Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Aberrations in Belief and Practice

Aberrations. The term comes from a Latin word meaning to "stray." Aberrations can be dangerous, even deadly, if you are driving a car down the road at 65 mph. Going off the road at that speed can be deadly. It's the same with beliefs and practices. I am a Christian minister, a pastor and church consultant who has seen and heard of aberrations in fellow ministers and churches. I received a call the other night about a church I once pastored which went through a number of aberrations resulting in dozens of people leaving. Then a few years ago, two pastors I knew left (the church word is "forsook") the faith and joined another religion altogether. What's going on? Why do aberrations happen in belief and practice? How can we be sure to "finish well" without going astray?

Temptation to be "novel." This is the first reason why people stray from tried and true faith and practices. We have a human, too often sinfully laden, itch to try new things and practice new venues. While this may be looked upon as exciting, stimulating, refreshing and so forth, in faith and practice, aberrations here can be deadly--eternally as well as right now. Humankind's earliest encounters, though novel, were deadly. Adam and Eve stepped out of the tried and true way of God, listened to the master of temptation, and plunged themselves and the human race into sin. This "hankering" may release creativity in us, which can be good and useful, but can also be evil and deadly. Jeremiah 6:16 tells us -- "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."

Faith for "academic" exercise. The second reason for straying has to do with some theologians and other ministers I have known who have a bent for the academic, the heady, the studious way of viewing the Scripture and faith and practice. Don't misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with theological studies and rigorous study of the Bible. But there are groups of people who have no "faith-gates." That is, "anything goes" in the study and practice of the Word of God. So, for instance, the resurrection of Jesus becomes a myth, or a good story, or a religious encounter, but not true, historical fact. If we can find enough people who say that something "weird" is not weird, then it becomes normal and acceptable. Or, if we can find an obscure scholarly article or paper or book that differs greatly from a tried and true way of viewing and interpreting the Bible, the temptation to be novel and the sometimes itch to be "different" trumps what we may deeply know to be true and right.

So, what's the cure for aberrations? Several helps include: (1) know God as He has revealed himself in His Word and world. Not just know about God, or dabble with the knowledge of the divine, but deeply, really, personally and in a transformational sense, know Him who is your Creator and Redeemer. God will lead you into all truth. (2) Test all things. That's what the Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. Don't accept what may be out of the ordinary, tantalizing and different as true and right and healthy. God has placed "faith-guards" in the Bible to help us discern right from wrong and good from bad. (3) Be careful of headiness. Someone once commented that some Christians are "too heavenly minded to be any earthly good." Added to your study of the Bible and the faith, practice that faith deeply, rigorously and sincerely. Get around others who will help you do this. (4) Get someone you respect and trust off of whom to bounce your new ideas. Accountability partners are good not merely for lay people, but also for ministers and theologians. I have been kept from many bad paths by friends, co-workers and fellow ministers and theologians who have helped me stay on the straight and narrow.

Just some thoughts. Don't stray, but instead finish well!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Understanding Your Church's Culture Grid

Brett Selby, Leadership Development Specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma ( along with Eric Wann from Performance Advantage, Inc. ( have provided some excellent thoughts and tools for assessing a church's culture. That's right--culture. Every church has a culture--a distinct, well-defined and often misunderstood way they go about thinking, perceiving and doing ministry. For instance, a church I attended in college had, and still has, a well-defined, doctrinally-centered, Calvinistic-oriented, Baptistic culture. To be part of that church, and especially to serve in the church, your understanding of the Bible and its doctrines had to be assessed and approved by church leadership. You had to "fit" their culture. Otherwise, though you could attend services, fellowship times, Sunday school classes, and so forth, you could not even think about vital participation without whole-hearted commitment to their culture of Reformed Baptistic orthodoxy.

As Eric Wann points out, "The three most important elements of culture are the people, the policies and procedures and the organization's value structure. Your people define the organization and communicate your culture to others outside the organization. Your policies and procedures provide the guidelines and structure of what can and should occur. Your values describe the behavioral playing field of your organization." He goes on to say that "it is always much easier to make a culture adjustment when an organization is small and growing. It becomes much more difficult, though not impossible, when an organization is large and the culture is fully ingrained."

Nothing is "wrong" with church culture, unless we are talking about anti-biblical models that violate clear Scriptural mandates and standards. Culture is culture. It is what it is. Failure to understand a church's culture can end up in the dismissal, sometimes sudden, as Selby points out, of a staff leader or even senior pastor. Churches operate out of a very foundational cultural sense of being. They can stand some conflict in competing personalities, differing ways of understanding the Bible (except in the above case), different dress styles and habits and so forth. What they cannot and will not stand for long is violation of their (sometimes unconscious) cultural preferences and conventions. 

