Fighting for a Healthy Church Culture
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Many Christians have been burned by churches and some have chosen to abandon church altogether. But scripture is clear that Jesus loves The Church, and desires to see believers gathering together in local churches. There are no lone wolf Christians in the New Testament. Even if you never darken the door of another church building, you need a fellowship of believers to gather with as The Church. Rather than turn our backs on the very Church Christ calls his Bride, we can take a redemptive posture towards church culture and help make his bride healthy and ready for his return.
Part of church hurt comes from going to one church after another hoping for a different experience and ultimately experiencing more of the same hurt. It takes careful examination of church culture to understand why you keep getting hurt and how to finally find a healthy church culture.
Such careful study is also needed if we are to take a redemptive posture towards the church and make cultural shifts within our local churches.
Over the course of my life, I’ve been part of churches with each of the cultures I’m about to explain. I’ve also been hurt by a church with each culture and have seen friends hurt as well. There are no perfect churches. Each culture has its strengths and weaknesses to look out for. And each culture is capable of redemption.
Some ground rules before you keep reading so I don’t come across random places on the internet where I’ve been taken horribly out of context and misunderstood:
- I am not bashing any churches or any church culture. We should have a redemptive posture towards all churches, even if they are not healthy right now and are hurting people.
- Taking a redemptive posture does not mean we turn a blind eye to church hurt, but it does mean we are honoring to the churches and leaders even as we deal with stopping the abuses.
- This post is not permission to go tell your pastor everything he’s doing wrong and how he should listen to you to fix it.
- This is post is also not permission to dishonor your leaders and mutiny against them.
- Yes, I do know first hand how hard finding and cultivating a healthy church culture can be. I am in no way dismissing that struggle or how you’ve been hurt by churches in the past.
- Don’t get hung up on the titles I give each culture. If they are helpful for your understanding and remembering the concept, great. Otherwise let the titles go and take what is helpful.
- Finally, on the church culture matrix I explain below, there is no “middle” option. I’ve had some people look at the diagram and think it’s a spectrum with varying degrees along each axis or that being in the middle would be the goal. In this case, being in the middle would be a non-culture of no message and no method. You can’t have a culture at all if those two things are not clear. There may briefly be churches that exist in this no man’s land of non-culture but they typically fizzle out before they ever get started or find themselves developing one of the four cultures I describe.
How God Gave me this Church Culture Matrix
A few years ago I was visiting another church for a special service. I watched as everyone around me connected and loved the service, and it just wasn’t doing anything for me.
So as I sat marveling at how this service connected with so many but not myself, I asked God why, and he had me sit down and draw two lines in my journal and write, “morality, identity, evangelism, and discipleship” at the end of each line. I may not have gotten any of the good that was planned for that service, but I sat there getting a huge download as God then unloaded hours of explanation of the simple lines he had me draw.
Primary Message, Primary Method
Every church has a primary message and primary method. This doesn’t mean that the don’t have other messages or methods, but that one is primary. The primary message is the driving force behind every sermon and every ministry program. The two primary messages a church culture carries are either identity – who God is, what that means about who you are, and morality – this is what is right or wrong, here’s how to live a righteous life.
Identity is all about being, while morality is all about doing. A typical identity message may talk about God as a loving Father and how he’s adopted us as his own, freeing us from an orphan spirit. A typical morality message may talk about how we need to check our hearts for any hidden sins and walk in obedience to God.
Every church also has a primary method that they use to communicate their primary message, evangelism or Christian discipleship. Again, this doesn’t mean a church does not do both, but one will always be the primary focus. In evangelism churches the focus is always on those outside the church, bringing in new people, and proclaiming the gospel. In Christian discipleship churches the focus is on helping believers be healthy and grow in their spiritual maturity. Evangelism is all about reaching, discipleship is all about growing.
A Healthy Church
While a healthy church will embrace both messages and methods, I do believe there is one culture that is healthier than all the others. A church that is focused on the message of identity and the method of discipleship, will always result in evangelism and people that desire to live moral lives.
It just doesn’t flow the opposite direction. If your message is morality and your method is evangelism, you’re not naturally going to produce spiritually mature Christian disciples that know their identity in Christ.
There are issues as well with identity/evangelism cultures and morality/discipleship cultures which I will discuss in more detail below. But the point I wish to make here is that while both messages and both methods are good, there is a culture that we see modeled in scripture as the healthiest church culture, and it is one I believe all churches can work towards cultivating regardless of what culture they currently have.
The Four Church Cultures
I refer to this culture as a government because it draws its strength from the size of its population. There is a consistent need for growth in numbers but not necessarily depth. Governments typically ask little of their citizens other than following the rules and respecting the leaders.
- Often mega churches
- Typically take a “seeker friendly” approach
- Led by pastors with charismatic personalities who are well liked
- Often built around one particular pastor
- Lots of church ministries and programs, mostly focused on children/youth and new believers
- Have broad appeal and connect with many people that would never consider going to church
- Typically good at helping new believers get their footing in basic theology, breaking cycles of addiction, and working through relational issues.
- Often have the most robust children’s and youth ministries
- Because of their size it is easy to be unknown — big disconnect between pastors/leaders and the congregation.
- Mature believers often are overlooked and left with no places to lead or minister out of their giftings and no resources for growth.
- Leadership is often based on popularity or who you know
- Leaders who are well liked often stay in power even when caught in sin, while those that are not well liked may never be given a position of leadership or are quickly removed for things others would not be.
Path for Growth:
Churches with this culture must be intentional about creating smaller environments focused on identity and discipleship. They must also be careful not to allow themselves to be built around a single pastor’s personality.
These churches need to look for the mature believers they already have in their congregation and equip them with more opportunities to minister out of their giftings (and not just ask them to serve in one of the volunteer capacities that can be filled by new believers). As they activate those mature believers, they also need to look for ways they can bridge the gap between evangelism and discipleship.
There often ends up being two categories of discipleship, either you’re a new Christian and you’re being discipled, or you’re a mature Christian and you are discipling others. Churches must be careful not to neglect the believers that are not new to the faith but are also not walking in maturity. It is also important to look for ways that those leading in discipleship can also be discipled themselves so that they continue to grow.
I refer to this culture as a business because it is concerned with your growth and the development of its members, but primary way members are evaluated is by their actions and performance rather than their identity.
- Often Reformed churches
- Have multiple ministries and opportunities for discipleship, accountability, and personal growth
- Very formalized authority structure
- Leaders are appointed based on qualifications
- Do a good job of teaching scripture and solid doctrine
- Well developed discipleship ministries that meet the needs of both new and mature believers
- Clear chain of command and path for advancement in leadership
- Prone to works based gospel or legalism because of the focus on personal development through discipleship coupled with the morality message.
- Often too rigid with authority structure, members who could make great leaders are over looked for not having the right qualifications
- If a member stumbles, the path back into good standing can be complicated. Requires lots of specific actions rather than just evidence of repentance and a changed heart.
Path for Growth:
Churches with this culture need to learn to value who their members are more than just what their members do. Though this culture is called a business, if it learns to be more relational and identity focused like a family run business it can build upon its strengths of solid doctrine and well developed discipleship ministries.
Social Club : Identity/Evangelism
I refer to this culture as a social club because it is built around agreement upon a goal, idea, or teacher. Membership is open to anyone who agrees with that goal or idea or has chosen to follow that particular teacher.
- Sometimes seen in para-church ministries such as mission organizations.
- Also can be post-modern or universalist
- Open and accepting
- Focus on forgiveness, freedom, God’s love
- Openly embrace those that have felt rejected by other churches
- Members have strong understanding of God’s love
- Open to new ideas and new ways of doing things
- Often have incomplete understanding of who God is
- Frequent struggles with sin due to focus on acceptance and lack of focus on morality or discipleship.
- Often no clear leaders, members follow the leaders they like to hear and will frequently change who they are following
- The leaders they do follow have no real authority, there is not accountability to leadership as members are free to just choose different leaders to follow if they don’t like what that leader has to say
Path for Growth:
Para-church or missions organizations can often exist healthfully in this space because it is assumed members are getting discipled elsewhere, allowing for focus on the evangelistic mission of the group. Churches with this culture need to be sure they are grounding their teachings in sound Biblical doctrine instead of just personal experiences. They also need to develop systems of accountability and discipleship so that members actually grow instead of just going from teacher to teacher to hear what they like to hear.
I refer to this culture as a family because it is based in identity and personal growth. In a family you receive identity by who you are related to, not what you have done or haven’t done. In a family there are mothers and fathers whose mission is to see their children grow and mature.
- Often smaller congregations, but can be large with smaller gatherings that are a part of it
- Team of leaders rather than a single pastor
- Both women and men as leaders with motherly/fatherly roles
- Freedom for members to grow and explore their giftings
- Everyone is discipling someone, just like older siblings helping younger siblings
- High value for honor and open communication
- Safe place to be in process and even a little messy
- Cultivates members that naturally desire to live moral lives and to share the gospel
- Lots of opportunities for everyone to minister out of their giftings
- Leaders are approachable and engaged with the members
- Seeks to meet one another’s needs, more concerned with giving to it’s members than it’s members giving to the church
- Communal living, “church” goes beyond the worship services into everyday life
- Not always the best at communicating family values to new adoptees.
- Can sometimes become cliquish if belonging becomes about identity in earthly relationships instead of identity in Christ.
- Can be slow moving with changes
- Can be overwhelming to those from different cultures (think about the first time you met you spouse’s whole family)
Path for Growth:
The biggest danger to a church with a family culture is forgetting that it’s all about identity in Christ instead of identity in earthly relationships. Many family culture churches have failed because there became too much of a focus on one particular family or group of friends that comprised all of the leadership. The other area these churches need to pay careful attention is how they welcome in new family members. As a family we often forget that the language we use or the values we hold are not common knowledge. A healthy family takes special care to introduce a new member to all the things that are core to their culture and make them actually part of the family instead of just a visitor. Churches with this culture must also be careful not to slip into a social club if they get a sudden influx of new family members and shift their method from discipleship to evangelism.
Bill Johnson of Bethel Church, Redding, talks a lot about Kingdom Culture. One of things he teaches is that culture must come from leadership down. Movements may come from the people up, but without a culture to sustain it, movements will not last. If you want to see the culture of a church redeemed it must come from the leaders.
I know that’s probably frustrating to hear if you are not in leadership and struggling with an unhealthy church culture. But you do have options. The easy option is you can leave that church and find a church that has a healthy culture. As you may already know though, that’s really the easier said than done option. Healthy churches are hard to find. And you aren’t going to find any perfect churches. Even though I clearly see the family culture to be the healthiest, there are still weaknesses and areas of growth for that culture.
The hard, but probably best option in many cases, is to pray for your leaders. To honor and serve them well, and when appropriate communicate concerns you have and areas you would like to see the church grow. There are plenty of people who request a meeting with the pastor to tell him all the things that are wrong with the church and that they are leaving. There are few that will respectfully communicate the concerns they have followed up with a commitment to stay and help however needed to see the church be healthy.
The good news is that Jesus cares more about the health of his Bride than we do. When we spend time with him learning to see his Bride the way he sees her, learning to have the heart for her he has, we begin to serve her and fight for her like he does.