Two ways to change a culture

How do you change the culture of a church?

We talked about this question quite a bit at the ‘Trellis and Vine Workshops’ that Col Marshall and I had the privilege of leading recently in the US. It was an issue that many of the pastors at the workshops felt keenly.

Take evangelism. How do you create more of an evangelistic culture or mindset in your congregation? If your people are comfortable being in church, and are glad to be Christian, but have either no real desire to reach out to the lost, or no real clue about how to reach out to the lost, how do you address that?

As one of the authors and publishers of the Two Ways to Live: Know and share the gospel training course, you might have thought that I would have a ready answer: “Simple. Just buy as many Two Ways to Live manuals as you have members in your church, and run them all through the course. It only takes seven weeks. And voila, culture changed.”

Of course, this doesn’t work. It never has. (And if you’ve read the leader’s introduction to the Two Ways to Live course, you will know that we strongly counsel against this way of using the course.)

Culture change almost never comes from programmatic top-down solutions. You can preach a series of excellent sermons on the importance and value of evangelism, run a Saturday ‘personal evangelism’ workshop, or put on a big church-wide evangelistic event. But on their own, these efforts will (in almost all cases) fail to have any significant effect on the prevailing culture of a church.

So how do you change the ethos or culture of a congregation?

The answer is: through patient prayerful work with people. It happens when we take the time to work personally and closely with individuals (one-to-one or in small groupings), to teach and train them in a new way of thinking and acting.

With evangelism, we might start by using Two Ways to Live: Know and share the gospel to train just half a dozen people, for as long as it takes. We will meet with this group and work through the course, and take the time to do the practical side of the training persistently and thoroughly—that is, not skimping on prayer, or on the practical exercises and ‘on the job’ training that are built into the course (i.e. taking each of the trainees out with you to talk to people in your local shopping mall or park).

This might take you more than the seven weeks allotted for the course. In fact, it almost certainly will. Once you’ve finished the actual course material, you will probably want to keep meeting for several more weeks to consolidate what has been learned, to keep doing some ‘on the job’ training, and to keep praying for one another and for the people you are trying to evangelize.

Three or four or six months down the track, you might have five people whose whole attitude to evangelism has been transformed, and who now have new levels of skills, knowledge, confidence and enthusiasm. This in itself will start to influence the congregation, to ripple outwards as others see the results of the training.

If you now ask two of this original group to help you train some more people in Two Ways to Live, this ripple effect will increase. If you keep the process going, two years after starting this grassroots training, you might have 20 or 30 people really well trained (depending on how many new ‘trainers’ you are able to raise up to work alongside you). This will begin to have a significant impact on the prevailing culture of your congregation.

Now here’s the thing; if you combine this slow-growing, grassroots change with some ‘top down’ teaching and activities, the effect intensifies. Towards the end of the first year, you might preach a sermon series working through the main elements of the gospel. Halfway through the second year you might focus the congregation’s efforts in an evangelistic campaign of some kind—a mission week, an outreach event, or something similar—with some of your key trainees involved in the planning. With a small but growing number of people whose personal culture has been changed, the effectiveness of an event or program like this is transformed. It becomes not simply something being ‘put on’ by the staff, but something driven by congregation members who infect others with their enthusiasm.

This is how culture change normally happens—through slow, patient, prayerful grassroots training of individuals, combined with ‘top down’ teaching, preaching and agenda-setting.

Unfortunately, most of us are unwilling to start small and change a culture slowly by training individuals. We want something efficient that we can roll out quickly—either because of an ungodly impatience for results, or because we prefer to organize programs from our office rather than be at the coalface training people personally.

Now, which of these ways of changing a culture represents the way you want to live?

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