Changing the culture in a church can be a difficult endeavor. This is especially true if you are facing a church with a long tradition and heritage or if you are low-man (or woman) on the org chart. My hope is to encourage you in this post that such change is possible, but will require some serious seeking of the Lord in the process. Be encouraged: if you hope to improve the culture of your church, it means that you care about your church, and that is a good thing! So, here are seven steps to affect change in your church culture.
Step 1 – Pray!
The first step when you hope to affect change in your church culture is to seek the Lord! There is something beautiful that happens when we pause long enough to ask the Lord what His will is in a given situation. God invites us to seek Him concerning our circumstances specifically so that we can align our hearts with His. This is particularly important when we are thinking about changing church culture. Remember, he cares about the culture of His church more than you do! So, make sure to take time to align your heart with His in prayer. You may be surprised with the results after step 1. You may begin to see change in the culture immediately. You may not. You may see that your heart changes in the process. If you are praying for change in the culture of your church, make sure first to align your heart and your desires with His. You may also ask the Lord for patience in the process of change. You’re going to need it!
Step 2 – Listen.
The second step when you hope to affect change in your church culture is to take the time to listen to those that have been a part of the church for longer than you. Most of the time, there are stories, details, history of which you are not yet aware. If this is true, you owe it to the church and to yourself to do some research on the culture of the church before attempting to change it. Most new pastors should wait somewhere between nine months and one year before even thinking about changing major aspects of the church culture. Take this time to listen to those that have information that you do not.
Step 3 – Build.
If you are hoping to affect change in your church’s culture, you will need to build trust and relationships with leaders that are already in place. Leaders will not be effective in leading culture change within the church if they have not yet gained the trust of those they work with or for. So, since you are taking your time, use it to build loving relationship with the people in your church. If you are not able to build these kinds of relationships, you won’t want to be together where you are going anyway. Decide that the people you are traveling with are more important than the destination where you are heading.
Step 4 – Ask.
Most of the time, church cultures exist because of the ways leaders in the church have led. As a result, it is helpful to ask those leaders what they had in mind in certain decisions regarding the church culture. You might be surprised to learn that you have many of the same goals in mind, but have different ideas about how to reach those goals. At that point, you are all on the same team. You just have different ideas about the right game plays. If nothing else, this process can help all parties to understand that you are part of the same body of Christ, looking to fulfill the same Great Commission, and partnering together in how to do that best. And, if you differ on ways to do this, asking gives you the opportunity to work that through in meaningful conversation.
Step 5 – Share.
After you have shown the respect and courage to ask leaders about their thought process, you will likely find that these leaders will return the favor. You should be prepared at this time to be asked about how you would handle given situations and decisions were it placed in your hands. This is the right time and context for you to share your solicited thoughts on how you would choose similarly or differently than leadership has chosen. More often that not, if leadership is going to receive your thoughts will, it will be in a setting such as this. They’ve asked for it! Be respectful and clear, giving a well-prepared plan of action with appropriate reasoning. You may find that the leadership of the church is ready to move and was simply looking for the right plan of action that you have presented. When asked, don’t be afraid to share what you have in mind.
Step 6 – Understand.
Even after being asked for your thoughts on the direction of the church, understand that the answer may still be “no.” This is possible for any position in the church, as we mutually submit to one another out of love and respect for Christ. From the first time Worship Leader to the veteran Senior Pastor, there will be times that the answer is simply “no.” This may be a result of theology, philosophy, vision, finances, stewardship, relationships, limitations on time, or any number of other elements that cause leadership in churches to say no. But, even if this is the case, the process has been helpful. You have learned to align your heart with the Lord, listen to those who know the church better than you, build trust with leadership, ask for leadership’s vision and process, share your thoughts in an appropriate context, and understand if the answer is no. These things are progress in themselves and often, in themselves, have the effect of changing church culture. The answer might be yes next time, and you have moved the starting line.
Step 7 – Repeat.
The last step when you hope to affect change in your church culture is to repeat the process. Leaders in the church must understand that growing the church is an ongoing process. There are no quick fixes and this kind of journey is inherent in the shepherding process. A good shepherd does not just point the sheep in a direction and yell, “Go!” Similarly one cannot drive a truck through the flock and expect for the sheep to respond well. Instead, a good shepherd (like our Good Shepherd) walks in the Spirit, walks with the flock, seeks to understand, engenders trust, develops good communication, is humble to serve, and hangs in there even when things get tough. May our Good Shepherd do this for you especially as you head down the long path to affect change in your church culture!