Cover of book authored by Dr. Malphurs, Look Before You Lead

Now that we know how important congregational culture is and that it plays a critical role in leadership and the very survival of our churches, it’s time to define what we’re talking about. I refer to this as a “clarity moment.” It’s a time when we pause and make sure that we are all talking about the same thing. So we must define culture. What is our working definition? When defining a concept, I find that for maximum clarity it’s often helpful to talk about what it isn’t as well as what it is. We’ll begin by focusing on what culture is and then move to what it isn’t.

What Culture Is

What picture forms in your mind when you hear the term culture? Most likely, the answer is nothing. Because it’s an abstract concept, you may struggle to come up with any picture at all. And that does not help us understand the concept. In fact, as I’ve researched the concept, I’ve found that people who write on organizational or church culture also struggle in their attempts simply to define the term. It has proved to be a difficult concept to wrap our minds around, and I suspect this is the reason there are so many different definitions. Indeed, a colleague argues there are more than two hundred definitions of culture. However, for the sake of clarity, it’s imperative that I provide a definition of culture as I use it in this book.

I define the church’s congregational culture as the unique expression of the interaction of the church’s shared beliefs and its values, which explain its behavior in general and display its unique identity in particular. This is what I refer to as my long definition. However, I have condensed it into a short defi- nition. In short, a church’s congregational culture is its unique expression of its shared values and beliefs.

I realize that initially you may not know what I mean by some of the terms. And this may cause you some concern. Thus I will explain them briefly in this chapter and more in depth in chapters 3–5. So stick with me. At this point, I want to acknowledge the influence of Edgar Schein (the Sloan Fellows Profes- sor of Management Emeritus and senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management) on my thinking.1

In this book my concern is with congregational culture, which is a type of organizational culture. I’m not writing about culture in general, but organizational culture in particular, and about a specific organization—the church. Thus I will refer to this culture throughout this work as both organizational and congregational culture.

The Culture Apple: Three Layers of Congregational Culture

My definition of congregational culture includes beliefs, values, and their expression (some form of outward behavior), which we can think of as three levels or layers. To truly analyze and understand a congregation’s culture, we must differentiate between these three critical layers, while discerning how they relate and contribute to one another. In short, what does each contribute or bring to the culture as a whole that makes that culture unique?

I like to think of culture as an apple—the Culture Apple. When you hear the term culture, rather than go blank, picture an apple. The Culture Apple will help us picture and understand what a leader does as he seeks to discover a congregation’s culture. Reading a congregation’s culture is similar to peel- ing back and examining the layers of an apple. The Culture Apple consists of three layers or levels.

The Apple's Skin: The Church's Outward Behavior

The organization’s beliefs and values intermingle and are seen in the church’s behavior or outward expression of itself. This is the first layer that is repre- sented by the apple’s skin. Churches express themselves through their behaviors and outward appearance. We can say that they are behavior-expressed. The behaviors and outward expressions are what an observer, such as a visitor, would see, sense, and hear as he or she encounters a church’s culture. Some examples are the church’s physical presence (facilities), language (multi- or monolingual), clothing, symbols, rituals, ceremonies, ordinances, technology, and so forth. What is important here is that it’s easy to observe the expression or behavior but more difficult to understand it. The pastor or leader who wishes to discover the church’s culture must not only observe its expression but uncover its beliefs and values, which explain the behavior. I will say more about this aspect of culture in chapter 3.

The Apple's Flesh: The Church's Values

Congregational culture includes at the second level the church’s shared values, which are represented by the apple’s flesh. Churches are behavior- expressed but values-driven. The inward values drive and explain the church’s outward behavior. These values explain why the church does what it does at the first behavioral level and why it doesn’t do what it should do. When a church culture acts on its beliefs, they become its actual values. Until then they are aspirational in nature and inconsistent with the church’s actual observed presence and expressed behavior.  

The Apple's Core: The Church's Beliefs

As you work your way into the apple’s core, the third and most fundamen- tal level, you find the shared beliefs on which the church’s culture is based. Churches are behavior-expressed, values-driven, and beliefs-based. When Chris- tians hear the term beliefs, they often think of the doctrines of the Christian faith that might be found in the church’s doctrinal statement, creed, bylaws, and constitution. Certainly these beliefs or convictions are an important part of the church’s culture. However, the church’s beliefs also include other fun- damental aspects of the church’s life, such as how it views time (is the church living in the past or the present?), how it views human nature (is man good or bad?), how it communicates internally and externally (the bulletin, an- nouncements), how it handles power (who has the power and who doesn’t?), what the role of tradition  is, what the church believes is the proper role of women, what it believes about the use of technology (is it high-tech or low- tech?), what it believes about the use of musical instruments in worship, and other similar views.

I will also refer to these beliefs or convictions as assumptions, because they are taken for granted as well as shared by the majority of the congregation. If those who seek to understand or read a church’s culture don’t properly identify its basic beliefs, they will not know how to read its actual values nor interpret the congregation’s outward expression of itself. They will have missed the true nature—the very essence—of that culture and what makes it unique. I’ll say more about the church’s beliefs in chapter 5.

