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Connecting the Dots of Church Culture


By Justin Gravitt: Understanding your church’s culture is like doing a connect the dot worksheet, but with no dots and no lines. Instead, just information scattered on the page.

The challenge is to sort out the important information from the noise that seeks to hide it. Lack of clarity isn’t the only challenge. Every culture presents noise and information differently, and each can be interpreted in several relevant ways. In most cultures, we find that traditions, activities, and the urgent needs of the present prevent a true picture from emerging. The near-constant whirlwind of church activity often prevents transformational disciple making from happening. What separates culture experts from culture participants is their ability to see through the whirlwind of church activities. These cultural experts uncover relevant clues and discard the rest.

That’s not all they do. Culture experts find ways to connect the dots; to make connections, from here to there, from there to the next. It takes time. It is s l o w. Yes, cultural connect the dots pays off in big ways. In a church, cultural clarity can be drawn out by using a tool I call LEAP. When used carefully the image LEAPs off the page. When it does, it brings with it a new understanding, new actions, and eventually the right kind of change.

Exciting, right? Let’s look at the LEAP tool, so you can employ it in your culture and context.

L – What’s Lifted Up?

Every culture lifts up an ideal. In healthy cultures, the ideal is consistent with the big vision or goals of its leaders. It communicates to everyone about what’s most important in the culture. In unhealthy cultures what’s elevated is a subset of the main thing or, perhaps even unrelated to the main thing. Questions that help uncover what’s lifted up are: “Who has status here?” “How does someone else win influence here?” and “In the past, who were the culture’s heroes?”

Jesus repeatedly made it clear that He was on earth to do the will of God the Father (John 5:19, 10:37; Matt. 7:21, et al). He expected those who follow Him to do the same (Matt. 12:50) and told the disciples to do what He was doing over forty times in the Gospels.

E – What’s Expected?

Humans are social creatures. We long to connect. Cultures carry a set of expectations that help people understand what to do to fit in as well as what’s forbidden. Since these are deeply embedded in the culture’s DNA they are rarely mentioned. They are real nonetheless and function as a blueprint for belonging.

These are often as simple as how to dress and customs of socializing (norms of greeting, leaving, helping, etc.). However, they can be elaborate too, such as language, sequenced involvement, and prohibitions. These aren’t moral issues of right and wrong but are the difference between in and out. They communicate we (culture insiders) do this, they (culture outsiders) do that. To find the customs within a culture ask, “What should I do?” and “What shouldn’t I do?”

A – What’s Asked?

There are one or more asks in every culture, but they are more explicit in church cultures. Most of the time, an ask points backward to the goal the culture elevates and forward to the culture’s answer to how that goal is reached. In other words, what’s asked of people is also the way the culture proposes people are to reach the lifted-up goal. A culture that elevates faithfulness will ask people to fulfill specific obligations. A culture that elevates understanding will ask the people to proscribed things in proscribed ways.

Sometimes the ask is difficult to discern. This is especially true in churches that practice buffet-style ministry. In some cases this ask is implicit. Their ask may not be explicit, but the communication is clear, find something and get involved because we have something for you.

P – What’s Prioritized?

A culture’s heartbeat can be clearly heard when values collide. Every culture has lots of values, both expressed and unexpressed. Some of those values are lifted up to the top, while others function in a support role. The true character of a culture comes to light when a situation brings about a collision of those values. For example, when a people-first culture realizes that it’s only leader for the women’s ministry needs to step-back. Do the leaders encourage her to do so swiftly or to delay for the sake of the group? Or when a disciple making culture discovers a prominent disciple maker has drifted in predictable ways. Is he encouraged to be honest with those he’s influencing or to hide and find help in secret?

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Time and again we see Jesus’ deepest values on display when life brings about value collisions. His love for the Jewish leaders is on full display at the cross when he pleads for God to forgive them, yet he didn’t allow that love to cloud what was right and wrong (John 7:17-24; Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, et al).

The LEAP tool is effective for sorting the helpful information from the noise. Once you find it, connect the dots. Now, there’s an image on the page. You drew it with your own hand, but you aren’t the only author. The cultural picture was created with others and its meaning must be understood with others.

The process of understanding feels a lot like this: Where did we start? Why weren’t the dots, dots? Who decided to add all the other noise? Did we really focus on what was important? Are the lines too curved? Too straight? What if we missed something? What does this have to do with ________?

A culture can’t be intentionally shaped until it’s understood. The LEAP tool gives leaders the handles it needs to proactively understand a culture even while they live in it. As you put this tool to work in your culture be prepared to see things that are partly encouraging and partly discouraging. That’s normal. The difficult work of developing a disciple making culture is promoting the right changes from the center “dots” out.

I talk more about this in my new book, The Foundation of a Disciple Making Culture (a Discipleship.org Resource). Click here for a free download.

By Justin Gravitt

Used by permission. Originally posted here:

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