"Shaping Evangelism Culture"

This was an article I wrote for the August-October, 2010 issue of Grace and Peace Magazine.


A Tale of One City and Two Basketball Teams

Earlier this summer, Los Angeles won their 16th NBA championship. For the vast majority of you, I do not have to clarify that it is the Los Angeles “Lakers” and not the Los Angeles “Clippers” who have been so dominant in the National Basketball Association in recent years. While the city of Los Angeles has two NBA franchises, the two teams could not be further apart. The Clippers are one of three teams in the NBA who have never won an NBA championship. Moreover, since moving to Los Angeles 26 years ago, the franchise has only had two seasons in which it won more games than it lost.

Why does one team consistently take average players and make them great and take good players and turns them in to hall of famers, while the other team takes good players down a path of mediocrity? They both play in the same city, have access to the same players, and theoretically could have the same financial base.

My belief is that what has made the Lakers great and the Clipper mediocre is their culture. The Lakers have a healthy culture that breeds healthy people and healthy results. The Clipper, on the other hand, have had a dysfunctional culture that breeds discontent and frustration.
The implications for the church world should be obvious: We can all think of churches that have healthy cultures – churches in which people experience God in healing and redemptive ways, where people who are far from God encounter His grace for the first time, where people are generous with their hearts and their wallets. And it has been that way for years!

We can also think of churches that have been dysfunctional for many years. Places where bickering and power struggles are the norm. Places where conflict is not handled in healthy
ways and being comfortable is valued above being significant.

Culture is a very complicated concept to define and often we do not recognize our own culture. It is like trying to describe to a fish what water is. Perhaps the best way to understand what shapes an organization’s culture is by what they care about

In the church world where I serve, what makes changing what people care about most difficult is the lack of clarity over agendas. Though many will not admit it out loud (or even to themselves), the highest values for many of our church goers are things like: comfort, building our little kingdoms, feeling better about ourselves, or getting people to be like us.

Several years ago I was at a small gathering in which John Maxwell was speaking. In recent years, Maxwell has focused less on church leadership and branched out to do leadership development in the corporate world. During the question and answer time, someone asked him, “Now that you are speaking and consulting in the corporate world, what have you observed about the difference between the church world and the corporate world?” Without batting an eye, Maxwell said, “People in the corporate world love money a lot more than the church loves lost people.”

Changing what an organization cares about is a lot easier said than done but it can be done over time. How do we as church leaders help shape our churches to be places where we are focused on the mission of Jesus?

Clear “Totums” -- Several years ago I heard Wayne Corderio speak and he used the metaphor of “totums” that helped shape my thinking about church culture. Corderio said that in Native Alaskan cultures, villages would put up totem poles. Often they were heads of eagles, salmon, bears – some kind of an animal that embodied the ethos of a community. As they pointed to the totem, they would tell their children -- “we must be wise as an owl, cunning as a fox, strong as a bear, and as resourceful as a badger.” They would use the totems to explain their villages values to strangers who visited their village -- “The salmon on the pole – he doesn’t give up; he swims upstream even though it is difficult, until he reaches his goal. That is who we are – people who persevere and grow stronger through our struggle.”

The totem pole announces to the village and to visitors – this is who we are – this is our culture. So the question is – what is the totem pole at your church? If people cannot identify what you value within five minutes of attending your church, it probably is not much of a value.
Most of us in leadership get tired very quickly of repeating over and over again what the mission is about. Part of it may be that we think we are paid to think of new things to say. I learned years ago from Rick Warren that “vision leaks.”

There has been a lot written on this subject but suffice to say, if you don’t repeat the vision once a month at a minimum, it won’t stick. And if you can’t nail it down to a sentence, people won’t remember it.

Having clarity of purpose leaves little room for Christian consumer church shoppers who are looking to have their needs met. While knowing the mission and doing the mission are very different, this clarity of purpose seemed to repel people who had other agendas for their church and attract others who had a heart for their mission.

In addition, when we are crystal clear about who we are and what we are about, it makes it easier to measure. Sometimes I envy those who are in business and education because the bottom line seems very easy to measure. I’ve coached Little League Baseball for several years now in part, I think, because I know at the end of the game whether I’ve won or lost. Sometimes in my role as pastor, it is not so clear!

