What is culture? Have you ever been to a local coffee shop and ordered a “tall” instead of “small” even though you weren’t in Starbucks? That’s the effect of culture. The way and language of Starbucks has been so ingrained in you that you subconsciously take it other places. It has become part of who you are.
Your church has a culture and it’s having an effect on your people.
Culture is how the room feels at your church plant. It’s the other-worldly warmth of being welcomed with a hug every time you walk into the church gathering. It’s that indescribable buzz of anticipation and excitement that God is doing something here. It’s the zero-tolerance for gossip between members. It’s the thunder in your ears during worship when everyone is singing as loudly as they can. It’s the people being attentive and reverent during the preaching of God’s word. All that is culture.
Ray Ortlund says every healthy church has gospel doctrine (most seminary grads cry out, “Amen!”), but it also must have a gospel culture. Ortlund defines gospel culture as “the shared experience of grace for the undeserving.” This refers to the way the members care for one another, the way lost people are invited into the community, the way pastors are honored, etc. – all in line with the gospel.
Gospel culture is how the room feels when you bring the gospel to bear in every aspect of the life of the church you lead.
This is an essential assignment for every leader in the church.
Gospel Culture in the Bible
Obviously, the apostle Paul cared a lot about doctrine, but he cared just as much about the church’s culture. He spent a lot of time addressing what the church should feel like when you enter. Sure, he told the church in Ephesus to not depart from the doctrine of the gospel, but he also told them that the culture of the church should be fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. It should feel like your family.
Paul told the church in Corinth that gospel doctrine is of “first importance,” but he also says unbelievers should come to your gathering for the first time and understand what’s going on (a culture inviting to lost people).
He told Peter in Galatians that his racism towards Gentiles was not “in step with the gospel.” Peter’s doctrine was solid, but his culture had not yet caught up with his doctrine.
So many church leaders spend a lot of time working on doctrinal statements (which are important!) but not enough time on culture. They have answered the question, “What do I want them to know?” but have neglected to ask, “What do I want them to be like?”
Building culture is how we help people become something, not just know something.
And here’s where it gets convicting. Most of the churches mentioned in Revelation aren’t rebuked for poor gospel doctrine; they’re rebuked for poor gospel culture.
I’d bet the doctrine on your church website aligns with the gospel. But is your culture?
Gospel doctrine should produce gospel culture.
Most church planters could pass a theological assessment. But could you pass a gospel culture assessment?
And here’s the big challenge for every church planter: To create and protect the culture of your church plant. That’s the job God has given you. No one else is more responsible for that more than you.
And here’s why it’s hard: Everyone at your church brings with them their own culture – their own feel – to the community. Many people unknowingly bring a culture of cliques to their small groups, a culture of mediocrity in their service to the church, a culture of ambivalence toward training new leaders. And if you won’t gently rebuke and correct culture that is contrary to the implications of the gospel, no one else will. The toxic culture will spread – and healthy people will leave.
It is your job, pastor, to have the fortitude to define and defend what your culture is and what it is not.
Here are three ways we (Adam and Nate) have intentionally designed a healthy culture at our church plants.
1. Communicate it
Ask yourself, “What am I saying?” You can’t expect what you don’t clarify. Make clear your vision (Where our church is going), mission (How we’re getting there) and values (The attitudes that define us on the way). Talk about them a lot. Have a few important phrases that are constantly reiterated. To create the culture we believe brings the Scripture to life, we say things like: “The church isn’t a place, it’s a people;” “Ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality;” “Don’t spectate, participate;” and “Launching pad, not a landing place.”
We’re not creating anything new here. We’re just clarifying how the Scriptures and the gospel are lived out in our particular context. Just focus on reiterating basic biblical principles. You’re not making a pitch for the next Apple on Shark Tank, you’re defining how the gospel changes the way we do life together. This should look similar to what church would look like anywhere else in the world, at any other time period. And then we hold our leaders and members accountable to what we’ve defined. This also will help filter new people who will just be disunifying headaches for you later on.
Make it plain and write it down so others can run with it (Hab. 2:2). Nobody can carry what we don’t communicate clearly. What kind of church is God calling you to be? What tangible examples and customs will make that a reality?
We have communicated this is by including all of it in a culture guide. It makes a sometimes-vague term like culture, become very specific and practical.
Follow these links to our culture guides to give you an idea of how we communicate culture:
2. Carry it
Ask yourself, “What am I showing?” We can’t create around us what we do not carry in us. Set the example. Be what you want to see. The most effective way to create culture in your church plant is to personally embody it. Culture is like a strong cologne: the more of it on you, the more it spreads to everything and everyone around you!
3. Celebrate it
Ask yourself, “What am I celebrating?” Your church will replicate what you celebrate. Celebrate members who are carrying the culture well. One way we do this is to spotlight servant leaders who are setting a good example at our Sunday morning pre-service rally.
God has called you to plant. And you to lead. And you to protect the culture of your plant. The question for you, church planter/pastor is, “Will you set the culture of the church, or will someone else?”
And in your leadership, look to Jesus, the Savior who perfectly embodies gospel doctrine and gospel culture. Jesus provides the pattern and power for a healthy church. Trust him as you communicate, carry and celebrate gospel culture.
Published February 9, 2022