The Church's Uniqueness

These three elements of organizational culture—beliefs, values, and their expression—work together to display the church’s unique identity. Thus they answer these questions: How is our church unique? What makes us different? Because no church has the exact same beliefs, values, and behavior, each church will have its own individual, unique nature or identity. (It’s interesting that the same is true of apples—each type has its unique attributes.) And as we probe the culture, we will discover what that unique nature is.

What Culture Isn’t

Now that we have a working definition of culture and an image (the apple) that will help us remember it, let’s explore what culture isn’t. The purpose is to further clarify the definition.

I’m aware of some misconceptions that Christians and churched people hold about culture, which I believe have led to some unfair criticism of church models. Let’s examine some.

Culture Isn’t Evil

The most common misconception is that culture is inherently evil. I’ve noted that whenever Christian people—especially teachers and ministry lead- ers who are well-known on television and radio—mention culture, it’s often in a negative context. Far too many equate it with Satan’s world system. When many critics hear someone say that the church needs to be culturally relevant, they interpret that to mean that the church is supposed to be like the world—to  buy into and embrace Satan’s world system. This represents a total misunderstanding of what the Scriptures teach about culture. Rather than jump to conclusions, it’s imperative that we study carefully what God’s Word says about these matters. (It’s also important that we define our terms for better understanding. In this arena, teachers and leaders must define culture if we’re to have an intelligent discussion. However, few do.)

Culture Isn’t a Product of the Fall

We must realize that culture was not the result of the fall but an intrinsic part of the lives of Adam and Eve before the fall. You can find the Culture Apple in the Garden (and it’s not the forbidden fruit). This was because God embedded in Adam a number of beliefs and values, as we see in Genesis 2. For example, God established the belief that a man shouldn’t be alone but needs a helper (wife) to complete him and with whom to face life (v. 18). And as men act on this belief and seek that helper, they demonstrate that this is a value to them and an expression of that belief and value. Another embedded belief is God’s creation of Eve (wife) and her role as man’s helper (vv. 20–22). And as Adam and men who follow him seek such a helper (wife), they demonstrate that this is a value and an expression of that value. Since God accomplished all this and more, in effect, he created culture. In addition, Genesis 1:31 says that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Thus God created culture, and it was very good.

Culture Isn’t Independent of the Godhead

Not only did Adam and Eve operate in a cultural context, it’s obvious that the Godhead does the same. In Genesis 1–2 it was the Godhead’s crea- tive acts that established the various beliefs and values that were the result of their creative thought and planning (Acts 4:24). If this is the case, and I think that it’s obvious, then the Godhead relates and operates in a cultural context.

Culture Isn’t Temporal

Furthermore, the evidence seems to indicate that culture will be an intrinsic part of our future state in heaven. It isn’t limited to this world. For instance, Revelation 7:9–10 reveals that people’s cultural distinctives or unique expres- sion of their beliefs and values, such as their ethnicity and language, will be preserved in heaven. We see much the same later in Revelation 20–22, specifically Revelation 21:26.

Culture Isn’t Always Good

The points I have made about culture do not mean, however, that culture is always good. Culture can be good or bad. We see a very different culture after the fall. In essence, the culture was devastated by the fall. Sin pervaded everything, including culture (Gen. 3:14–19; 6:5). It wreaked havoc on people’s beliefs and values.

Culture Isn’t an End in Itself

It is a problem if we view culture as an end in itself. It’s not an end but a means or vehicle to an end. Paul indicates this in Romans 14:14 when he refers to food, a vital aspect of culture, as not unclean in itself. However, if someone believes that a particular food is unclean, then for him or her it’s unclean. Therefore, as a means to an end, it can be used for good or bad. Another example is language. In James 3:9–12 James distinguishes two usages of the tongue, which is a figure of speech for language (v. 10). On the one hand, people use it for good, such as praising God; on the other hand, people may use it to curse others who’ve been created in God’s image (v. 9). A hunter can use a gun to provide food for his family, while a criminal may use it to rob a store. The same scalpel can correct a baby’s malfunctioning heart valve or take the baby’s life through an abortion.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What is the author’s definition of culture? How well do you understand this definition? Does the apple metaphor help?
  2. Does this definition make sense? Do you agree with it? If not, why not?
  3. How would you change the definition? How might the author’s definition help you understand culture better?
  4. Why is it helpful to know what culture isn’t? Are you aware of certain misunderstandings of culture? Have you heard of any that the author addresses? Are you aware of any he didn’t include? What are they?

Excerpted from Look Before You Lead, by Aubrey Malphurs, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group,  © 2013. Used by permission.

Look Before You LeadAubrey M. Malphurs

About the Contributors

Aubrey M. Malphurs

Dr. Malphurs is a visionary with a deep desire to influence a new generation of leaders through his classroom, pulpit, consulting, and writing ministries. He is involved in a number of ministries ranging from church planting and growth to leadership development. He has pastored three churches and is the author of numerous books and articles on leadership and church ministry. Currently he is the president of the Malphurs Group and is a trainer and consultant to churches, denominations, and ministry organizations throughout North America and Europe. His research and teaching interests include church planting, church growth, and leadership development.