How To Shift Your Church’s Culture

Recently I picked up a book to re-read.  It was one of those books that you read and then years later re-read because it contains timeless wisdom.  The first sentence of the first chapter reminded me why I was drawn to re-read the book: Culture is the most important social reality in your church.”

As I meet with, counsel and coach pastors who are trying to lead their churches to become more missional and focus on Kingdom transformation, one of the consistent issues in my conversations is the importance of not only understanding but often changing their church’s internal culture.

Pastors Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro in their book, Culture Shift, Transforming Your Church from the Inside Out (Jossey-Bass, 2005), address the importance of a church’s internal culture, why it matters, and how do you lead a church to change its culture.  In Chapter 5, “How To Shift Your Church’s Culture” they point out that “the process of making the shift is not optional; it represents the process of incarnating the kingdom of God.”  Making the shift requires leadership that makes an intentional choice to embrace and live out kingdom values. It also requires a broad based commitment of the entire congregation and that takes time.  Changing a church’s culture is a long-term process as opposed to our short-term focused society where we want to see instant change and results. The remainder of the chapter and book is about their experiences and examples of how they successfully transitioned their churches to become agents of the kingdom in their communities and the world.

Chapter 5 closes with five important questions for any pastor seeking to transform their church’s internal culture.

How can I get my board to agree that we need a culture shift? Mine is so difficult to work with that I don’t know where to start.

Remember that, deep inside, most board members genuinely want God’s best for the church. Many will respond positively if you paint a preferred future of what could and should be the culture of the church. Don’t pitch it so much as “What I want the church to become” but rather as a God-honoring, biblical, forward movement that is compelling.

How can I present this idea to my congregation without over-whelming them?

Prayerfully assess how much they can absorb and process, and then roll out the shift in manageable stages. You might begin by telling people what will not change.  Part of the leader’s responsibility is to re-store a church back to God’s intent.  Most people are reticent about change; instead of thinking out of the box they’re more comfortable returning to God—who made the box! If they can feel as if they’re going back to their roots, they’ll make great strides forward.

Does the responsibility for determining the specifics of the culture shift rest solely on me as a leader and what I think God is telling me?

Yes and no. A culture shift cannot happen unless the main leaders of the church want to embrace kingdom values from the heart. It also won’t happen without widespread ownership among all the church’s leaders.  At the same time, it’s important to remember that change begins in many places. Some change is leader-initiated, or it can move up from the grassroots. The leader’s job is to be open to the truth, wherever it comes from.

What is the most important thing to remember when making a culture shift?

Always keep in mind that good shepherds don’t beat their sheep. It’s better to lead and persuade people than to drive them. Modeling and persuasion generally work better than browbeating. Avoid an approach of “me versus you” or “us versus them.” Change always raises the issue of who has the most authority. Preach for agreement—not ‘”Who is right?” but ”What’ is right?”

How much time does a culture shift take? How will I know how fast to move?

There is no set timeline. Every church is different. Some are more deeply set in unhealthy practices, while others are already headed in a new direction. Every church has an optimum rate of growth, depending on its age, maturity, denominational ties, and other factors. You must evaluate and grasp the right speed of change for your church.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that a culture shift is occurring just because everyone is agreeing with the vision. The true test is when you can see the change implemented in people’s lives.

-Bill Nicoson

From the book, Culture Shift, Transforming Your Church From the Inside Out by Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro; © 2005 Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro.   Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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