I lean in and listen intently. A colleague describes how her congregation has tried to reach out to the neighborhood, how they’ve had meeting after meeting on how to engage young families. All of it’s a struggle.

“OK,” I say. “Tell me about the congregation’s culture.”

She looks at me for a second with a concerned expression and says, “Well, they mean well, but they fight a lot. There are two prominent families that pay most of the bills. One member of the family is always on council. And don’t dare sit in their pew on Sunday morning.…”

I’m chatting with a seminary classmate. The congregational meeting ended in a screaming match between one perpetual volunteer and another. First-time attendees and new members attended the meeting, looking on with shocked faces. The pastor told them this behavior was unacceptable, but the damage had been done. He wondered if all the effort they’d put into welcoming those new members was now for naught, and he’s concerned they won’t get involved in the church mission now.

Both pastors are right to be concerned. There is a truth that small businesses know and churches seem to forget: culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Put another way, if your church culture is toxic, no amount of evangelism or new member strategy will engage your mission field.

The difficulty, of course, is that it’s not easy to tell if your church culture is toxic, especially from the inside, and even more so if you’ve been in the environment for several years.

But there are warning signs:

  • Team and committee meetings include yelling and fighting.
  • The pastor is most often seen as the root of the church’s problems, even though she’s only been serving there for two years.
  • Two or three families control the church through some sort of informal or formal influence.
  • There are more signs hanging in the church that tell people how to behave (“No food in the sanctuary”; “No dirty diapers in the bathroom trash can”; “Kitchen is for church-use only”; “Quiet, please”) than there are signs around the mission field inviting people to engage the community.
  • Worship is uninspired and uninspiring.

So how can we encourage a healthy culture?

Honest reflection

The congregation can’t be in denial about how and who they are. Do two or three families pull the strings? Are we living largely in the past? Do we love our habits more than our mission? One way to encourage reflection is to hold a congregational retreat to conduct an honest evaluation of mission and ministry, rather than scapegoating any one thing or person. Providing space for three commendations (what the culture does well) and three recommendations (how the culture struggles) is important.

Honest reaction

I’ve seen congregations struggle with confronting parishioners’ bad behavior. In a time when everyone has high anxiety about church numbers, the grumpy usher who yells at children being too loud is never called out on his or her demeanor. And the abusive family publicly withholding their offering until the pastor acquiesces to their pet project is never addressed.

A healthy culture provides space for honest reaction when bad behavior occurs. While everyone is welcome in the assembly, not all behaviors are welcome. Honest reaction indicates that there is an expectation of excellence when it comes to how we treat one another, especially within the beloved community.

Honest rejoicing

How do you celebrate as a congregation, both corporately and as individual members? Do you send thank-you notes not only to visitors who worship with you, but also to volunteers who work the mission of the church regularly? Do you call people to tell them how their work and offering change lives? Do you eat and drink together, and do so without squabbling over who will clean up afterward? Do you share honest moments of love? Honest rejoicing is not only a sign that a culture is authentically loving but is also the means to creating a culture that loves authentically.

Honest rejection

A healthy culture knows itself and is inspired by who they are in God’s mission to the world. When the local coffee shop started to receive customers from the large chain that was temporarily closed for renovation, it made no apologies that it didn’t offer the same array of specialized drinks that the chain did.

“We do these three things,” the owner told me when we were chatting about the increased traffic, “and we do them very well.” She knew what to reject and that she couldn’t be everything to everyone.

A congregation that knows itself knows it can’t fulfill every desire or need in the neighborhood, but also knows what specifically it does offer to God’s mission. Likewise, members don’t need to fill their space with signs and directions for others because the culture is one where, while they know exactly who they are, they don’t need conformity for unity.

Of course, no community is perfect, and perfection isn’t a prerequisite for a healthy culture. In fact, the appearance of perfection may even work against evangelism methods. Ordination vows encourage pastors never to give “illusory hope,” and so honesty about the messy life of being a community together is to be commended. But that message is only received with a warm understanding if the culture itself, while being messy, is a healthy mess.

Before we start to complain that we’re not reaching others in our mission field, we should first look at the culture we might be inviting people into. No matter how shiny that evangelism strategy is and no matter how wide the welcome is, if the culture is toxic, the efforts will be for naught.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown is a pastor, writer, and mission ambassador and gifts officer for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

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