The importance & challenges of creating culture in a church plant

Church planting can be tough and making disciples is hard work. You can read about methods & models and it can sound easy and exciting but it the reality is often different. It takes graft, patience, perseverance. Blood, sweat and prayers basically.

One of the big challenges for a small team is creating a culture that everyone buys into and that helps you fulfil your mission. Here are some of the challenges I’ve personally encountered:

  • Distance. Being spread out over a city makes creating a common culture harder because getting together is much more effort. The harder it is to be together the longer creating a culture can take.
  • Diversity.  I love being a part of a multi-cultural church but diversity also brings with it some added complexity. Everyone (myself included) sees life through a particular cultural lens. Working through all this takes time.
  • Distraction. Life is busy, families, illness, work – the cares of this world and the worries of this life can distract your people – making it hard to go forward.
  • Dilution.  If your starting core group is small then quick growth through transfer or existing Christians can be a particular challenge as this may dilute your culture while people find out who you are and what you stand for.

Working through differences in theology, church background, life perspectives, personal preferences all takes time. Culture is built not simply by winning people round to your way of thinking on everything but finding common ground to build on without compromising core principles.

At Grace Church we’re beginning to get traction in building our culture but it as a culture of an organisation often has more than one element to it, it does not always grow evenly. We have a strong culture of being a diverse multi-cultural family and community. We’re weaker on the missional dimension and are having to work much harder to overcome obstacles to move forward in this area.

As I’ve thought and read about forming group culture a few keys are beginning to emerge.

Building ownership

Consumers don’t really have loyalty. Brands talk about brand loyalty but I suspect most consumers will happily switch if they get offered a significantly better deal. Christians as consumers are death to a church plant. They will leave you for a better deal and will offer surface level commitment while they are there.

Instead you need people who will make the shift from consumer to owner. People who have invested, feel that they have a stake in it and are willing to commit to make sure the group not just survives but thrives.

When we see ourselves as part of a group, we want the group to survive and even thrive. 

A larger church can carry a larger number of consumers but we all know that when the balance shifts it can be incredibly hard to overcome.

Building Participation

The theological term for this is the priesthood of all believers. Basically everyone gets to play in building the church and extending the mission.

Groups survive better if they have individuals with different strengths to draw on. The more tools you have, the more likely you can complete a job. The more people you have that are different the more likely you can survive the unexpected.

As Seth Godin says,

If you want to make change, begin by making culture. Begin by organizing a tightly knit group. Begin by getting people in sync.

Building for multiplication

I have to say we’ve struggled with this. We had what appeared to be early successes only for that to become early failures (or early learning opportunities as we like to call them). Now after a season of rebuilding around values we’re trying to figure out how do we multiply?

As Howard Snyder says

This is how living things grow: By cell growth, division, and ongoing growth, constantly renewing life. There is a normal, healthy rhythm and pattern. Small things are born and develop. But they grow not by getting ever bigger, but by reproducing themselves when they reach a certain level of maturity. Strange that we should think it would be any different with the church!

We understand the need for multiplication and we realise that you need a simple structure but without the mission there will be no real multiplication. As Ed Stetzer says.

If you want your church to be missional, you need to implement a structure that encourages the culture you are trying to develop.

Our initial framework is by forming small discipleship bands of 2-4 (called CORE groups) and slightly larger groups of 12-20. However we need to work on the process, training and equipping of this groups if we are to succeed.

Building with simplicity

Churches (even small ones) can quickly become complex and it is a battle to keep things simple, so that everyone’s focus is on the most important things. Simple things multiply more easily. If you want to be missional you need a certain level of simplicity.

I think there are some qualifications to this but here’s the general idea.

As a team we’re consciously trying to slow down new activity and instead trying to focus on helping our people work with our culture, vision and values. It’s not easy and it’s hard to measure but we’re seeing signs of life and hope.

Photo by Caroline Davis2010

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