How Cultural Understanding Drives Church Effectiveness

In each era and each cultural environment, the church defines its missiological quest in culture.

Now, that does not mean that everything is on the table. There are marks of a biblical church that matter in every cultural setting. However, each church has a quest to figure out how to engage its community and organize its ministries. That’s its missional quest and every church should ask such questions.

Taking into account the missiological quest, churches then ask based upon the current cultural moment what is the most effective way to accomplish the tasks of a biblical church? This is the cultural question.

While the missiological quest should never change, the answer to the cultural questions do change.

Though not in every way, the how of ministry is in many ways determined by the who, when, and where of culture.

Observing Paul’s missionary journeys show that he employed different strategies, methods, and/or terminologies in reaching Jews compared to those used in reaching Gentiles. The mission (and the missiological quest) was the same, but the cultural question changed the way he engaged the host culture.

With the cultural question constantly changing, this gives us contextualized church models.

It’s not just an evangelism question; it’s deeper. How we do church also changes from one culture to another. For example, how long does the service go, what approach to music, how to we disciple, etc?

Think of it this way: Missiological quest + Cultural question = A contextualized church model.

Let me illustrate the above.

Thoughts from the Seeker Church Approach

Think back to the seeker church movement.

Many such churches blossomed in a day when a lot of boomers were asking questions about church and faith and rejecting established traditional churches. In addition, given that many thought church was boring and irrelevant, they attempted to enliven church with its children and youth programs, the music, and the preaching style and content.

When I planted in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1994, I utilized many of the methodologies of this model. We didn’t try to demean other churches. Rather, we tried to communicate our different approach to church. I also (occasionally) wore a Hawaiian shirt, shoes without socks (I know; don’t judge me), and we had a band that sang contemporary music.

Soon after, many other churches in our community also had a contemporary service!

They wanted to have a contextualized church model—and that’s the right impulse.

They asked questions about what approach to church, within bibilcal norms, would connect most effectively with the context.

Given the cultural milieu at that time, the answer was: implement a genre of music that would resonate with people in the culture; provide them with substantive, practical, and relevant programming for their children; let the sermon topic and content be on their level, not for the religious elite; and if a building is built, make sure it doesn’t resemble a spartan, dated church building of the past century.

I’m not saying this was all great and perfect, and we did not do everything like everyone else, but I am saying that it aligned well with the context, and many such churches reached a lot of people (and many of them also discipled well).

Now, looking back, some may contend the seeker church model was wrong (and continues to be). I’m not writing to evaluate it, though I think that is a worthy undertaking and have done so in the past.

However, my point is the model lined up well with its culture. Looking back over the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s, seeker church approaches reached a lot of unchurched and dechurched people—those who were disenfranchised from the traditional church.

While it worked then, this model is no longer as well aligned with the predominant cultural milieu. The shift is not true everwhere, but most would say that the seeker model does not engage our culture as well today, partly because culture has shifted to more of a negative perception of the church and organized religion in general.

In other words, there are still seekers, but now many don’t see the church as the place to find answers. Seeker strategies are predicated on the idea that they are.

Although people claim to be more spiritual they are skeptical of institutions, including religious ones, thus they opt out of organized religion altogether. Therefore, for the most part it doesn’t matter how “cool” or “relevant” churches are.

Those who would have gone back to church because of the “cool-factor” have already gone back.

Changes in Approach

What we have witnessed over the last decade or so, particularly in newer church models, are many in the church trying to engage the missiological quest for a new generation. So, new church models are taking into account the spiritual, post-Christian, pluralistic, skeptical, individualistic, consumerist, and diverse culture.

The church then thinks through the practices and methods that would be most effective at reaching the culture.

In his book Gaining By Losing, J. D. Greear asserts, “[I]f we want to reach the next generation, we are going to have to equip our people to reach them outside the church.”

That’s a question shaping new models of church of church practice.

Hold Your Mission Tightly and Your Models Loosely

When you look back on the last fifty years of church models, what you will find is that the models were most effective in their mission when they were contextualized (geared to their host culture). This drives some theologically-minded people crazy, but it’s what we train and require missionaries to do.

And, we must not forbid our churches to do the very thing we require international missionaries to do.

In other words, models were the result of the church understanding its missiological quest and asking the cultural question.

What we must learn is models come and go, for the culture is always changing and shifting. This doesn’t mean we cannot learn from each model and incorporate those things that are still effective. However, the takeaway from church models and cultural alignment is this: hold your mission tightly and your model loosely.

Be firm on the mission, but flexible on the methodology.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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Inspecting What You Expect for Greater Church Health

It’s common knowledge that men are far less likely to go to the doctor than women. While that may not be very shocking, one of the justifications for their reluctance to schedule a check-up is intriguing. Many men don’t go to the doctor because they don’t want to find out something is wrong. This idea of “what I don’t know can’t hurt me,” is part of the reason women’s life expectancy has long outpaced men. The average US woman lives to be 81.3, while a man’s average life span is 76.2 years.

One of the most fascinating pieces of information from that study, however, is that men are closing the gap. From 1989 to 2009, the gulf shrank from seven years to just over five. The reason? Males were living healthier lifestyles and had become more vigilant in with cardiovascular concerns. Instead of ignoring problems, men began to actively and intentionally evaluate and assess their physical health, which resulted in a 4.6 year predicted lifespan growth.

