Culture and the church go hand in hand.
Every church has a culture. Yours does. Mine does.
So, what is a church culture? Think of it this way: Mission is what you do. Vision is what you see. But church culture is how your church feels. It’s the atmosphere, vibe, or climate of your church experienced by members, staff, and visitors.
If the culture is healthy, amazing things happen.
- People love being there
- People grow
- Great leaders come and stay
- Your church becomes attractive to the community and more fully accomplishes its mission
Sadly, for many churches, the culture isn’t healthy.
Culture is invisible but determinative. You can’t see it, but it defines so much.
A bad culture will consistently undermine an amazing mission, vision, and strategy.
As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Think about it:
- Culture is the reason you love shopping in some stores and despise shopping in others.
- It’s why you love some airlines and pass on others.
- It’s why some families always have fun when they’re together and others can’t stand to be in the same room.
So, the question becomes: How do you create an amazing culture?
When I led a church, I worked hard on creating a better church culture over the years.
As I became healthier, our church became healthier.
What follows is a 5-step guide on how to create a healthy church culture that echoes throughout your organization, even if you’re starting with a bad culture.
Step 1: Identify and Eliminate the Toxins
Church culture isn’t naturally healthy because people aren’t naturally healthy.
As a leader, one of your chief jobs is to figure out why your culture isn’t healthy and change that.
Look for the toxins that are making your culture unhealthy.
Conflict, selfishness, personal agendas, or even toxins like a lack of passion for the mission can be lethal in a church.
(If you want to drill down further, I outline six warning signs that your church culture is toxic in this post. And I outline 6 early warning signs that a person is toxic in this post).
You can’t eliminate what you don’t identify, so identify the things you want removed from your culture.
Step 2: Model the Change You Want to See
Here’s a sobering reality for all of us who lead: your church will only be as healthy as you are.
Expecting a church to be healthy when its leader isn’t is like expecting an athlete to run a marathon with a missing heart. It’s not possible.
Any conversation about church health starts in the mirror for a leader.
As I discuss in detail in my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow, healthy leaders produce healthy churches. The healthier you are as a leader, the healthier your church will be.
The same goes for all the changes you want to see.
As a leader, you need to embody the things you want your organization to embody.
Want to see a church that invites people on Sundays? Then invite people on Sundays.
Want to see a church that gives generously? Then give generously.
Want to see a church that has a deep passion for the mission? Then exude passion.
You get the point.
As a leader, culture starts with you.
Step 3: Start With WHO Embodies Your Values
So, how do you find your values? There are a lot of words in the English language. You have to choose just a few of them to define you.
Furthermore, how do you avoid meaningless platitudes like “Value Excellence,” which sound great but practically mean nothing?
On that first off-site day we did, I had a spontaneous thought that ended up moving our team forward immensely.
Rather than start with what we valued, I decided to start with who embodied the best of our church culture.
Let me explain.
I went to the whiteboard and asked, “Of all the people who attend our church, who best embodies what we’re about and WANT to be about in the future?”
Immediately, names started coming to all of us. I wrote them down.
Your church has these people too: They are amazing. They are all you want to see in a church member and more.
Then I asked a simple question: “Why? What is about them that makes them the embodiment of our mission, vision, and strategy?”
I’ll come back to those answers in Step 4.
But before we move on, I also created a second list.
Next, we made a list of people who, honestly, didn’t embody our mission, vision, and values, or to put it more positively, who are the people we would need to really encourage to get them in line with our real mission? We actually wrote their names down (and then I burned the list).
And we asked the same question: “Why? What is it about them that makes them the opposite of what we want to accomplish?”
I know that’s dangerous.
Maybe it’s even sinful.
But it’s true. And you know it’s true.
And it was SO clarifying.
Figuring out who you value helps you discover what you value.
Step 4: Isolate the Unique Principles
Figuring out why some people embodied our mission, vision, and strategy and why some didn’t was a breakthrough for us. It helped us get to the values that we, frankly, valued. And those we didn’t.
When I asked our team why the people who best embodied what we’re about and WANT to be about in the future were their top choices, the team started saying things like:
- Because they serve so selflessly
- Because it’s not about them
- Because they are so generous
- Because they are always considerate of other people
- Because they make it happen
- Because they are all about our common mission, vision, and strategy
Those were the first clues as to what our cultural values were.
“Make it Happen” made it to the list of final values a year later. We just love people who are willing to do what it takes no matter the obstacle, and we didn’t want to lose that value as we grew.
Similarly, when I asked our team why the people who didn’t embody our mission, vision, and strategies didn’t make it on the list, our team started saying things like:
- Because it’s always about them
- Because they criticize but don’t contribute
- Because they don’t actually value unchurched people
- Because they want to be served, rather than serve
Again, that helped us understand what our values were.
Try it. On a sheet of paper write the names of ten people who embody what your church is all about and what you WANT it to be about. And then write down why. Do the same for people who AREN’T what your church is all about, and again, write down why.
You will learn a ton about what you value and your ideal church culture. Then burn the lists and save the principles.
For a few hours each month, we chiseled away at the principles we unearthed that day until a year later, after a lot of debate, discussion, and prayer, we had our final six values.
Step 5: Create Memorable and Exportable Language
It’s one thing to know what your values are as an organization.
It’s another to phrase them in a way that’s memorable and exportable.
In our case, we decided to create a two-word phrase for each value (i.e., “Battle Mediocrity”) followed by a question (i.e., “Am I allowing what is good to stand in the way of being great?”).
Having six two-word phrases allows the values to slip into everyday language, and the question makes the application personal.
We also wanted the values to be both prescriptive and descriptive of our church. In other words, we want it to be accurate enough that people say, “for sure, that’s you,” but aspirational enough that it keeps us motivated to keep getting better.
Capturing your organization’s culture is helpful because it allows you to reproduce it and export it as you grow. If your culture is healthy, it will become one of your greatest assets. However you do it, having short, memorable phrases will help the values spread through your organization.
If you want an easy way to acclimatize every new staff member, board member, volunteer, or person to your organization, having defined, memorable and repeatable values are one of the most effective ways to do it. If your organization’s cultural values are NOT written down, acclimatizing new team members can take a year, or it might never happen.
Does sharing your values this way work? Based on my experience, I believe so. Having a healthy, exportable church culture is key to every effective organization’s growth.