Changing Culture

The church I serve is as far from “hip” as they come.

It isn’t a complaint, but a reality. When you have a congregation that has 130 years plus of history together, the hipness factor quickly goes out the window. As Anne Beatts once said about Saturday Night Live its only so long before the avant garde becomes garde. When my church was founded, back in the 1800’s, they were probably pretty cutting edge. With time a culture develops, an institutional history emerges, a collective memory is established and the ability to be on the cutting edge gets harder and harder.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in that this institutionalization allows for the continuation of the institution over time. Yet, it can become a burden (as so many of us talk about) when that institutionalization gets in the way of change and growth. All institutions, be they churches or corporations, have a life cycle, from the small and exciting beginning, to the height of growth and success, leading then to a slide as the community struggles with its new identity, often leading to times of struggle and retreat. These institutions require cultural change in order to stem this retreat or the institution eventually flounders and often dies.

Many of us in ministry in the mainline are sent to congregations whose life cycle is on the backside of the growth curve. The high point of United Methodist success was in the 1950’s, when we were the largest denomination in the U.S., and considered the most influential. The rise of conservative evangelicalism and the demographic factors has led to our finding ourselves in the midst of stuggle and retreat. Congregations, like mine, have had good years (in my congregation’s case the high point was the early 1990’s) but find themselves struggling as they try to maintain an old identity in the midst of a radicaly different world.

They need a change in culture.

That is the circumstance I find myself in. It isn’t an easy place. There are many days that I am jealous of my church planter friends who are creating cultures rather than having to reshape them. It’s always easier to create something new than to remodel. In a new church plant, people don’t have as much investment in the culture and history. There are few sacred objects, like that old sofa that Mrs. Jones gave the church which is worn out, but that we can’t get rid of because we loved her. Changing culture requires a soft touch, for these symbols that you are messing with represent the lives of real people, with their grief and fear.

We are seeing the beginnings of cultural change, but they come slowly. What I have tried to do is to value what has come before, to honor it, to lift it up as valuable, to not reject it but to understand how it informs who we are coming to be. The worst thing any young pastor can do is to come into an existing culture and tell the people their that the work they have done in the past is not worth a hill of beans. When I hear of those situations, I know that very soon the District Superintendent will be getting a call saying “Get this clown out of here.” Changing culture is a work in pastoral care, allowing folks to grieve what has been lost as the lean into the future.

Changing culture is a corporate activity. No pastor can go into a situation and say “This is what we need to do . . .” and expect success. The people have to own the decision to change, or else that change will never come. The goal of the leader is to plant seeds which sprout over time. Changing culture is a long-term pursuit, not a quick fix. It requires an investment in a community, not a belief that this is just another step in a ministerial career.

My church will probably never be very hip (after all, I’m their leader!). Yet can we change to carry out God’s mission in the world.

God, I hope so.

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