Shape Your Church's Culture By the Way You Preach
Your job is about more than preaching. This is one area that's much more difficult.
Did you know your church possesses a unique culture? The culture I am referring to is not simply about race, ethnicity, educational background, socioeconomic class of your congregants or even the paintings, music or food members prefer or consume. It is much more subtle.
According to Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, culture can be defined as “the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.”
It is not something to which we react or something we seek to change but rather something we create. What if I told you, as preachers and pastors, our responsibility not only is to feed the flock a balanced diet from Scripture or to preach an evangelistic sermon on the Gospel of Jesus Christ but also to create a church culture within our congregation? Borrowing from Crouch’s concept of culture-making, I believe our calling as preachers includes creating church cultures through our sermons.
Create Culture Through Preaching
I have served as the senior pastor of my church for six years. When I took on the role of senior pastor, I was coming into a church context that already possessed its own culture that was created during its seven-year existence. Although there were some promising cultures in the church, others bothered me a great deal. One of the cultures afflicting our young congregation is the spiritual illness of tardiness. Our service begins at noon because we borrow our facility on Sundays. However, members casually trickle in starting at 12:10 p.m.; many decide to find a seat at 12:30 p.m.
This culture of unpunctuality began at the church’s inception and lingers as part of the church-wide culture. A couple of years ago, God granted me an epiphany through visitors to our church. It was 12:06 p.m., and the sanctuary was sparsely occupied. There were maybe six people sitting in the pews. They leaned in and asked with a peculiar look, “Doesn’t the worship service begin at 12?” In an end-of-the-year sermon, I finally built up the courage to try to put an end to this malaise.
The sermon was titled “The 5 Ss in Loving God” from Malachi 1:6-8. I preached about giving God our best, especially in worship. In the sermon, my desire was not to scold my members but rather to show them a positive picture of who God is and why He deserves our best in all parts of our lives—including Sunday worship.The first “S” concerned sacrifice. In this passage, God compares Himself to a father whose son and servant honor him. God asked the Israelites in verse 6: “If I am a Father, where is the honor due Me? If I am a Master, where is the respect due Me?” I conveyed openly with the congregation how our attitude toward God showed in our belatedness in the worship service.
I challenged the church by sharing two personal illustrations regarding our tendency to show up early when we value someone or something, such as a job interview or a first date with a person with whom we want to begin a relationship. I asked, “How much more does God deserve our promptness in worship?” In order to create a culture, we must preach regularly on a given topic.
Every so often, I remind the church to be early for worship and to prepare our hearts and minds throughout the week to worship God. Creating culture through sermons does not inform individual moral choices or behavior modification alone, but it’s a useful process for creating church cultures in which people collectively begin to embrace kingdom values such as Scripture, missions, evangelism, discipleship, Christian community, generosity, hospitality, social justice and caring for the least of these. Set up your preaching calendar in such a way that you can begin to create a church culture that God envisions for your people through individual sermons and sermon series.
Create Culture Through Patterning
If we have been in pastoral ministry for any period of time, we have gathered that preaching alone may not solve the cultural problems in our churches. The danger for most of us serving in pastorates is we can fall prey to mimicking the culture rather than creating it. One day an inquisitive Saint Augustine noticed the Church in Milan did not practice fasting on Saturdays as the Church at Rome did. Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, was questioned about it and replied, “When I am here [at Rome] I do not fast on Saturday; but when I am at Rome I do: whatever church you may come to, conform to its custom, if you would avoid either receiving or giving offence.”
This quote later became, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The same concept holds true today for prevailing cultures within every church. People begin to practice what they observe among fellow church members. The initial value or practice becomes a habit, and then it amplifies to become the custom or standard for the entire community. Crouch observes that in contemporary society people possess an inherent penchant to modify or transform something that is not working. Instead, he believes because culture is fluid, it “inevitably begets more culture.” Thus, the key is not in obstructing old cultures but rather in constantly creating new ones to the point at which the old way of life is forgotten. In order to create a church culture, we model it by creating new cultural patterns and norms.
Not only have I preached on timeliness, but we have sought to model the sermon in our praxis among the church leadership. The natural termination for our sermons is not in the heart-warming story or the realistic life application for the office, but in actually living out the sermons we preach. We present to the congregation a visual pattern or model to follow; this action, when copied and repeated, breeds a new congregational culture.
As preachers, the temptation is to leave our sermon manuscript at the pulpit. It stagnates at the theoretical level, but the real culture-making preacher will embody the spoken Word in daily life. That is, when we preach about service, we take out the vacuum cleaner and sweep up the carpet in the narthex. When we preach about giving, we put our finite resources on the table and open our wallets to the mission and building funds. When we preach about love, we take the initiative to invite a family to the parsonage for a home-cooked dinner. The creation of a church culture takes the form of patterning—and it starts with us.
Create Culture Through Praying
The creation of a new church culture requires the prayers of the preacher. The Holy Spirit is the only power we have in pastoral ministry to create new lives in Christ. In his book The Living Church the late Dr. John Stott wrote: “Authentic Christian preaching is a bridge-building operation. It relates the text to the context in such a way as to be both faithful to the biblical text and sensitive to the modern context. We must not sacrifice either to the other.”4 I see authentic preaching as a bridge-building operation also among the Holy Spirit, the preacher and listeners. It is only the prayers of the preacher that enable the Holy Spirit to create a God-honoring culture for which the preacher longs. We are futile in ourselves to form new individual creations and new communities for the kingdom.
Let’s take an honest inventory. How much do we really pray for our church members and their families? How much do we really pray for the Holy Spirit to create a church culture that is inspiring and life-giving? How often do we pray God would create new life in us and in our families? What are the existing cultures in your church today? What kind of church culture do you believe God wants you to help create? With the power of the Holy Spirit, I dare you to create new cultures that exalt God through your preaching, patterning and praying.