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Course: Leading Healthy Church Culture
Lecture 8: What is Culture? Products and Practices
A. What is Culture
We have been talking about what it means to be a Christ centered leader, laying the ground work on how to lead a Christ centered church culture. It is important to lead out with who we are, instead of leading out of something else; otherwise it is like building a castle on a cloud. It is important to get these things in place first. But now let’s talk about what culture means; my background is in organizational culture. We will talk about the church being an organization because it is both an organism and an organization. Let’s look at the components of organizational culture. What is Culture? What comes to our minds when we use that word? People from the audience answer: social norms; traditions and habits; shared values; structure; rules; both written and unwritten rules and sometimes the unwritten rules are more powerful than the written ones. The lecturer continues: there are common preferences and expectations about how other people will act such as in a shared history or story. What other images come to your mind? One person said that it was the way we do stuff. This does explain it, doesn’t it? There is a more sophisticated way of saying that but this does answer the question.
B. So Is Culture Good or Bad?
Yes! It can unite us as a diverse group of people. There is a unifying factor potentially toward a common mission. What else is good about culture? It gives you a framework. Yes, and when we talk about culture, it can be a national culture, a church culture, a family culture or an ethnic culture or a college culture; it fits regardless and there are sub-cultures within cultures of course. These are general statements about culture; what else is good about any culture? When you are in your own culture, you feel comfortable by being understood by people around you. So, there is a comfort, a safety perhaps; most culture develops as a way of protection against an outside environment. There tends to be this sense of protection and comfort and predictability. There is also interpretation of events where someone else outside the culture may not interpret those events in the same way. Culture can define the people, such as this is who I am, this is my role; it can give you direction, purpose and a definition of who you are within the entity. So, it gives people a space and a place that has some sense of certainty to it. I think that a good culture can make people feel loyal to it and often inspire them to behave in a good way. So, there can be an inspiration toward raising the level of morality and motivation. Not all cultures are like that but it could be. People are on the same plain which helps them to potentially accomplish certain goals.
What is bad about culture? A culture can actually pull you down and if you want to be healthy within such a culture, you have to go against it. Cultures can become very exclusive; sometimes there is an unbreakable barrier and sometimes it can be veiled in sincerity. People become blinded within their culture unable to see outside and even accept other ideas even when they are good ones. Strong cultures can define boundaries so well that they reinforce negative stereotypes with bazaar behavior. So, there tends to be ethnocentrism; this superiority; my culture is better than your culture. Some people who live in places that we find even to conceive that they would see themselves in a superior culture. I used to work for an organization called Transworld Radio. As I watched Transworld Radio and its own culture and within the various regions of the world, there were subcultures of Transworld Radio. Whenever I would go to Africa, the attitude toward wine or alcoholic drinks was that you couldn’t possibly be a Christian and drink alcohol. You had to be very careful working in that context. On the other hand, in Europe and working there, they always served wine at lunch during the day. I wasn’t so good at drinking it and I was very careful to limit myself. Even within a culture, there are sub-cultures that have very strong views. It was interesting watching the tug-of-war take place in those sub-cultures; one or the other felt very superior to the other. What else is potentially negative about culture? More mature cultures tend to resist change, even change for the better. So it contends to hold us back, to collective restrain us from moving into more helpful places in our lives. It can be very exclusive and keep people on the outside that don’t seem to fit. It can do great harm; I lot of killing has been done within religious culutres: in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions.
C. Positive and Negative Aspects
So, we know what culture is and we know that it is both good and bad; there are certain aspects of culture that are both negative and positive. But in this discussion, it is important to see those neutral perspectives because as I unpack and talk about the components of culture, we will recognize in these discussions that there are both positive and negative aspects of each one of these components that is within any culture. Sometimes when people talk about culture, they tend to talk about it positively or negatively. But from the beginning, what we are really dealing with is in regards to a neutral arena. Now let us look at organizational culture. We use the concept of an iceberg to talk about culture; because above the iceberg, up where you can see it, even in the night is what we call products and practices. In terms of the church, products can be whatever you offer to the environment that you are in, whether it is a ministry for helping people who don’t have clothing, for example; this would be an example of a product. Or what you provide to your community on Sunday morning, for example. It is whatever the public sees, whatever the value adds to the environment. Any organization that needs to survive has to have a product that is ultimately of value. The fact is, organizations can go for a long time without having much value, but ultimately, they have to have some sort of product, some value that is added to the environment in order to survive within that environment. So, from an organizational point of view, as you think about the church, you think about the product that the church brings to society. Products include our relationship with the external world outside the culture. This is a business way of saying it. Practices on the other hand are those things that have to do with the ways we behave within the culture; the behavior of the members of a culture. So, when you think about practices, what are some of the practices that are prevalent within this church, looking at it as a culture?
D. Products and Practices within Culture
There is worship and prayer, small groups. When you go into church on Sunday, the practice is to face whoever is speaking. What would happen if someone would turn around and face the other way? There are unwritten practices; in Transworld Radio, again, we had devotional time each morning at 8:00 am. There was never anything written about expectations to attend these devotionals. I was absent for a few days and I got a visit from the HR director asking where I had been and what was the problem. The issue was, there was an unwritten expectation about practice and every culture has those. Sometimes the unwritten practices are more powerful than the written ones. What are some of the other practices that are prevalent here in this church? During worship, you can move to the music, but not too much. So there are perimeters within that. So, if a person moves too much, they are out of place. What else is distinctive about this culture? There is a focus on children. If a person, not from this culture would walk in, these things can be seen. Whether products or practices, these are visible to whoever wants to take a look at them. But that doesn’t mean that they can necessarily interpret all these practice, but they can observe them. They can see them with their own eyes. The longer that you are in a culture, sometimes those products and practices become invisible to you. The longer you are part of a culture; you don’t notice some of these things that are going on. If you were to go to the Transworld International offices, the first thing that you would see is a large receptionist desk as you enter and on the wall behind the desk, is a huge Transworld Radio logo. I did a survey one time and I ask people who had been there for more than ten years if they could tell me what was on the wall behind the receptionist desk. Not one of them could tell me. When we are part of a culture, we can no longer see the ware in the carpet that a person walking in for the first time can see. I went to a funeral in church and sat down; it was an old church as the pews had all these carvings etched into them. I am sure that the people who sit in those pews for the last many years no long see those carvings. I’m talking about simple things but for anyone interesting into a new culture will see things that others who live in that culture can’t see. A friend of mine recently attended our church and as we stood in the lobby, I ask him what he saw. He pointed out things that I hadn’t seen in years.
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