Laying the Cultural Foundation of Your Church
By Michael Kelley
No one comes to a building in its early stages and marvels at the extensive nature of its rebar. Instead, we wait until the structure actually starts to go up. We don’t want to see what makes it stable—we want to see what makes it pretty.
Even though rebar isn’t pretty, it’s incredibly necessary. Rebar gives a building’s foundation its stability and strength. It holds everything together below the surface, making a structure resistant to the forces of time and nature.
Without rebar and a firm foundation, a building collapses.
An organization’s culture, especially in a church, is like rebar. Culture is core to who we are and shapes everything we do. It is the summation of what we value, what we believe, and what makes us unique as a church.
In a church, we have both the privilege and the weighty responsibility of constantly framing and tying rebar. We do this through common everyday decisions that might not seem significant at the time, but nevertheless shape what’s to come.
It happens when we say “no” to some things and “yes” to others; it happens in the way we give or don’t give announcements from the stage; it happens in the way we equip our leaders.
Every one of these decisions does more than employ an action; it teaches something to the church.
With each of these decisions and actions, we are laying the cultural foundation of our churches by teaching those around us.
The way we read the Bible, the songs we choose to sing, the manner in which we take communion or the offering—all of these are teaching tools.
The problem is that because they also involve tasks, we often skip past asking what they teach in order to get to the utility they provide.
If this becomes our normal practice, then someday we will turn around and wonder why this church, the one God called us to and gave us vision for, behaves the way it does.
And at that point we can’t simply change the practice, because the practice has been propped up by the culture we have unknowingly created.
Instead, we must be cognizant that every decision reinforces something; every action is a teaching moment. If we stay aware, we can ensure the decisions we make accurately reflect the culture we are creating.
Nowhere is this more important than in the small group environment.
The small group is one of the easiest windows into whether the culture of the church is truly understood and embraced by the people.
Staff members aren’t in direct control; a secondary person has been handed the responsibility to lead the group in accordance with the culture of the overall body of Christ.
Just as vocational pastors tend to suffer from culture blindness, so do small group leaders. And just as pastors are always teaching something about the culture of the church, so are small group leaders.
Think about it—what happens when people walk into that small group for the first time? Do they eat food and talk for half of the group time? How much time do they spend praying for one another?
Do they leave knowing anything deeper about one another’s lives? Do they merely push “play” on a DVD and expect spiritual transformation to occur?
While some of those options might be easy, the bigger question is whether they contribute to the culture we want to create in that group, and therefore in the church as a whole.
How, then, can we lay the rebar of church culture at the small group level to avoid culture blindness?
1. Articulate your culture
Culture is hard to pin down, but it’s important to be able to say in a few words who you are as a church. It’s unfair to expect yourself or others to operate according to a culture that hasn’t yet been defined.
Just as rebar must be solidly tied and framed, we must also be able to put words around who we are as a church and what God has called us to do.
2. Define the win
What are your expectations, according to your culture, for the small group environment? If you can’t answer that question, you are setting up the leader for failure.
Is the primary purpose prayer? Teaching? Intimacy in relationships? Depending on how you answer that question, the leader will know what must be done weekly and what can be done weekly.
Keep in mind, though, the lower the standard you have for the win, the lower the commitment you’ll have from both the leaders and the people in the group.
3. Feed the people
Don’t neglect the amazing opportunity you have in small groups. These are life-changing environments where people learn to walk in intimacy and holiness with God and one another.
As much as we may hate to admit it as church leaders, these environments have an even greater impact than the large group worship time, because in these pockets of community, anonymity is impossible.
It’s worth taking a careful inventory of the content presented in your group environment to ensure it’s not only quality but also fitting to what you want to accomplish.
Culture, like rebar, isn’t always visible, but it’s always there. The more attention you pay to it in the beginning, the sturdier the building will be in the end.
As you take that hard look, you might consider a tool called smallgroup.com where you can create custom Bible studies that will truly fit the culture you are trying to create.
Using this tool will allow you to guard your church culture while ensuring your people are being fed the life-changing Word of God.
MICHAEL KELLEY (@_MichaelKelley) is director of Groups Ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources.