Healthy Church Plant Culture (Part I – Culture in a Church Plant)

Every community has a culture and churches are no exception.  This culture – the sum total of all the ways we relate to each other and to those outside the group, the unwritten rules for social interaction, can develop by intent or by chance.  It is important in a church plant that you consider how people interact and intentionally design the culture you want to emerge.  Note that I said that culture consists of “unwritten rules.”  That is not exactly true since every society has “laws” to regulate the boundaries of acceptable conduct.  Nevertheless, most people either have not read the rules or don’t remember them if they have.  Culture is passed on by admired and/or influential members of the group.

In a church, the culture bearers are often the pastor, other official leaders, and maybe the oldest, most respected members.  In a church plant, to begin with, you and your spouse are the sole culture-defining leaders.  Complicating your situation, if you have developed a fresh statement of core values, you may be learning how to live them out yourself.  A further complication arises when believers transfer into your church plant.  Many, if not most, of those who might joint your plant from another church were part of organizations that gave no intentional thought to the culture they were propagating.  If the background of believers includes a plateaued or dying church, then the church culture may have been unhealthy and even unbiblical.  One study of church health in an urban association of SBC churches found that 75% of their churches were plateaued or dying, 24% were growing by transfers from the dying churches and only 1% of the churches were growing by evangelism.  In that association, the chances of having a Christian visit who has a healthy view of church culture is very slim.

The impact of culture can be huge.  Take evangelism.  The frequency with which leaders share their faith, and the contexts in which they do so, determine how “evangelistic” the culture of the church is.  This means whether the rank and file member values and practices sharing their own faith with others.  It also affects what methods they feel are appropriate in sharing their faith.  The impact of a leader’s values and habits extends to every part of the organization.  Paul’s words in I Corinthians 11:1 are ours whether we wish them to be, or not; “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.”

So how do you go against the flow and build a church with a biblical church culture?  Several key factors have to be looked at.

1)    The vision and values you choose must reflect a biblical way of living and relating as well as addressing the systemic problems of your cultural context.

a.     A biblical lifestyle includes spreading the gospel, doing good in the world at large, and living out biblical relationships in the church.

b.     Biblical relationships revolve around the “one another” passages.  They can be summarized into some statements of core values.  The first church I helped start, Hope Church, uses a summary they call the “seven heart attitudes.” These commitments form the basic membership covenant of the church.  Four of these summary statements relate to interpersonal relationships in the church, three more look at relating to the leadership and work of the church.[1]

c.     Contextual values typically cut against the grain, though they may also pick up on some cultural ideal that is rarely true, and try to live it out.  Many churches use some statement about excellence, another frequent value in post-modern contexts is about being “real”

2)    The people and events to which you call attention, such as by calling a person up on stage to honor, must be aligned with your vision and values.  Every time you personally call attention to something you are communicating value and so shaping culture. 

This can be a tough standard to maintain.  EX: Someone gives a large financial gift.  If you thank them in a worship service, what are you saying about how a person gains honor in your church, especially if you don’t know their character and others in the congregation or community might. What do you honor about the gift and the giver – the sacrifice, the financial pressure it relieves?

3)    Every leader you appoint or hire must be a person

a.     Of proven character – especially shown by the fact that they will serve unselfishly and without complaining

b.     Wholeheartedly committed to the vision and values of the church you are planting; loyal to you and the cause.

c.     Actually having leadership ability commensurate with the position they are given; acknowledged by others to be competent.

[1] The Heart Attitudes include: Put the goals and interests of others above my own (Phil. 2:4), Live an honest, open life before others (Eph. 4:25), Give and receive Scriptural correction (Heb. 3:13), Clear up relationships (Mt. 5:23,24), Participate in the ministry of the church (1Pet. 4:10), Support the work financially (I Cor. 16:2), and Follow spiritual leadership within Scriptural limits and make it a joy for them (Heb. 13:17).