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Changing Church Culture

If you know that your church needs to make changes, where do you start? Richard Underwood helps us to think through the process of change.

Changing Church Culture primary image

The word ‘change’ conjures up all those light-bulb jokes of the 1990s. You know the type:

Q – “How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?”

A – “Change!?”

But change is no laughing matter. As I suggested in my previous article (Change for Change’s Sake? - which would be worth reading if you haven’t already), one of the reasons that God has given us time is to facilitate change.

I used to think that some things could change; I now realise that most things must change. In a fast-changing world, every expression of church culture has its sell-by date. Which means every church needs to change; the question is whether we resist it or are able to embrace it and shape it for good.

Culture

Not many of us find change comfortable – particularly when it involves our local church culture. Culture is the subconscious network of beliefs, attitudes and values that shape the way we see things and do things. It’s what gives us our sense of identity; who we are.

Culture is like wearing glasses. I see through mine and don’t notice them, but I clearly see you wearing yours. In other words, I am largely unaware of my culture; I am very conscious of yours.

Why does culture need to change? Because ultimately it determines what we stand for and what we do. All change will be superficial and ultimately ineffective unless we can address the bottom-line issue of church culture. An elder I worked with used to tell me, “You need to remember who we are!” He was right. But what happens if ‘who we are’ gets in the way of ‘who we need to be’? We won’t be able to cast a gospel vision unless we create a gospel culture.

Tips for change

So, how do you change a culture? With difficulty, but here are a few thoughts that might help:

Teach the Bible Biblically

What on earth does that mean?

Well, it’s possible to teach the Bible so that the main purpose is to simply polish our doctrinal framework; to maintain and reinforce what we already think. Important as a clear doctrinal framework is, it rather misses the point.

The Bible is the gospel book. It reveals God’s truth and exposes our flaws, our failures and our falsehoods. Gospel preaching doesn’t confirm that I’m right; it reveals that I’m wrong and points me to the Lord Jesus. As Paul points out to Timothy…

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”

That’s why every time he preached, Paul sought God to bring people to the point of repentance and faith – a turning away from sin and a recommitment to the Lord Jesus in every area of life. We need to keep our finger of the pulse of Scripture and preach for change. Keep teaching the Bible biblically and you’ll create a setting in which change becomes natural.

Observe Your World Carefully

What about your world? How has it changed? How is it changing? It’s certain that your world has a new face: the baby-boomers aren’t babies any more… grandparents are the new parents… minority groups are now in the majority. If our church culture is set in the 1980s, we won’t be able to engage with the world of the twenty-first century. And worse still, we will end up misrepresenting the gospel.

Question Everything Relentlessly

Travelling around the country extensively, I’m fascinated to see how churches develop their own idiosyncrasies. Everyone spontaneously standing up to sing a benediction at the end of the service may be second-nature to those in the know but is utterly bewildering and excluding to those who aren’t. Why do we do that without a word of explanation?

Think about the way you conduct your meetings: the language you use; the hymns and songs you sing; the Bible version from which you read; the way you preach. It may all make perfect sense to us but is it required by the Bible? And is it helpful to those we want to draw in?

But church is also more than meetings; it’s people in gospel relationship. How big a part does grace play in our relationships? Is there room for people to grow by trying new things and make mistakes along the way? Are we willing and able to embrace newcomers or is church a tight-knit clique for the inner circle? Question everything.

Phone a Friend Regularly

I’ve come to see how important it is for churches to develop strategic friendships. We need people who’ve been there before to help us change. We need people who see us as we are and can share honestly their observations about our existing culture; people who can ask the hard questions we wouldn’t think to – or dare to – ask and offer suggestions that are helpful because they know and love us.

Is there a wise and experienced Christian leader in your area who knows your church really well and is trusted by the congregation? Ask him. He may be willing to give time to meet with you, pray with you and walk with you through the next chapter in the process of change.

Change is a long and painful process; it helps a great deal to have someone who is able to encourage us that we’re on the right track.

Face the Shock Honestly

When we look closely into the mirror, we discover that we’re not quite as attractive as we thought we were:

  • We like to think we’re welcoming, but is that how newcomers sees us?
  • We like to think we’re prayerful, but how many of us meet to pray regularly and what do we pray about?
  • We like to think we’re gospel-hearted, but how many non-Christians are we actually engaging with for the Lord Jesus on a regular basis?

The list could go on; my point is that when we’ve plucked up the courage to start asking the difficult questions, we need to ask God for the grace to cope with the answers.

Take Your Time Patiently

Every church culture has its sell-by date. But changing our culture is like changing any habit or behaviour; it doesn’t happen overnight. It requires long-term commitment and continued investment through preaching, prayer and patience in abundance. Preach for change, plan for change, and celebrate the smallest changes wherever they occur.

When we’re ready to embrace the process of change for the sake of the gospel with open minds and warm hearts, we know that we’re going ‘with the grain’ of God’s grace.

Footnotes

Article image modified from a photo by Kevan Davis.