What we measure shapes our culture. Have you noticed that at District Assembly they care an awful lot about attendance, dollars given to missions, and shares for others? (not that those are bad things to care about.) I would argue that the reason we care about those things so much is that we have chosen to measure them.

Every good pastor knows that statistics can be deceiving and that it is impossible to measure the human heart. But, as Ron Blue says, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. We need to measure something to know if we are “winning” or not. Here is one example – how would your church be different a year from now if every month you gave a statistical report on:

 The number of new small group leaders developed that month.
 The number of new people plugged in to a ministry that month.
 The percentage of morning worship attendance that is involved in a small group or Sunday School
 The percentage of morning worship attendance that is involved in a ministry.
 The number of people who invited unchurched friends to a worship service.

Of course, this is not a perfect list and you could probably come up with a better one. But the point is that what we measure shapes our culture.

Story -- Nothing shapes church culture more than stories. Story is the language of the soul. There is a reason why most of the Bible is story. There is a reason why Jesus mostly taught with stories. And there is a reason why Hollywood has been so effective at shaping American culture – they are the best storytellers!

There are countless ways to use story to shape culture: in our publications, our websites, and our teaching. At our church, I stole an idea from Calvin Miller and every Sunday do the “Sermon before The Sermon.” I take five minutes before the sermon to remind the people why we exist and then tell a story about someone in our congregation who has embodied in some way the kind of people we want to become. It could be someone who has just come back from a mission trip, someone who took a leap of faith to begin tithing, someone who took a relational risk to have a spiritual conversation with a co-worker, or a small group who served the community in some way. When I tell the story, people understand who we are in not just an abstract sense. Our mission (and hopefully the mission of Jesus) is incarnated in flesh and blood before their eyes.

Leadership that Embodies the Vision – In recent years there has been a lot of writing on the need for leadership in the church. But I think that generic leadership ability is not what makes leaders effective in shaping culture. Leadership skills coupled with a leader’s passion for and their embodiment of the vision is what makes a leader effective. For years I had this quote from Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeireo on my desk, “You can teach what you know, but in the end, you will reproduce what you are”1

Several years ago I interviewed Don Wilson, the founding and senior pastor of Christ’s Church in the Valley in the Phoenix area. If ever there was a church that reflected the personality and passion of its leader, it is CCV. When I asked Pastor Wilson about this, he told me:

“Some people look at Willow Creek and say they are effective because of the seeker service. No it’s not. It’s Bill Hybel’s passion for lost people. Some people look at Saddleback and think it is the purpose-driven model that grew that church. But it’s not. It’s Rick Warren’s passion for lost people.… For me the common denominator of any growing church is somewhere along the way was a senior pastor who had a passion for lost people. It will be manifested in their personality because if a senior pastor has been there for very long, the church tends to take on the personality of the senior pastor.”

For many of us, the place to begin with the dysfunctional problems in our church is to look in the mirror. But for some of us, the problem is that we have leaders in our churches – paid staff or volunteers -- who do not embody the values you want to reproduce. When I arrived at my current assignment the church was in a financial crisis. When I began to dig further, I discovered that three of our board members did not tithe. At the next board meeting I told my board, “It is not a mystery why our church is in a financial crisis. It is like the father is passed out drunk on the couch and we are wondering why the kids are running amuck.” Two board members resigned from the board and one repented and began tithing. Four years later, our giving per person is twice what it was. We are not where we want to be but generosity is slowly becoming a value for our people.

Changing a church’s culture takes time and work. But real and lasting health for a church does not happen quickly. Like the Los Angeles Clippers, many of us keep hoping that if we can just get some great “free agent” in our church to tithe and serve that all our problems would be solved. But if the Clippers and Lakers can teach us anything, our problems usually have more to do with the water we are swimming in. I resonate with Erwin McManus when he writes, “I know it may sound like heresy, but it is more important to change what people care about than to change what they believe! You can believe without caring, but you can’t care without believing.”2


1 Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro, Culture Shift: Transforming Your Church from The Inside Out. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), p. 202.
2 Erwin McManus. An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Become the Church God Had in Mind. (Loveland, CO: Group, 2001), p. 111.

Dana Hicks