Why is it that churches often get stuck and turn inward, and what can be done to reverse this inwardly-focused approach?
Oftentimes, as a church grows larger (or even just older), it tends to focus on maintaining and servicing what is already there. Internal ministries overwhelm outward mission. Any church can be overwhelmed by this temptation.
Yet, many places in Scripture point to the church as a body of servants—being used by God to minister to one another and to a hurting world. For example, 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God” (HCSB).
The key phrase here is “each one.” Each and every church member is to serve others. Most of the time we see verses like this, it is to serve one another inside the body, but there are so many verses about the poor and hurting that we know many are called to serve beyond the body. (I like to say that we can serve “in, through or beyond” our local church.)
But unfortunately, there is a huge chasm between this passage and our practice.
According to the research from the book I co-authored with Thom Rainer, Transformational Church, the majority of people in the majority of churches are unengaged in meaningful ministry and mission. They come for the show—and that might be a contemporary church, traditional, liturgical, etc., since the numbers did not show a difference—but they don’t stay for the service.
So, how can we avoid having a church full of customers rather than a church full of co-laborers in the Gospel? We develop a culture and implement a structure.
Churches need a culture that encourages and a structure that enables people to move from passivity to activity, from being passive spectators to active participants in the mission of God.
Today, I want to focus on developing the culture. Here are three steps to develop a service-mindset culture: Instill it, repeat it and celebrate it.
A pastor I know put it in a way I thought was really helpful. He said they see four categories of people that come to their church—three categories that they want and one they do not.
- Category one: the visitor or seeker
- Category two: the growing disciple beginning to take steps
- Category three: the mature disciple serving others
- Category four: the person who thinks they’re mature but is unengaged and serving no one
And here’s what he said to those in the last category: “We need your seat for some of the other three categories.”
With a few exceptions (someone in transition, some personal issues, etc), I think that mentality is helpful. The sooner you place such an approach into the DNA of your church the better, because as you reach new individuals you want to bring them into a place where service is the norm. A person will become what the majority of your people already are.
You can help develop this within your church. As Mike Dodson and I found in our book Comeback Churches, the primary factor for the revitalization of a church is the leadership. The same is true of developing a serving culture. The leaders, including but not limited to the pastor and staff, must work to intentionally engraft the right mindset in the body. How can they do that? By repeating the values of the culture you want to instill.
Preach them regularly. Explain why they matter. Call out the idea that you can be mature and not serve others. Teach service.
The pulpit (or table, in my case) will always be a key place to shape the values and culture of a church. When the pastor repeatedly inserts the idea of serving others into messages, writings and conversations, it has an impact on the hearers and can work to correct a misguided focus.
For example, at Grace Church, I work to talk about the culture we want to have. Our church uses the concepts Begin, Connect, Thrive and Engage. Those are our four values. We’ve got a lot of people at Begin and Connect. But then, how do we move people into the last two, Thrive and Engage, creating a culture that our passion is disciple making? How do you do that?
We have to hammer it relentlessly. (And, we are not perfect at it, we need to do it more.)
As churches grow, most often you find that a higher percentage of people get the desired culture of the church at the beginning, while fewer people take hold of it later. You have to help those who come later (whether the church is 200-years-old or 2-years-old) to have the level of service they had at the beginning.
It’s that consistent repeating of the culture and its values that helps us to create a mindset of discipleship.
To perpetuate this cultural value (or bring about a cultural shift), you must continually reiterate it with key leaders and get them engaged first. Then, you encourage them to repeat it in their small groups and within their circle of influence. You work with the various ministries in your church. Have them all consistently focus on developing a serving culture.
This is not a six-month process—this is a multi-year one. You will echo the values of your culture over and over again. Those who are not on board from the beginning will either allow the repetition to sink in and they’ll follow the new culture, or they will become annoyed at repeatedly hearing about serving and they’ll leave. Sometimes, that’s a good thing.
I’ve repeatedly said, “What you celebrate, you become.” The International Pentecostal Holiness Church celebrates church planting by giving pastors pins for planting or sponsoring church plants. Not surprisingly, their last two decades have been their best in a long time.
When I preached at Progressive Primitive Baptist Church, they clearly celebrated the educational achievements of their members, including one young man who had a list of academic achievements from high school through his master’s degree.
Denominations and churches should affirm positives at least as much as you reject negatives. The people in the church should know that you stand against what is unbiblical, but there should be no doubt about the type of church culture you support.
You celebrate what you want to become.
If you want your church to keep a serving culture, you should celebrate it at every opportunity. Have recognition services for volunteers in your children’s department. (Medals may be appropriate there!) Create a monthly feature on your website to highlight a member who served others in an extraordinary way. Announce a church-wide celebration of every member who was involved in a mission trip during the past year. Whatever ideas you can come up with to continually remind your church what it is you value—do it!
We give away a volunteer award at our nights of worship. Last week, I had everyone applaud for the set up crew at the movie theater. We’ve had appreciation dinners for volunteers. The list could go on and on.
Those who visit your church should leave with a clear picture of what it is you value through what you celebrate. Members and attendees alike will see that servanthood is appreciated, which will encourage them to adopt the serving culture you have instilled and repeated throughout the body.
Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast
Here’s the thing: Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. That’s not from me. The quote, attributed to the late business guru Peter Drucker, reminds us that our plans are pointless if the environment in our church undermines them. Your strategy becomes sort of an add-on in which few people are engaged.
In John 20:21, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” So that tells us that all of God’s people are sent on mission. 1 Peter 4:10 reminds us that all of God’s people are called to the ministry.
So, don’t miss it—all of God’s people are sent on mission, and all of God’s people are called to ministry. The only questions: Where? Among whom? and Doing what?
Having a serving culture established through instilling it, repeating it and celebrating it will provoke members to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). With that culture in place, they won’t be asking if they should serve. The questions will be, where should I serve, among whom should I serve, and in what way can I serve?
That creates a serving culture—part of a missional focus—in your church.