3 Steps To Culture Change In A Small Church (Hint: It’s Different Than A Big Church)

There may be nothing more important to the mission of a church than having a healthy culture. And that culture, conscious or not, is the linchpin that holds any congregation together – or tears it apart.

There may be nothing more important to the mission of a church than having a healthy culture.

Culture is the unwritten set of rules that governs everything a church does.

Whenever anyone says “that’s just the way we do things here,” it’s a statement of church culture. Likewise with “we don’t sing those kinds of songs” and “who do you think we are, (Name) Church?”

In fact, it’s likely that some of the strongest enforcers of a church’s culture don’t even know they’re doing it. But that culture, conscious or not, is the linchpin that holds any congregation together – or tears it apart.

Culture Eats Strategy – And Mission – For Breakfast

Peter Drucker is credited with saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While there’s no direct proof that Drucker ever said it, it’s still profoundly true.

What’s true about strategy is also true about mission. Culture comes first.

No mission can succeed in a church with an unhealthy culture. I dealt with the reasons for this at length in Chapter 5 of Small Church Essentials, so I won’t go over that ground again here.

Guiding The Culture

There’s been a lot said and written about leading church culture in recent years, but since most of it comes from a big church standpoint, it usually sounds something like this: “you as the pastor, along with the pastoral staff are the strongest voices for your church’s culture. So you must establish it, define it, promote it and enforce it.” (Examples can be found here, here and here.)

To be clear, this approach to culture and leadership isn’t wrong, at least not within the context of a large congregation or a church plant. But if you’re pastoring an existing small congregation and you try to establish, enforce, define, and promote a new culture from your position of leadership … well … God bless you at your next church.

That reality is even stronger the more each of the following factors are in place:

  • The longer a church has been around
  • The older the average church member is
  • The smaller a church is
  • The newer the pastor is
  • The younger the pastor is

…the less successful you will be if you try to drive the culture from the pastoral position.

(If you are a young pastor in an older congregation, check out my follow-up article, 5 Essential Lessons For Young Pastors Leading Older Churches.)

So, what can a pastor do to help an existing small church move towards a desired future and a better church culture? There are three essential, unavoidable steps that must take place:

Step 1: Know The Current Culture

In all but the most extreme “burn it down and start again” situations, when you come to an existing church you won’t establish a new culture as much as build upon an existing one.

To do this well, there’s no substitute for taking the necessary time to listen, watch and learn about the church culture you’re inheriting.

What are the expected, but unspoken cultural rules of a church? Because they’re unspoken, they’re usually unknown – and least consciously. So you have to watch and listen for the subtle clues from long-time members.

See where they push back and why. Notice what enthuses them. Listen to what they love about their church – and what they fear about what might be changing.

Take notes, put them together and you’ll slowly see a road map developing.

Step 2: Show Them What You Appreciate About The Church’s Culture

If you’re called to turn around an existing church, it may be difficult to find the positive aspects to their culture. But they exist – even if just a flicker.

Then, when you find those positive aspects, the current church members need to see and hear what you appreciate about the church.

Don’t fake it. If you tell them you appreciate something that you don’t really appreciate, they’ll catch on. Plus, you can’t build anything good on a lie – even a well-intentioned one.

Find something that truly is good that can be celebrated and that you can love, or learn to love. Then celebrate that with them.

Once you’ve identified and celebrated the positive aspects of a church’s culture, you will finally get to the important third step…

Step 3: Receive Limited Permission To Participate With Them In Moving The Culture Forward

Yes, that third step is a wordy one. But every word matters. So let’s take a look at them.

  • Receive Limited Permission…

Look back again at the bullet points right before Step 1. The more of those that apply to your situation, the more limited your permission will be.

Many small churches have had a limited pastoral presence with a lot of short pastoral tenures. The newer you are to ministry, and the longer the church has done this, the slower they’ll be to grant you even limited permission to move the culture forward.

They’re not necessarily wrong to feel this way. Years, even decades of pastoral absences have taught them not to trust too quickly.

  • …To Participate With Them…

In a smaller church, even after you earn their trust it’s unlikely you’ll ever set the pace all by yourself.

It’s always a collaborative effort. If you can’t embrace the collaborative aspects of small church leadership, maybe pastoring a small congregation is not for you.

  • …In Moving The Culture Forward

The culture can be moved forward in all but the most broken congregations.

But please remember, size is not a correct way to determine whether-or-not a church is healthy and strong, or sick and broken.

Setting numerical goals is not a cultural change. Without the necessary shift of attitude, a bigger church just means more of the same.

From Culture To Mission

As my friend Jim Powell likes to say, culture is the dirt in which the seed of mission grows.

Getting the culture right may be essential, but it isn’t everything. It’s the first thing.

Get it right and you can get back on mission again.

And the mission is what matters.

(Photo by Warren Wong | Unsplash)


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