A famous news editor once said: “Politics is downstream of culture.”
He meant something very profound:
People act based on their social experience more than their “views.”
This truth also applies to church contexts, but instead of politics, discipleship is at stake.
When pastors realize this simple truth, it will give them an entirely new, meaningful and effective way of measuring their church’s success:
“Discipleship is downstream of church culture.”
Biblical teaching is downstream of church culture.
Church involvement is downstream of church culture.
Small group participation is downstream of church culture.
And most of all—giving is downstream of church culture.
You can ask people to attend, volunteer, show up, and give all you want, but if your church members don’t enjoy their experience in your church due to an unhealthy culture, they won’t do any of these things for long.
This is why it’s important for churches leaders to understand the signs of healthy and unhealthy church cultures, evaluate their church culture, and make any changes necessary to improve their culture so that their members can have a safe, enjoyable, and welcoming context that will make them want to learn more, volunteer more, show up more, and give more.
Here are 7 signs of an unhealthy church culture—and more importantly, how to fix them when they show up in your church culture.
1. A "popular crowd"
Core problem: Snobbery.
Core solution: Opportunity.
If your church leadership displays exuberance and energy, supplies availability and access, to a small subset of people, but keeps most at an arm’s length, people will get the sense that you only see them as a number. They will feel like your church culture values growth in numbers above all else and, like a spammy Instagram account, they will likely unfollow.
This doesn’t mean that your church leadership can’t have boundaries in their schedule and member relationships.
This simply means that if you are creating an “inner circle” that converts true Christian discipleship into a popularity contest measured in social proximity to the pastor, the members you do retain will grow in unhealthy ways, and the members you lose won’t have much good to say about the church when they leave.
The solution to this is to make each member’s discipleship a core value of your church culture. Each member has access to a church leader if they need it. Each member is given opportunities to grow to serve, to belong, to grow, to learn, and to lead.
2. Bending important rules/extreme rigidity
Core problem: Lack of protocol or purpose.
Core solution: Rules and vision.
You need a protocol to give shape to the implementation of your church’s vision. But you also need purpose to guide moments when it may be appropriate to depart from standard practices.
If your church has protocol in place, but it is part of the informal culture of the church to break those rules, people will get the sense the things the church leadership says don’t really matter. Church members will mimic what they see the church leaders do, not what they say. If you take your own protocol seriously, so will your people. If you don’t, you are sowing seeds of discord, conflict, strife, and resentment.
On the other hand, if your church is so legalistic about the rules that it inhibits the church’s ability to fulfill its own mission, then it needs to refresh its vision to give people wiggle room to operate within the system. People need to know why the rules exist—what meaningful vision do they serve? Then, when rules are hard to follow, the vision guides them through compliance—and when it is appropriate to depart from the rules as an exception, the vision itself will make it clear when that is wise.
Balance your protocol with purpose. Balance your vision with guidelines.
3. Employees only give positive feedback
Core problem: Fear.
Core solution: Humility.
This is very common in churches with a very gifted or self-serious pastor. There is no room to take moments lightly, and far less room to give genuinely critical feedback.
The way to solve this pain point is to practice humility in several important ways:
- Express publicly that you value feedback.
- Admit that you don’t have all the answers.
- When people do give feedback, thank them and don’t punish them.
4. Theological conflict is common
Core problem: Intellectualizing problems.
Core solution: Relationally resolving conflict.
Every church has theological distinctives of some kind. But many churches are consumed by theological disagreement every few months. As people grow in their relationship with God, they learn more about Scripture and the truth of the gospel—and different opinions about these issues can lead to conflict.
This is an unavoidable part of the Christian community—brothers and sisters will disagree.
But it becomes a problem of church culture when the leadership adopts these conflicts as problems for the church and uses advanced theological concepts as a way to keep people in line.
People don’t want their community—their very social belonging—to be contingent on whether or not they agree about some theological nuance.
They want to be safe. They want to be loved. They want their family to be welcomed and encouraged and protected.
If your church leadership has internalized theological conflict into its culture, the solution is to return to a relationally oriented method of solving problems. This means that conflict is viewed through the lens of personal relationships, and the solution is positioned through the lens of trust, forgiveness, and grace. No relationships stands or falls on whether two people can come to theological agreement—plain and simple. That’s the foundation of a healthy church culture.
5. Informal communication is more reliable than formal channels
Core problem: Carelessness with information.
Core solution: Confidentiality and formality.
Here’s another way of expressing this problem—when problems happen, people are talked about rather than talked with. Church members learn not to trust the formal channels of church communication because informal channels such as gossip, hearsay, text channels, and a leaky leadership team are more reliable methods of getting vital information about what’s happening at church.
This is unhealthy because it both excludes people who aren’t tapped into those informal channels and devalues people who are talked about in those channels.
The solution to this problem is to keep confidential things confidential and to communicate everything else through formal channels so that it’s held accountable to a communicative and moral standard.
6. Issues are repeated in meetings
Core problem: Ineffectiveness.
Core solution: Accountability.
In some churches, elder meetings can feel like groundhog day—repeating the same issues over and over and over again that never get solved.
If this happens in your church—grievances are perpetually unaddressed, problems persist, and leadership doesn’t take seriously resolving pain points for its members—then this needs to change.
The best way to resolve this unhealthy church cultural practice is to create some form of public accountability with the congregation so that the leadership is incentivized to solve the issues it is responsible to solve.
7. Unaddressed triggers consistently create drama
Core problem: Instability.
Core solution: Opportunity.
Some leadership teams are fantastic at de-escalating problems. Other leadership teams chronically escalate the problems.
The difference between these two church cultures is that the de-escalating leadership team intentionally de-escalates problems. They take a posture toward stressful pain points: “We will be agents of peace in this situation.”
Alternatively, leadership teams that escalate stressful situations are highly reactive, often bring a low level of intentionality to the situation, and don’t have a philosophy or strategy with which to approach overwhelming and new situations.
Your church leadership team should have a core set of values that shape how you address new and stressful situations. Take time during your elder meetings to role play hypothetical situations to practice getting better addressing these kinds of issues as a team.
De-escalating pain points so that they don’t become triggers for church drama is a team skill, and you need to cultivate it.
Over to You
It is very possible to have a healthy church culture.
But a healthy church culture requires intentionality.
At your next church leaders meeting, bring this issue up as a topic of discussion. Address several diagnostic issues provided here that could give you an opportunity to better shape your church culture and, in turn, shape your members’ discipleship experience.
Pray that, with God’s help, you serve your members by giving them a safe and healthy church culture in which to grow as disciples of Christ and help their families do the same.