Changing the Culture of Your Church

This is for pastors and other church leaders in particular.

When Jim went to his church as the new pastor, he told me, “They have a bad history. Every two years they run the preacher off.” He paused and said, “Let’s see if we can change that.”

He didn’t. Two years later, in spite of the wonderful growth the church was experiencing, a little group informed him that his work there was done and it would be better if he left.

I served one church where a small group of leaders–some elected and some not–met from time to time to make important decisions for the church. The poor pastor had little or no say. When I, the new preacher, suggested that this is the type of thing a congregation needs to know about and make the decision, the spokesman said, “We don’t like to upset the congregation about these things.”

These days, since I’m in a different church almost every Sunday, I see all kinds of arrangements in congregations. In one, the pastor seemed to be an appendage and was considered irrelevant by the lay leadership. In another, he was the good old boy expected to not make waves.

Since my ministry in a church (as the guest preacher) is usually confined to preaching a sermon and extending the public invitation, I try to find out certain things before the service begins:

–what is the congregation expecting from me today?

–are they responsive during the sermon? If they are, I see that as a great compliment to the pastor. No congregation suddenly begins listening and responding to a sermon when a new dynamic (ahem!) guest preacher arrives. If they are listening to me well, I decide they listen well to their pastor too.

–are the people responsive during the invitation? Do they get up and come to the altar area to pray without coaxing from the preacher? If so, that’s a great sign.

–are the people glad to be alive, to be in church, to be with each other? Or are they just enduring this hour.

I do not usually ask anyone about these issues, but just observe. I’m trying to get the temperature of the congregation.

I’m trying to assess the culture of this particular church.

I rarely have a greater joy in the ministry that visiting in a church that is alive and healthy. The people love their pastor and he feels a divine call to be in that place and to serve them. The staff works as a team, they’re aggressively doing their job, and they adore each other. The pastor and other leaders have taught the members so well, they are great contributors, excellent witnesses, and are strong on fellowship. Being in church today with this family is the high point of their week. As for me, I don’t want to leave!

But what does a pastor do when things are not that way, when a church has unhealthy patterns and relationships are sick and worship services are an ordeal?

Answer: He sets himself to changing the culture in that church.

The question is how.

How does one change the culture–the way of doing things–in a church he has gone to serve?

First, let’s emphasize that it can be done.

Cultures of churches are changed every day. Every time a new pastor arrives–and to a lesser degree, when a new staff member comes–a church changes. So it can be done.

Talk to any faithful pastor who has served a church for two decades or more. Ask, “How are things different from how they were when you arrived?” Pull up a chair, because he can talk for the next hour on that.

Second, there are two ways to change the culture: abruptly and gradually.

The church undergoes a great revival. Church members are broken over their sin, they confess and repent and begin loving each other. New people flow into the congregation. One day the pastor looks up and realizes he has a new church. Nothing is the same as before. The culture has changed abruptly.

Sometimes, a church’s culture undergoes a cataclysmic change as a result of a crisis. When the gunman entered Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth some years ago and killed a number of youth and their workers and injured others, Pastor Al Meredith and his people were immediately thrown into the biggest crisis of their lives. Even though Wedgwood was widely known before that event as a thriving family of the Lord, they were changed forever on that Wednesday night.

Most culture changes happen in churches more gradually however. And that’s probably best.

Let’s repeat what we mean by a church’s culture: How a congregation makes decisions, what makes up its worship, how the people relate to each other and to their leadership, everything that is part of the inner life of the Lord’s people in a local congregation–all of that is included in the term church culture.

When a pastor is considering coming to a church, he does well to find all he can about that congregation’s culture. We sometimes say that men and women should never marry intending to change the other, that is the very thing that pastors necessarily do. God sends His pastors to flocks in order to make them holier, healthier, stronger, deeper.

All right. We’ve dilly-dallied long enough. Let’s get to it. How would a pastor go about recreating the culture in a church where he has gone to minister?

1) Carefully. To quote a judge friend who was issuing a decision concerning a church, “We’re dealing with the fine china of people’s lives here.” Tread softly. That pianist you feel is holding the congregation back lives for the opportunity to serve. That deacon you see as an obstructionist got that way from watching a former pastor brutalize a church. Respect these people whom you are trying to lead.

