It’s still not about the band!
And if it’s not about the band, then it’s not about the building, the location, the organ or the latest whiz bang program either! Sure those things have their place and have their importance requiring wisdom. But none of the above is the solution to a church that is in decline.
It’s still about the “culture” or personality of the church. If the church’s culture or personality is not healthy and if it is not built to address the prevailing culture of the society in which it finds itself it will die.
Have you ever noticed how the “mood” or “climate” is different in one restaurant or business (or church!) that you walk into compared to another? Have you ever felt out of place your first day on the job or in a group? You are experiencing culture. It takes a while for you to know how they relate to one another and how you can “fit in.” Culture is formed by the founder/leader’s assumptions and is reinforced and embedded through organizational success along the way. It is shaped by what is rewarded, what is given attention, role modeled, coached, what stories are shared, how physical space is set up, how operations are structured, what is promoted and so on.
You’ve heard it your first days on the job. “You’re walking too fast. You work too hard. You take too much time. We don’t worry about that… The boss won’t like that…” Culture influences how people behave, interact and react to the people and situations both internally and externally. It is far more influential on your organization than your product or service. The point for the church is that getting a band, changing the music or program may have an effect but it is marginal and probably will not touch the core of its identity and how it operates.
An organization’s survival is often threatened because its (internal) culture is maladapted or doesn’t work anymore because things have changed externally. This is exactly the case with churches. Think about how inner city churches were influenced by changing neighborhoods and they didn’t adapt so they shrunk or died. Some “adapted” by moving to the suburbs, but that is merely moving away from the change. Now what is happening throughout the United States and frankly what has already happened in Europe and elsewhere, is that society (“popular culture”) has changed and no longer supports the church. We can rail against society all we want but the bottom line is our churches are “maladapted” to this change.
Dr. Robert Newton has nailed this one. There is a shift from the church being the (society’s) “cultural insider” to now being the “cultural outsider” and we (and the culture of the church) are struggling to adapt to this change. For decades we have relied upon being a respected institution and all we needed to do was provide Sunday morning services, Bible classes, some other programs that appealed to people and perhaps a solid day school or other program and we were gold. People came. Now there is no cultural pressure to attend church or worse, there is suspicion of the church. So we are left with all our activities, buildings and programs and far less people interested. Many are closing.
So now what? A cultural change needs to take place in our churches. No, we are not talking about doctrine! In most if not all cases we are actually talking about living in greater congruence with our doctrine! The Bible talks about being salt and light, loving our neighbor, making disciples and so on. Often these things were presumed to have been happening with our every week activities and programs and we lazily accepted the results. Now we need to be more intentional - and intentionality requires leadership.
Dr. Edgar Schein, a pioneer in understanding culture and leading change says that leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. If leaders do not become conscious of the culture in which they are embedded, then the culture will lead them. Furthermore he says that if the culture of your organization is maladapted (as we see the church often is today) then it is up to leadership to lead cultural change.
Leading cultural change requires clarity and courage. That means pastors and lay leaders need to avoid giving in to the quick fix (the flavor of the month solution such as a band or the latest program or conference) and decide to focus on being good stewards of the Gospel and the body of Christ and her gifts. Practically that has to do with questions of priorities, assumptions, what you say, how you spend your time, where you show up, how you treat people and react to issues and problems and so on.
Being aware of culture changes everything. Or as Dr. Henry Cloud put it: You get (in terms of culture in an organization) what you create and what you allow (as a leader). So what are you creating and allowing? What “culture” (in the church) are you affirming or challenging? So we ask ourselves: How much should I rock the boat of that culture? Where should I pick my spots? What is culturally worth the price for challenging the status quo? As Jesus once said “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” Matthew 10:16. We may or may not have wolves in our congregations (challenging the church culture will often reveal that!) but acknowledging culture and leading cultural change is a mandate Jesus gives us as leaders. It requires being “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
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Scott Gress is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church as an independent contractor. He specializes in Leadership Training, Consulting, Coaching and Coach Training. Contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. 561-542-4472, firstname.lastname@example.org or scottgress.com