Your church culture is like a force.
Not like the (pantheistic) force you find in Star Wars.
But a force like a momentum that leads your church to do what you do and don’t do.
In a spin on Samuel Chand’s popular definition, think of church culture as the why and the what of what you do. It's your values, beliefs, attitude, purpose, habits, behavior, norms, tone, and more.
It’s what you do.
It’s why you do what you do.
It’s what you feel and experience in your church.
A healthy culture will create a torrent of positive momentum in your church whereas an unhealthy church culture will eat away at your church body like cancer.
Whether you’ve just planted a church or you need to restore a toxic culture, there’s some good news:
Culture is always evolving—it’s not static or fixed.
Said another way, you can influence your church’s culture for better or worse.
But here’s what you need to know:
The culture in your church will evolve into something regardless of whether you want it to or not.
Do you want to create a healthy church culture?
How do you analyze church health?
Need help fixing an unhealthy culture in your church?
In this post, I’m going to share six ways you can build a healthy church culture, how to recognize the signs of an unhealthy church culture, and one thing you must do if you need to fix an unhealthy culture.
#1 – Healthy Leaders Build Healthy Churches
Building a healthy church culture is challenging.
Multiple things are fighting against your efforts:
- Personal struggles
- Sinfulness of people
- Constant move toward negativity
- Preexisting unhealthiness in your church
Not only is this the case, but one big mistake many church leaders make about church culture is thinking just their church needs to change—not themselves or their church leaders.
In an organization like a church, which is a social institution, it’s challenging—if not impossible—to create a healthy culture apart from good leadership. As a church leader, your beliefs, values, and actions will influence your staff, church leadership, and your entire church. In other words, your presence will set the course for your church’s culture.
Are you a healthy, life-giving leader?
Then expect your church leadership and church to move toward a healthy church culture.
Do you have a personal struggle and a heavy-handed leadership style?
Don’t be surprised when the seeds of your sinful tendencies or poor leadership blossom in the life of your church.
Does this mean individuals or groups of people within your church can’t be healthy?
No—far from it.
Again, when it comes to church culture, I’m talking about the environment of your church. Within this environment, individuals and groups of people can be healthy. But it will be difficult for these folks to live their lives in light of the church culture, which will influence them to value and pursue an action for better or worse.
What’s the moral of the story?
Healthy leaders will build healthy churches.
You can't have one without the other.
Before striving to build a healthy church culture, the first step you must take is to look in the mirror. You have to honestly ask yourself whether you’re a healthy church leader.
Here are three things you need to do:
- Take a break
- Find a mentor
- Consider counseling
It’s hard to do an honest self-evaluation in the normal ebbs and flows of life. Often, you’ll need to take a break. From taking off for a long weekend to planning an extended sabbatical, schedule time off for personal reflection.
After you schedule time off, it’s best to plan what you’ll do during that time. Going into a break with the goal of personal reflection won’t happen by accident. Prepare a list of questions you want to reflect upon prayerfully. Write down your thoughts in a journal. Read some books.
Where should you start?
Without knowing you personally, it’s hard to say. I encourage you to invite your spouse, church leaders, and close friends to provide ideas. Be prepared to listen to their advice, and follow through with their suggestions.
Know what else?
Plan on unplugging from everything during this time.
Leave your phone, tablet, and laptop at home. Purchase a disposable phone for emergencies, and only give the number to your family and a few key leaders in your church.
Another key to becoming a healthy church leader is finding a mentor.
We spoke at length about the importance of having a mentor and how to find one, and you can read that article here.
Finally, another idea to consider is counseling.
There’s nothing wrong with having a counselor. This isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s just a good idea to have a trained counselor not affiliated with your church who you can confide in and receive unbiased feedback from.
Taking these three steps won’t make you perfect. But they’re like sitting on a three-legged stool. They’ll provide support for you to be the healthiest church leader you can be.
#2 – Clarify Your Values
To create a healthy church culture, the first step you must take is to clarify your values.
This step isn’t only about writing down some pithy statements. This step requires you and your church’s leadership to invest time into prayerfully considering your church values. From how you teach the Bible to sharing the gospel with your community, your values are really your church’s DNA—they inform everything your church believes and does.
Without taking this step, the rest of what I have to offer below won’t matter.
Be prepared to park on this step before you move forward with the other suggestions. Creating a healthy church culture without clarifying your values first would be like trying to build a house without laying a proper foundation.
There are three big benefits to taking this step:
The first benefit of clarifying your values informs the rest of the benefits, which will make sense in a moment. As you clarify your values, you’ll better understand the identity of your church.
At this point, your goal isn’t to clarify your beliefs.
You should already have these ironed out, and the only time you really need to spend extra time on clarifying your beliefs is when your church is wrestling through a significant issue.
As for your identity, clarifying your values will help your church better understand who you are and why you do what you do. In other words, you won’t be concerned with keeping up with the “Joneses.” Instead, your focus will be on living out who you are in light of who God says you are.
When you have a better understanding of your identity, then your church will be able to make better decisions. Think about it.
Do you need to start a [fill-in-the-blank-with-the-latest-trend]?
How will you handle first-time guests?
Do you need to launch or grow your small groups?
Should you cancel your Sunday school?
Regardless of what decision you need to make, after you’ve clarified your values, then you’ll possess a compass for the direction you should take. Not only will this be helpful for big decisions. But maintaining a clear picture of who your church is will guide the decisions you make every day.