This perfectly illustrates the need for a culture of assessment in churches, since the Bible refers to the church as the body of Christ. That’s not a metaphor, but a description. Paul doesn’t say the church is like a body, but the church is a body. Just like with our bodies, it is important that we evaluate and assess the overall health of the church. Undiscovered problems under the surface can be deadly.

Some may point out that you can’t measure everything. That is obviously true. You can’t really measure enthusiasm. Clearly, you can’t analytically measure the supernatural and providential move of God. You can, however, measure effects.

When we studied transformational churches, we found commonalities between them that stretched across cultural and ecclesiological differences. For example, some had over 80% of their people in small groups and over 70% ministering to one another in, through and beyond church. These were churches that were seeing conversions and were filled with vibrancy and life.

Knowing what has actually led to making disciples can help you and your church know what steps you need to take to improve your health, which some in your church may already know. Often times when the assessment culture has been developed and implemented, it will confirm the thoughts of your involved members.

Right before I turned 40, I sent out an evaluation form to 15 people with whom I had a work relationship. I wanted them to evaluate my ministry, my leadership, and let me know what they saw as my strengths and weaknesses. I made it anonymous so they could be completely honest. Two things came back consistently (and, to me, surprisingly). They said I was too sarcastic and I didn’t listen well. When I asked my wife about those areas, she looked at me puzzled and expressed surprise that I wasn’t aware of those issues. She knew me best and knew those were areas where I could improve.

That allowed me to open a conversation about how I could work on those. The same is true for your church. We want you to have the knowledge about potential health problems that can encourage the extension of your church’s lifespan. This is not always easy to face or use as a means for improvement. Growing from an assessment requires a certain level of awareness, transparency and courage. Unfortunately, churches and denominations often have a current of denial propping up ineffective traditions and ecclesiological structures.

Several years ago, I did consulting work for a national retailer. They set up a phone survey to determine from employees how they felt about their job, coworkers and supervisors. When all of this data was compiled, we saw issues that were recurring at the bottom 10% of stores. I helped to train a team that would go to those locations and work to correct the problems.

Secular businesses put significant effort into evaluating their effectiveness, while churches frequently do nothing. I happen to think that the work of the church is much more important than any retail store. Having happier employees and increasing sales is beneficial to those businesses, but making disciples is of eternal consequence to the kingdom.

Like American men have done more in the past few years, churches need to start taking their health more seriously. You can only expect what you inspect. Churches that value and welcome assessments can expect health and growth. The facts you discover may not be friendly, but they will enable your church to become better at making disciples.

To accomplish this we need to do things right. In a future post, I’ll outline some wrong ways to implement an assessment culture. It all comes down to the measuring sticks we choose.

Part Two of a four-part series; read Part 3 here.

Read more from Ed here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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bruceherwig — 07/07/14 11:37 am

I couldn't agree more...Don’t fall into the trap of assuming people know what they are doing…or that they heard you correctly just because they are nodding their head in agreement. http://bruceherwig.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/inspect-what-you-expect/

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Sorry, the author of this content has removed the links at the original source!
 
— VRcurator
 
The hypertext link is broken for the pdf download - can it be fixed? Thanks!
 
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What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 

Clarity Process

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4 Popular Perspectives on Church in the Last 50 Years (and How the Term “Missional” Fits In)

A pastor friend sent me an e-mail yesterday asking for some guidance with a missional book  reading list by Sentralized. As I typed a response, I sent him a chapter that puts “missional” in perspective of how we think about church. I wanted to make that chapter available to you for free.

Here is a chart that the chapter is based on (from page 29 of Church Unique). As I addressed church vision and model-making in 2007, I felt that church leaders needed a thoughtful and simple critique of the Church Growth Movement. Most importantly, I thought they needed a baseline understanding of “missional” and what it means for culture-shaping and vision-casting today. In fact, one of the final possible titles for the book was “Missional Vision.” But we decided to introduce “missional” in the subtitle instead.

You should read this chapter if you:

  • Want a simple definition and explanation of what “missional” means
  • Cut your teeth on ministry within the Church Growth Movement
  • Get confused by all of the category complexity in labeling church stuff
  • Think the idea of “ministry vision” is tainted today
  • Enjoy tension in talking about church models
  • Wonder whether or not your church should be growing
  • Just love the topic of the missional church

FREE CHAPTER – This is Chapter 3 of Church Unique, entitled “The Iniquity of Church Growth”-  Chapter 3: ChurchGrowth vs. Missional

If you find the chapter helpful, please let the folks at Sentralized know. Maybe they will add it to their list.

QUESTION: Let me know the single most helpful book you read in understanding the missional church. I’ll tell you mine in a follow-up post.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Will Mancini

Will Mancini

Will Mancini wants you and your ministry to experience the benefits of stunning, God-given clarity. As a pastor turned vision coach, Will has worked with an unprecedented variety of churches from growing megachurches and missional communities, to mainline revitalization and church plants. He is the founder of Auxano, creator of VisionRoom.com and the author of God Dreams and Church Unique.

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Recent Comments
Sorry, the author of this content has removed the links at the original source!
 
— VRcurator
 
The hypertext link is broken for the pdf download - can it be fixed? Thanks!
 
— Steve Elliott
 
What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.