Church Culture: A Strategy for Change

“Our church has a deeply ingrained culture,” my friend declared after a recent breakfast meeting, “and it is highly resistant to change.”

“Not only our church,” I responded, “but many others are in the same situation.” Later, I remembered a comment by one of the presenters a few months ago in a conference entitled Theology After Google. “Mainline churches are flexible about theology and fixed with respect to culture and ethos, whereas Evangelical churches are absolutely fixed in their conservative theology and absolutely flexible and entrepreneurial in style and methodology.” The speaker was hoping that the conference would encourage mainline pastors to be as open in their congregational culture as they already are in their theologies.

Twenty years ago, I wrote an essay, which bears upon this condition. After summarizing why many “First Churches” had declined in membership and attendance, I described three strategic tasks for churches that wanted to recover vitality. If only the first one is done, I said, the trajectory toward death will continue unabated. If only the second is done, the existing congregation will likely collapse before the new one can be born. If both of these strategic tasks are done, then the third one becomes increasingly necessary.

  Confirm the existing congregation

 Generate new constituencies who will become the congregation in another decade

Redistribute power in the congregation

The article was published in the quarterly journal Encounter. Even though it is twenty years old, based on research of that period, much of the essay is still pertinent for pastors and church leaders today. Its title: “Pastoral Leadership for Congregational Vitality.” To read it, click Pastoral Leadership.

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4 Responses to Church Culture: A Strategy for Change

  1. […] Blog Search- Pastor Leaders: Church Culture: A Strategy for Change « Keith Watkins Historian Category: Blog News | Tags: cycling, […]

  2. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Keith, where were you 19 years ago – this perspective is SO relevant! “Reading it back” makes your observations so powerful from the perspective of the emergent church today and the need for transformational leadership and transforming congregations. You have lots of perspective to help in the challenging movement of today. How would you write this article of you were writing it next week? I look for continuing insight from you as we look and move forward! Thank you.

    • Marvin, I was still teaching at Christian Theological Seminary when I wrote this essay. As you can tell by the book notes at the end, I was reading extensively in the current literature. I was trying to understand reasons for the diminution of so many congregations. If I were to revise the essay, I would make some modifications to the explanation. I would be ready to develop more suggestions about pastoral methodology based primarily upon the writings of Ron Heifetz who is an expert on helping organizations with adaptive change, which he sees as their primary responsibility. I would have a lot more to say about the importance of worship and make serious suggestions about adaptive change. I would also think about an addendum for my own church in Portland. The existing congregation is oriented toward the old Portland–stable, stuffy, settled in its ways, secure. Yet there now is a new Portland, making this city a haven for young adults and a model for progressive cities everywhere. The pastoral challenge is to nest a new congregation for the new Portland inside the old Portland church now existing.

  3. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Thanks, Keith for your current observations. I am working with the challenge of what is emerging in many, many places; some outside established congregations and church structures. The questions were all around in the program of the General Assembly; I was pleased for that. “Be the Change” brought some significant insights. I’ve been working with Church Extension’s New Beginnings program with some churches in the Northwest Region. We have also had several local congregations participate in our regional “Journey of Discovery” transformation process. So much is bubbling up in so many places; cross-denominational; cross-cultural, cross-established theologies. It is an exciting and pregnant time. It seems to me there is more on the table now than we understood back then – but it is so fluid, diverse and deep. Seems like we did technical stuff back then when we are called to wrestle with the adaptive stuff now. I hope you keep feeding the conversation. The Hope Partnership seems to be one vehicle of response among Disciples right now. Thanks for the thoughts!

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