Changing an Established Church’s Culture

by Josh King

Lead Pastor, Second Baptist Conway (Conway, AR)

Culture eats strategy for lunch – or is it breakfast? Either way, a bad culture will kill a good plan. We all know that. The classic example is Chick-Fil-A – great food but phenomenal culture. We as the Church have great food. We have the best food. Living Water, bread of life, that is what we serve. If you want to go a little less Jesus-jukey, we have community, forgiveness, encouragement, the very best food. The problem though, is often we have the worst culture.

When you lead a church you may see this, but you also may be frustrated in how exactly you can change it. You may even wonder if one person can change the culture of an entire church. I say you can, especially if you are the Pastor but even if you are not. I’ve seen the culture set or changed by one person a few times. Some of those were good a few were bad but all of the culture setting paths had similar mile markers. Here they are.

  • Model what you expect. We all know leaders that expect a work ethic they just don’t live up to. They will preach being on time as they run in late. They will demand servant leadership as they pull into their designated parking spot. If you don’t model it, they won’t do it. 
  • Write it down. Our church calls it the Family Values – seven values we want to see in the lives of each person that calls our church family. By writing them down we can continually point back to them. Don’t expect people to pick these things up by osmosis. These documents will evolve over time and that’s OK, but start somewhere. Ask yourself what would be the (less than 10) characteristics that would make a church Christlike, then write em out. 
  • Say ’em and then say ’em again. Preach a sermon series through the values, talk about one each leadership meeting, post them on the wall, share it with the choir and senior adults and students. Just keep talking about them. Say them until it is just part of your collective vocabulary. I will regularly hear members and leaders use the phrase “one voice” in our halls and meetings. That is how you know the culture is taking root and you can expect to see fruit in the near future. 
  • Celebrate publicly every chance you can. Make it a regular feature of each church gathering to call out groups or individuals that have embodied one of the values. It can be a quick little word or a major announcement but as we all know, they will repeat what we celebrate. So make a big deal when you see someone Speak Love or Cooperate Sacrificially. It not only sets the bar; it is the best reward you can give the one who is carrying the culture forward. 
  • Correct missteps. When you have the values written down you can more effectively let someone know when they have done something that conflicts with the culture. Small things matter. It doesn’t need to be a full blown thing, but a quick word about how a comment was not “speaking love” or how showing up late is not “redeeming the time” will help to keep everyone aligned. 

The good news is that it doesn’t take a long time to align the culture toward common values. It just takes intentionality. I encourage you to spend a little more time, especially at first, working on culture than you do working on strategy. The results will last longer and the ride will be smoother.

Josh King has been the Lead Pastor at Second Baptist Conway (Conway, AR), since August of 2018. Prior to moving to Arkansas, he had served churches in Texas full time since 2001. His experience includes student ministry, serving as Associate Pastor, and Lead Pastor. Josh is a proud graduate of Criswell College in Dallas, Texas and holds both a Bachelors Degree as well as a Masters. Both are in Biblical studies and ministry. He is married to Jacki, a passionate and talented women’s minister, and they have three sons, Haddon, Leland, and Amos.

Matthew Emerson
Dr. Matthew Y. Emerson, Dickinson Associate Professor of Religion, earned a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. in from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Emerson joined the OBU faculty in 2015. He previously taught at California Baptist University, where he served as Chair of the Arts and Sciences Department in the OPS Division. Emerson has authored or co-authored over 20 publications. His research interests include the Old Testament’s use in the New Testament, early Christian interpretation, and theological method. He serves as co-Executive Director of the Center for Baptist Renewal, co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, steering committee member of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, and Senior Fellow for the Center of Ancient Christian Studies. He is also a member of a number of scholarly societies. Emerson grew up in Huntsville, AL, where he met his future wife, Alicia. Married in 2006, they have five daughters. He and his wife are both members at Frontline Church in Shawnee.