Your church’s self-understanding is comprised of three components: beliefs; language; and practices. These three elements combine to create the organizational culture of your congregation. The beliefs are the motivation for action and ministry, the interior or “heart” drive for why you do what you do. The language is how you express those beliefs and how you communicate with each other. Your practices are the lived behaviors that support your beliefs and are encouraged and supported by your language choices. The problem comes when you begin to realize that you are actually struggling with two competing cultures in your congregation. You find yourself in the tension between the stated culture and the shadow culture.
Stated Culture vs. Shadow Culture
Your church has a stated culture. The stated culture is made up of those beliefs, language, and practices that are affirmed in meetings and official gatherings. This might include the promise to welcome, love, and respect everyone regardless of gender, race, or other social differences. Theaffirmation of the importance of evangelism, serving selflessly the poor in your community, and the commitment to global missions might also be part of your stated culture. Of course your church affirms their respect commitment to the larger denomination (if they are affiliated with one), its respect of clergy called to serve the congregation, and those committed lay leaders who have been asked to serve and lead the congregation. The stated culture is only half the story…
There is also a shadow culture in your congregation. There are beliefs, language, and practices that are lived that overwhelm any formal affirmation. Your mother was right when she said “it doesn’t matter what you say, people know you by what you do.” While stated beliefs may affirm inclusive ministry, behaviors in and out of church demonstrate whether that is a real part of your culture. While formal language speaks of love and acceptance, insider language with barely veiled innuendos related to who is “in” and who is “out” convey the heart of the church. While stated practices encourage welcoming everyone to the table, covered dish dinners that exclude newcomers and push them to tables to sit by themselves speaks volumes to the shadow culture that is really part of your organization.
Inform; Internalize; Integrate
So how do you bring the shadow culture into the light and create the aspirational stated culture that you really want to see in your congregation. The process has to be intentional, it won’t happen just because you state it over and over again. If it would, it would have already happened. How do we move our stated culture from fancy mission statements hung on the wall to actually being lived down the hall? Like with most behavioral learning it is a three-step process: inform; internalize; and integrate.
First you have to step back and actually admit the truth, and then you have to share the truth. The key to overcoming shadows is to bring them into the light. Look for times when the shadow culture is sneaking in around the edges and then use them as illustrations in leadership gatheringsto help inform your leaders of those practices. Whether they like it or not, the leaders have to go first in breaking the stronghold of the shadow culture, in order to do it they have to be informed that it exists. Once they are informed and if they are committed to ending the shadow culture that is infecting your congregation, they will become sensitive to those moments when those beliefs, language, and practices are occurring.
Information is a great first step, but knowing and living are very different things. If your church simply lived the truth they already know the world would be a different place. The next step is to internalize the knowledge into your leader’s lives. This means that you go first, and then you invite those in leadership to go with you. If you want to be an inclusive congregation, you have to live a life that invites people into your life, into your home, that are outside of your normal homogenous group of friends. It is very easy to talk about inclusive ministry with a group lf people that all look alike, it's a different world when you invite those normally outside to come inside your life and your home. If you want only affirming language to be spoken, then you have to be the first to find places to be affirming. Leaders go first and internalize the stated and desired culture into their lives and then invite others to come along.
The final step to living out your stated culture rather than your shadow culture is to integrate the desired culture into your ministries and missional priorities of your congregation. Once the leaders “get it” they are responsible for sharing it through their words and actions (only God knows their heart). They have to act as agents of correction and redirection, not being willing to silently acquiesce when the unhealthy shadow culture begins to slip in around the edges. They have to seek out the negative and bring light to cast out the shadows. As Jesus stated in Matthew 5:14, you are called to be the “light of the world,” so shine.
Lastly, cultures do not change easily. In most of the organizations I have worked with the shadow culture has deep roots in the history of the church, often going back to its founding. When I do workshops I remind those in attendance that “small churches are small for a reason” and I believe that the reason is not the pastor, the location, or even the number of parking places available, the reason is the culture. Once a culture is set it is like concrete, it takes a lot of effort and patience to change it, but in almost every epistle Paul reminds us to persevere because the “glory of that day is not worthy to be compared to the trial you face today.”
Gracious God give us the passion for moving people closer to you and the perseverance to endure and to change the culture of our congregations to be aligned with your desires for our churches and not be bound by shadow cultures that reflect the heart of the evil one. Amen
Consumed by the Call,