohesiveness of the church is very much put to the test because in-person meetings have been curtailed. This is especially disruptive for corporate worship, which is traditionally the main church event.
As I write this, Malaysia is reeling from a third wave of the virus, and much of the country was again under a Movement Control Order for the last two months. Churches have resorted to the use of online technology.
Will a church survive—nay, thrive in the pandemic? I believe the answer depends very much on its culture.
A Crisis Shows Up a Church’s Real Culture
Aubrey Malphurs, in his book Look Before You Lead: How to Discern & Shape Your Church Culture, defines a church’s congregational culture as “its unique expression of its shared values and beliefs”(p20). That is, a church’s congregational culture is made up of three components: its beliefs, values and behaviour. When beliefs and values are held in common by the majority in the church and are then actually seen in the people’s behaviour, they become culture—they give expression to the church’s unique identity.
It is this congregational culture that determines whether a church simply survives or thrives in this present challenge. Unsurprisingly, it is in a time of crisis that the real culture of a congregation becomes clearly evident. For example, is there a real culture of commitment, sacrifice, faithfulness and the like in the church? Or, were they just aspirational values? Or, worse yet, were they simply wishful thinking?
In particular, does the church have a culture where every member is connected, committed and participating in a small group? At a time when large gatherings are curtailed, small groups are the best vehicles for fellowship, discipleship and even outreach. This may be done online, in-person or in a hybrid form.
It is never too late to start a small group ministry or to encourage members to get into one. However, it is much more advantageous if small groups were already part and parcel of the culture of the church. The difference between the two is like an athlete fumbling to put on his running shoes when the starting pistol goes off and an athlete who already has his shoes on.
The Roles of the Pastor and Consultant in Shaping Church Culture
If the culture of a church is vital to the success of the church, it is inevitable that conscious effort is taken to shape the church’s culture so that it produces a healthy church. Malphurs states that the person that has the greatest responsibility to shape a church’s culture is the pastor (p129). It is by no means an easy task, because shaping congregational culture requires change. Malphurs explains that preparation, personnel and process are required to shape the culture of a church (p10-12).
I believe that church consultants have a role to play to help pastors and church leaders understand the importance of church culture. They can act as the leaders’ sounding board as the latter pursue a conscious effort to shape their congregational culture. Moreover, church consultants can study and analyse the real culture of the church (which the leaders may have blind spots), and suggest ways to develop the church’s unique and desired congregational culture that is Scripture-faithful, healthy and life-giving.
The importance of shaping congregational culture as a strategic means for developing healthy churches is found in Malphurs’ statement, “we’ve discovered that it’s a waste of time and money to attempt to lead a culturally toxic church that clings to the traditions of men rather than the clear teaching of Scripture through the strategic-envisioning process,” (p17). Hence, I believe that shaping congregational culture is an indispensable requirement to develop healthy churches.
Reference: Mulphurs, Aubrey. Look Before You Lead: How to Discern & Shape Your Church Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013
This article was first written for the the Society for Church Consulting blog posts on 15 December 2020. You may access it here.