The Culture Grid above is an example of a church in the Northeast that I would say is more or less typical of many churches I have worked with as a consultant. This church's culture is people-oriented, inwardly driven, with an emphasis on fellowship and unity. Their structures reflect carefulness, orderliness and lack of risk-taking. No, they are not averse to SOME change, as long as it is well-defined, given enough process time, and doesn't upset too many people. But they greatly dislike high impact, flexible ministries that are highly risk-taking and focused on results. Unity among the people trumps outward, results-oriented, creative and innovative ways of doing ministry. While they TALK about sharing their faith, they choose safe, conservative ways of doing so or don't do it at all. The problem is not that Christians are disobedient or sinning against God and His command to "go and make disciples." They simply want to  do so in a way that reflects and obeys their cultural norms and proclivities.

Yes, this is an "older" church with well-established boundaries, ministries, patterns and ways of thinking and doing. This is why many church growth people would say the solution for change is to avoid or ignore churches like this and instead plant new, younger churches that are open to change, flexibility and innovation. However, churches like that in the diagram are often then by-passed and dismissed in gospel work. I don't believe this severe dichotomy has to exist. In fact, churches like that described in my opening paragraph and like that in the diagram can serve God and the gospel well with the right kind of leadership, direction and care. Here's a few notes on culture and ministry effectiveness.

Resistance is futile! The words of the Borg to their conquered space foes (Star Trek Generation fans understand) echo in the halls of thousands churches to would-be change agents. Leaders that take a crusade-like attitude of conquering the culture are more than likely not only not to succeed, but to lose their ministry in that place. Books and articles that talk about "changing the culture" often miss this point. It is assumed that church culture can change. My experience tells me such change comes only through a wholesale change of congregants--and that takes generational change or a brand-new church work or a miracle-work from God that touches the very core and definition of church life. And, it's not a "generational" thing. The children of the churches cited in this blog have adopted the conventions of their parents and former, well-respected leaders. In fact, the children of the opening church example are even more severe in their doctrinal examination of potential church leaders and teachers! Pastors and ministry staff coming into a church culture situation need to get to know, really know, their cultural grid. The "getting-to-know-you" one year is often NOT enough time to understand and feel comfortable with that grid. And, if you are a directive, high change agent type of pastor, don't go to either of these cultures!! You will be always frustrated, always discouraged, and maybe always angry. 

Not everything that should be done can be done. There is an unwritten "law of the lid" (a John Maxwell phrase) operative in every church culture. If we take a scale of 1 to 10, and 1 is "Our culture is an absolute and will not ever change" to 10 ("Our culture is highly flexible and always open to innovation and change") then in the above two examples their culture "adaptability" would be very low, say 3 or 4 at best. So, advancing the culture to a more flexible, innovative environment will only get to a 5 or 6 maybe. That is still far from a 9 or 10, and it will never be a 9 or 10. A pastor or church leader has to understand what a "5" or "6" culture looks and feels like and be satisfied with that scope of change and growth. If he or she wants an 8 or 9, then they had better go elsewhere to minister.

Remember C & N. No, not the TV network, but "Compromise" and "Network." Before the objections come, I'm not talking about biblical truth or absolutes here. Most of cultural conventions fall within the "gray" area of allowable practice biblically. Thus, a church that requires the pastor to use a certain translation of the Bible because "that is the pew Bible and everyone who attends carries that translation" is a cultural convention. (We might argue here about translations, but for the majority of biblical text, this is not a real problem among good translations.) To "force" a translation change smacks against the church culture, and is not really necessary. "Compromise" here is necessary. Perhaps in a number of years working with the church leadership and carefully and patiently explaining why a certain translation may be "better" will work, but the Word can still be proclaimed there. 

"Networking" refers to getting to really know the stakeholders and church "old guard." And really love them and show them you care. The old adage, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," is still true, especially in the cultures described above. There are a lot of breakfasts (very early in some church cultures!!), lunches, visits, social gatherings, hospital calls and caring events that pastors need to attend and be "happy" about. Again the motivation is NOT to change the church culture, but to love the people for Christ's sake.

Small gospel victories are still victories. What I mean here is that God sovereignly distributes spiritual gifts, talents and churches in His harvest field. Not all of them will reap great numerical or "marketable" results. Not many of them will be published in books and magazine articles. Not many of them will conduct "training" conferences for other churches and ministries. And much of this may be due to the church culture. The first church cited above ministers to a very small slice of Christendom. The second example church does not attract many high energy, directive leader-types. Their cultures limit the type of people they attract, and the kind of programs and ministries they do. God is pleased if a two-talent church doubles to four and not to ten! 

Working with your church's culture grid and within that grid is the key to successful and satisfying, God-honoring ministry. You may access a free Church Culture Assessment (4 page PDF 73KB), courtesy Brett Selby and LifeWay.