2) Considerately. Before changing anything, the new shepherd will want to find out what he has. Nothing is scarier to a congregation than a new preacher–it’s almost always a young, immature one–who walks in and starts making wholesale changes without considering if the old ways were working.

3) Slowly. It’s possible to kill a church trying to reform it. But, more likely, the pastor who tries to make vast changes too quickly will find himself looking for a new job. Take your time, pastor.

4) Prayerfully. Never forget this is the Lord’s people. He loved them before you did and He will still be here when you leave. He bought these people with His own blood (read Acts 20:28) and you didn’t. Ask what He wants done in His church.

5) Corporately. Not unilaterally. Not alone. Not from the top down. You are not Moses and this church is not Sinai. Pull in a few of the godliest leaders and share your heart, then listen to theirs. Work with them.

6) Personally. Model it, preacher. If you want people to pray at the altar, do it sometime. If you want a church service in which people share their testimonies, give yours and from time to time, interview someone about theirs. If you want them to be generous, show them how.

7) Trustingly. Let the congregation learn that you love them and that this church is not a stepping-stone in your career. If they feel you are using them to enhance your resume, the more discerning of them will resist you. And well they should.

8) Easily. My pastor (Mike Miller) says, “I tell the church, ‘Let’s try this for a semester. If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the way we were doing things.’ That’s a lot less threatening to people.”

9) Sensibly. Give them the reasons for the changes you are introducing. Most people want to do the right thing and can be convinced if you have solid reasons.

10) Confidently. Do not waver, do not give an uncertain sound (I Corinthians 14:8), and do not blame others for the decision. As Margaret Thatcher said to George Bush before they launched Desert Storm, “Now, George–don’t go wobbly on us!” You are the leader, so lead. When people complain, continue to love them. When they look for someone to blame, take your lumps. It’s the price of leadership.

11) From the pulpit. (I tried to find an adverb; really I did! ha) The point is that the pastor may need to retrain his people, and the sermon time is a great time to do that.

First, what that does not mean. It does not mean crafting sermons in order to get your personal philosophy into the minds of the people. A preacher will have a higher view of the preaching ministry than that!

What it does mean: Preach the Word. All of it. You will find yourself amazed at how perfectly it fits your congregation’s needs at each point, when you are preaching through a particular book.

God’s Word is filled with stories and incidents and instructions on how His work is to be one. Paul’s letters in particular were written to churches and to pastors on this very theme. The Old Testament reeks of such stories–from the advice of Jethro to Moses to get organized (Exodus 18), to the rebellion of big shots in the congregation who resisted Moses’ leadership (which God took personally! Numbers 16), on to the injunctions (a half dozen of them!) to Joshua to “be strong and of good courage” in leading God’s people (the end of Deuteronomy and Joshua 1).

Some churches, let us admit, are too far gone and cannot be changed.

During His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus saw the diseased culture of Judaism and made the decision not to try to reform it from the inside. It was a tough thing to do and broke His heart.

As He approached and saw the city, He wept over it, saying, ‘If you knew this day what would bring peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you, surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you and your children within you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another in you, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.’ (Luke 19:41-44)

I know a church that is near death but does not seem to know it. They are resistant to change–the kind of change that could save their congregation–and take solace in their nice bank account. “We have money,” one of their leaders was heard to remark the other day. All that means is their funeral will be delayed a while longer.

My own feeling is that we should let the Lord put a church out of business. It’s His church and the decision is His. (One generation after Jesus uttered the words above, in AD 70, the Roman general Titus with his army utterly destroyed Jerusalem. The historical account is as brutal as anything you will ever read.)

I keep thinking of the line from the song “Me and Bobbie McGee” that goes: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.

Sometimes a church has to get to that point–rock bottom, nowhere to go but up–before the people are willing to change how they do things. What you hope is that there is time enough and strength enough in the body to pull back from that near-death experience.

The goal, as always, is healthy churches doing the work of the Lord.

5 thoughts on “Changing the Culture of Your Church

  1. Bro Joe, Excellent Article, great insight from years in the pastorate. This is a great article for a pastor just entering his first pastorate or a seasoned pastor, may we learn from it as we go about pastoring “HIS” Church.

    Bro. Tom Mosher, Oklahoma

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