The third significant benefit to clarifying your values is your ability to reproduce your values in your church staff and church. Clarifying your values makes effectively reproducing your values within your team and throughout your church (especially for new staff and church members) a whole lot easier.
#3 – Analyze Your Church
The second step you need to take toward building a healthy church culture is to analyze your church.
On the surface, this step is easy in theory.
All you “need to do” is to compare your church’s values with your church’s behavior and see how well they align with each other. Like I said, easy, right?
Not so fast.
This process takes time.
Not only will you need to assess your church. But you’ll need to empower a decent portion of your church (say 10%) to provide feedback.
For this step to be effective, you’ll need to make sure a wide variety of people respond—not just your closest friends or the most vocal people within your congregation.
Don’t rush this process.
Take the time you need to hear from the people in your church.
Don’t feel like you need to create this process from scratch. There are plenty of resources available you can use to assess your church culture. Shaped by God’s Heart by Milfred Minatrea is one such resource. You may also find that a church health assessment or a church health survey would help spark great conversations within your team.
#4 – Communicate Your Church Values
To build a healthy church culture, you’ll need to consistently communicate your values.
This is why: Church culture isn’t static.
There will never be a time when your church culture “arrives.”
From the presence of sin, people leaving your church, and adding new church members, you’ll need to lead your church to embrace your values consistently.
In large part, what you do throughout the week will reinforce your church values and many people will follow what you’re doing. In other words, church culture is most often caught—not taught.
But here’s the deal:
What you do will only go so far.
Many people are motivated by the why behind what you do—not what you do per se.
What is more, your church culture will naturally drift away toward unraveling. By consistently communicating your values and by casting a vision before your church, you’ll help your church course-correct along the way.
Here are some practical ways you can communicate your church’s values:
- Social media
- Sermons or sermon series
- Church announcements
- Church membership classes
- Small groups and Sunday school
- Celebrate people living out your values
This list will get you started.
#5 – Model the Culture Yourself
Are you the senior pastor of your church?
Do you serve in a key leadership or staff position?
As a leader with a public position in your church, everyone’s eyes are on you, and how you live and lead is a significant influence on your church’s culture.
Talking about your church’s values isn’t enough.
You cannot expect your church to embrace a value if it’s not a part of your life.
Think about it like this.
If you are a platoon commander, then you must lead your platoon in battle from the front. Leading anyone or especially a group from the back is difficult.
Do you want your church members to evangelize, be generous, and be servant leaders? Then you must take the lead in modeling these behaviors.
Remember, values are often caught—not taught.
The actions you take as a leader will influence your staff, volunteers, and ultimately everyone in your church. If your actions do not reflect your church’s values, then what you do will be a more significant influence than what you say.
#6 – Remove toxins
Creating a healthy culture is challenging.
Attempting to repair a broken culture is another story, and it’s extremely difficult.
It takes (a lot of) time, prayer, and participation from many people in your church to move in a new direction. During this process, like a skillful surgeon, you’ll need to understand the harmful toxins in your church’s body, and work through or possibly remove them.
There are three common toxins you need to be aware of:
- Sinful patterns of behavior
- Toxic people
- Unnecessary ministries
The first toxin you need to look for is sinful patterns of behavior. In your church, can you observe consistent and ongoing sinful behavior, such as sexual immorality, jealousy, and fits of rage? Be mindful of sinful patterns in your church, and address them as necessary (see Galatians 5:19–21).
There’s no way you can completely avoid toxic people in your church, and how you respond depends upon the context. In general, if you don’t feed into the negativity of a toxic person, then he or she will move on.
However, there may be a time when you’ll need to directly address someone (church member or staff), bring them under church discipline, and move toward reconciliation. Before you go this route, be sure you and your church leaders follow whatever process you have in place.
In the life of your church, there will likely come a time when you’ll need to end an unnecessary ministry. Oftentimes, these ministries aren’t toxic per se, unless they are a petri dish of sinful behavior. But the ongoing existence of a ministry that no longer reflects the values of your church nevertheless will inhibit you from moving forward.
In creating a healthy church culture, this step isn’t easy.
And be humble.
#7 – Celebrate
What you celebrate, you create.
When it comes to building a healthy church culture, the values you celebrate are the values you’ll reinforce throughout your church.
When it comes to highlighting people in your church, there are two groups you want to encourage:
- Your staff
- Your church members
As a church leader, it’s easy to forget to celebrate your staff.
Life in your church is busy, and there’s hardly enough time to keep things afloat.
To build a healthy church culture, you have to reinforce within your staff the values your church adheres to. Neglecting this important step is one surefire way to maintain the status quo in your church.
Acknowledge your staff (and volunteers).
Regularly sing their praises.
By celebrating the acts you want to encourage, you’ll reinforce the healthy aspects of the culture you want to create.
You also want to highlight your church members.
Observe the behaviors you want to reinforce in the life of your church members, and celebrate them. From mentioning them during your church announcements or sermons to sharing their image on social media with a note about why they’re important, there are many little things you can do to make a big difference in the life of your church.
Building a healthy church culture
The culture of your church isn’t something you can ignore.
Remember, the culture in your church isn’t set.
For better or worse, it’s always evolving.
In order to create a healthy church culture, you have to be purposeful. Start with clarifying your values, taking a long look in the mirror, and actively modeling and communicating what you believe, and, in time, you’ll mold your church’s culture.
I pray you can have the same confidence that the Apostle Paul had when he said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).