Culture vs. Strategy
Well-known management consultant and author Peter Drucker once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He was suggesting that the culture of an organization is a bigger determinant to its success than its strategy.
This is even truer in a church planting context.
At New City Church, Mumbai, we’ve seen this play out over and over again — whatever strategy we set, it is our culture that determines how well we live among ourselves and how outsiders perceive us.
Simply put, culture is how we live our values. It is how these values are expressed in flesh and blood. Culture is how we think, feel, and behave as a church as a result of what we deeply believe.
The Great Commission is essentially a call to create a new culture of how men and women live in this world. By extension, evangelism and discipleship are not merely projects within our lives — they are how we live our lives. The ministry of Jesus was also a culture-making ministry. Consider the following:
- When Jesus birthed the church, did he do it through a strategy, or by creating a radically new culture among his disciples?
- When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, was he executing a strategy, or creating a culture of servant-leadership?
- Was the Sermon on the Mount about a strategy, or creating a new culture of deeper faith and obedience?
- When Jesus went to pray by himself and taught his disciples how to pray, was he executing strategy or creating culture?
Therefore, church planters would do well to devote attention to the culture we create — not just the strategy we execute. Strategy tells us what we should do. Culture tells us who we should be.
Church planters would do well to devote attention to the culture we are creating — not just the strategy we execute.
There is a gospel truth deeply embedded in this simple contrast between culture and strategy. Too much emphasis on strategy (what we must do) will create more human striving, which is the very antithesis of the gospel of grace. On the other hand, a healthy emphasis on creating culture (who we are) will naturally draw people to dig deeper into the Gospel.
We must also not forget that culture is merely an expression of our values. It is helpful to pause for a moment and understand the interplay between values and culture. The most effective way to instill values in a church is through careful attention to and proactive cultivation of culture, not a preoccupation with strategy. The pastor’s job, then, is to make sure the church’s culture accurate reflects and reinforces its values.
We Evangelize Through Our Culture
The early church understood the evangelistic power of a gospel-based culture. They broke bread together. They hung out together and had everything in common. They met in temple courts and they met in homes. They were joyful. And the Lord added to their numbers daily.
When outsiders walk into a community like this, where people love one another with joy and sacrifice, what they experience is initially more powerful than what they hear. There is a little bit of irony here. God sees our hearts first and our behavior later. People see our behavior first, and from that, draw conclusions about our hearts.
People see our behavior first, and from that, draw conclusions about our hearts.
This is why every church will ultimately evangelize outsiders through its culture. The culture we build in our church plant is the bridge non-Christians use to cross over from the values of the world to the values of Christ.
We started a church in a city where less than 3% of the population (22 million) is Christian. Initially, most of the outsiders we engage aren’t interested in Jesus at all. Yes, we spend a lot of time ensuring that our preaching is highly contextualized and gospel-centered, but as the leader of our preaching team, I’ll be the first to admit that our culture of genuine warmth and love is what draws outsiders to even listen to our preaching. We’ve also found that outsiders who don’t enjoy our culture are less likely to appreciate and share our beliefs. Our culture amplifies the message of our preaching. Without a compelling and conducive culture, our words sound hollow.
Since our culture is the bridge outsiders use to understand faith in Jesus, we must constantly evaluate how accessible and intelligible our culture is to outsiders. For example, at New City Church, we take great pains to explain the context and backstory of every passage we preach from in order to draw outsiders to engage with the Bible. We assume that outsiders who have never read the Bible join us every Sunday (they do). We work hard to ensure that our sermons are simple, complete, and meaningful — even to folks who know nothing about the Bible.
Similarly, when worship songs introduce a gospel concept that may be alien to outsiders, we take a moment to explain it first. The song “How He Loves Us” starts with the line “He is jealous for me.” If we sing this, we take a moment to explain why God’s jealousy for us is good, holy, and righteous.
We Disciple Through Our Culture
If you really think about it, Jesus took three years to disciple those who followed him before he sent them to make more disciples. In others words, he taught his followers how to make disciples by immersing them in a culture of discipleship.
Consider, for example, his command to love one another:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” —John 13:34–35
In this context, does Jesus use love as a strategy? Or is it a value clearly expressed in the culture he has cultivated among his disciples? When he tells his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, he is reminding them of three years’ worth of his love they have already experienced.
While discipleship programs and content are helpful for instruction, they will be inadequate unless the gospel’s values are lived out, taught, and learned through the church’s culture.
At another level, every successful church plant faces a unique challenge — coaching new members to unlearn the culture they’re used to and learn the distinctive culture of the church. The faster a church plant grows, the harder this challenge is. While strategy can be rolled out programmatically, culture has to be shared organically.
People experience a church’s culture before they learn the values that drive it . Ideally, when a leader articulates the church’s core values at a membership class, everyone in the room should have already experienced them. Such classes should merely name the principles that people have been experiencing for some time. For this to happen, every church plant needs to proclaim, perpetuate, and protect its culture 24/7.
How to Create Culture in a Church Plant
Engaging the heart and encouraging specific behavior are both equally important when it comes to creating culture. Church planters must avoid the temptation of focusing solely on the latter, even though it is usually easier and faster. When we display Christlike behavior and explain it in a clear and compelling way, culture begins to bear fruit.
Here are seven tips to create culture in a church plant. The first four focus on engaging the heart. The rest focus on encouraging specific behavior:
ENGAGING THE HEART
1) The life of the leaders: Culture can be sustained sideways by members who influence one another, but it has to be created from the top-down. Church planters need to set culture from the frontlines — preaching it from the pulpit, then walking the talk in daily life.
2) Reality, urgency, and immediacy of vision: A compelling vision is the furnace in which diverse people are forged into a uniform culture. It is the biggest motivator for culture formation. Keep the vision alive and immediate in the hearts of members.
3) Commitment to values: Ultimately, culture is how we live out our values. Without a deep understanding and commitment to certain core values, a church will struggle to create a precise culture.
4) Thoughtful and intentional assumptions and philosophies: It is difficult to be deliberate and thoughtful while on the battlefront, but church planters need to develop this skill. Step back and ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing and what must you do to reach the desired outcome.
5) Celebrations: Catch people doing right. Celebrate correct behavior more than you call out wrong behavior.
6) Rituals: The Bible is full of rich and meaningful rituals: circumcision, Passover, baptism, communion. Create rituals that remind members of the culture we want to live by and why we ascribe to it. For example, every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we offer outsiders a free book about Jesus. In doing so, we invite them to explore Jesus even as we enjoy him through the Lord’s Supper. This simple ritual reinforces our value of including outsiders in everything we do as a church.
7) Vocabulary: Intentional and repetitive use of certain words can be a powerful tool to create culture. At New City, we use the word ‘explorer’ to describe non-Christians in our midst. This helps create a culture where our members are aware of outsiders and warm, welcoming, and sensitive toward them.
Anand Mahadevan is an author, church planter, and business journalist. His first book is Grace of God and Flaws of Men (LifeWay, June 2018). He is the lead church planter of New City Church, Mumbai. He is married to Ajitha and they have two children, Varun and Varsha.