evangelism-culture-picEarlier this summer, Los Angeles won their 16th NBA championship. For some of you, I do not have to clarify that it is the Los Angeles Lakers, not the Los Angeles Clippers, who have been so dominant in the National Basketball Association in recent years. While the city of Los Angeles is home to 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 winning seasons.

Why does one team consistently take average players and make them great, and good players and make them 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 kinds of players, and, most likely, have the same financial base.

What has made the Lakers great and the Clippers mediocre is their “culture.” The Lakers have a healthy culture that breeds healthy people and healthy results. The Clippers, on the other hand, have a dysfunctional culture that breeds discontent and frustration.

The implications for the church should be obvious. We can all think of churches that have healthy cultures: churches where people experience God in healing and redemptive ways; churches where people who are far from God encounter his grace for the first time; churches where people are generous with their hearts and their wallets—and it has been that way for years!

Yet, we can also think of churches that have been dysfunctional for many years: churches where bickering and power struggles are the norm; churches where conflict is not handled in healthy ways; and churches where comfort is valued above significance.

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

Even this can be difficult to pin down, since organizational priorities and agendas can sometimes compete and conflict with each other. In the church world where I serve, the most difficult thing about changing what people care about is the lack of clarity over what is truly important. Though we might not like to admit it, we can place higher value on our comfort, our turf, and our homogeneity than on missional or kingdom values.

Although known mostly for his work in church leadership, in recent years, John Maxwell has been focusing more on leadership development in the corporate world. At a small gathering I attended where Maxwell was speaking, 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 responded, “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 focused on the mission of Jesus?

Clear Totems
Several years ago, I heard Wayne Cordeiro speak about the metaphor of totems. What he said shaped my thinking about church culture. Cordeiro said that in Native Alaskan cultures, villages raised totem poles, displaying heads of eagles, salmon, or bears—animals that embodied the ethos of their community. Pointing to the totem, the people would tell their children, “We must be wise as an owl, cunning as a fox, strong as a bear, and resourceful as a badger.” They would also use the totems to explain their values to strangers who visited their villages, “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 announced to the village and to visitors, “This is who we are; this is our culture.”

What images does the totem pole at your church display? If people cannot identify what you say you value within five minutes of arriving at your church, it probably is not really what you value.

Many of us in leadership quickly tire of repeating the mission over and over again. Part of our weariness 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.” A lot has been 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 or phrase, people won’t remember it.

Establishing a clear purpose leaves little room for “Christian church shoppers,” who are looking simply to have their own needs met. While knowing the mission and doing the mission are very different, this clarity of purpose seems to repel people who have their own agendas for their church, while attracting those who have a heart for the mission.

When we are crystal clear about who we are and what we are about, knowing what to measure is easier. 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, because I know by the end of the game whether I’ve won or lost. In my role as pastor, it is not always so clear!

What we measure shapes our culture. Have you noticed that during district assembly the focus is on attendance, dollars given to missions, and shares for others (not that those are bad things to care about)? I would argue that we care about these efforts because 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. Yet, as Ron Blue says, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. We need to measure something to know if we are “winning” or not. 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 into a ministry that month
  • the percentage of morning worship attendees involved in a small group or Sunday School
  • the percentage of morning worship attendees involved in a ministry
  • the number of people who have invited unchurched friends to a worship service.

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

The Importance of 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. There is a reason why Hollywood has been so effective at shaping American culture— they are master storytellers!

We can utilize story in countless ways to shape culture: in our publications, on our websites, and in our teaching. At our church, I stole an idea from Calvin Miller. Every Sunday, I present the “Sermon before the Sermon.” I take five minutes before the sermon to remind people why we exist, and then tell a story about someone in our congregation who has embodied 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, even a small group who served the community in some or way. When I tell the story, people understand who we are in more than 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
Volumes have been written on the need for leadership in the church. Generic leadership ability is not what makes leaders effective in shaping culture: leadership skills coupled with a leader’s passion for and embodiment of the vision are what make a leader effective. For years, I had this quote from Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro 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, founder and senior pastor of Christ’s Church in the Valley (CCV) in greater Phoenix. 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. That’s not it. 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 that 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.2

We must begin to address the dysfunctional problems in our churches by looking in the mirror.

We must begin to address the dysfunctional problems in our churches by looking in the mirror. For some of us, the problem is that we have leaders in our churches—paid staff or volunteers—who do not embody the values we 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. Real and lasting health does not happen quickly. Like the Los Angeles Clippers, many of us keep hoping that if we can acquire a great “free agent” to tithe and serve, than our problems will be solved. However, if the Clippers and Lakers can teach us anything, it’s that our problems have more to do with the water in which we are swimming. This statement by Erwin McManus resonates with me, “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.”3

DANA ROBERT HICKS serves as lead pastor of Real Life Community Church in Nampa, ID, as well as Adjunct Professor of Missional Leadership at Northwest Nazarene University


1. Robert Lewis and Wayne Cordeiro, Culture Shift: Transforming Your Church from the Inside Out (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 202.

2. Hicks, Dana Robert. The Core Value of Evangelism in Effective Churches. Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2008. Wilmore, KY: ATS, 2008, p. 97.

3. Erwin McManus, An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Become the Church God Had in Mind (Loveland, CO: Group, 2001), 111.