‘God’s New Society’ is an expression sometimes used by Christian teachers and writers to describe local Christian communities and it is one that might cause us to reflect upon who we are as the people of God in this world and also upon the kind of influence we are meant to have as long as we are here.
Jesus said we ‘are not of the world’ implying that its morals and values and ways and sources of motivation are different to ours. The Apostle Paul reminded the believers in Philippi that they were to be ‘blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom they were to shine as lights’
‘Counter-culture’ is perhaps a good way to describe Christian influence since what we are and the impact we are to have runs counter to much of what is going on around us.
‘You are the salt of the earth’ said Jesus and added ‘but if the salt has lost its savor how shall the earth be salted’
Culture is more important than Vision or Strategy.
It is now being realized that ‘our culture’, that is the way we are, the glue that binds us together and makes us behave as we do, almost automatically it would seem and causes us to do things in certain ways that are special to us and which help to define us – our culture, the norms and practices that drive us; the values we uphold – is more important than our vision and our strategies
Every group, every organization; every society and community has its own unique brand of culture and Churches are no exception. We may have the most wonderful, clearly defined and carefully communicated vision for miles around. We may also possess fine, workable and well thought out strategies for fulfilling our vision but if our culture does not support these then our strategies will falter and our vision will not be realized.
Vision and Strategy has mainly to do with processes and outcomes – ‘mobilising the members’; ‘enabling skills development’; ‘community outreach programmes’; ‘Kingdom Advancement’ and so on. Culture is about the environment that people create as they interrelate and communicate with one another and these cultural systems can range from being ‘Inspiring’ to being ‘Toxic’! Think of the local church cultures described in the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 – ‘coldness and orthodoxy’; persistence under pressure’; ‘worldliness and compromise’; ‘idolatory and permissiveness’; ‘formal and dead’; ‘faithful and forward thinking’; ‘lukewarm and indifferent’.
What makes it so and how might we assess the nature of the local culture? As a rule cultures fall into two main categories.
Constructive Cultures: foster creativity, togetherness, support for each member. In a constructive culture:
- Everyone is expected to provide initiative.
- Communications are undistorted.
- People are encouraged to be decisive, take moderate risks, take initiative and be accountable.
- People are ‘released’ rather than ‘used’
Defensive Cultures: breed self interest, discourage risk taking, keep things the way they are. In a defensive culture:
- ‘Performance’ is systematically undermined.
- ‘Territorial thinking’ drives decisions.
- How you look, not what you accomplish is most important.
- Internal focus begins to build a bureaucracy.
- It’s always someone else’s fault.
There are, of course, specific ways of measuring culture and of assessing the effect it is having on ‘performance’ and outcomes but a good place to start is to ask a few key questions such as:
- Are people generally enthusiastic or do they do things simply to conform?
- do things gain the acceptance of others?
- Do they have challenging goals or do they prefer to follow orders ?
- Do people seek out or respond to opportunities to develop themselves or do they prefer to follow rules?
- Do they like being creative or do they wait to be told what to do?
- Are people encouraging and supportive of each other or do they tend to find fault with each other?
- Do they cooperate and work together or do they like to outperform each other?
- Do people do things just to look good in front of others or to impress?
- Do people like to try new things or prefer to avoid doing anything risky?
- Are communications good or are they kept to a minimum?
Culture is the most powerful factor in any church – it is the platform for growing a strong and healthy fellowship; it is the fertile soil for growing creativity and passion.
What does it take to build a powerful, positive culture? – here are some clues:
- Culture is an invisible force that is usually unnoticed and unexamined – sometimes stepping into a new culture gives insights into our own
- Culture determines how people respond to vision and leadership – in ‘toxic’ cultures people resent leaders instead of respecting them
- Cultures create comfort zones – culture is an aggregation of behaviours- these pervasive patterns of behaviour are too big for quick fixes. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves and our churches. Only with deep reflection, accurate information and courage can we take the necessary steps to change
- -Culture change is a ‘top down’ project – culture problems by their nature are never solved quickly – they require a clear understanding of the issues, a commitment to systemic change and patience and persistence to see the change take root. This calls for a ‘long obedience in the same direction’. – It has to start with the leadership team
Finally – there are two particular principles which the Apostle Paul develops in Romans 14 which are applicable to all churches and their cultures at all times and in all places. The first is the principle of faith. Everything must be done ‘from faith’ (14:23 and 5)
Second is the principle of love. Everything must be done according to love (14:15)
One area where these principles should operate is in the differences between doctrine and practice. Some things are non-negotiable we might call these things fundamentals. In fundamentals faith is primary. In non fundamentals love is primary.
No one has put it better than Rupert Meldenius
In essentials – unity, In non- essentials –liberty, In all things – charity
Jim Dunn is an Elder at Grace Church, Scotter, Lincolnshire and is active within his own fellowship and across the denominations in the area where he lives.
His vision is to preach and teach the Word of God in ways that focus upon its life changing power.
He conducts key issue seminars and brings regular Bible teaching on important, life related topics and is widely recognised as a communicator and skills developer
He is the author of several books