Recently I have been obsessed with building church culture. I’ll get to the reason why in just a moment. Google the phrase “church culture” and your search will return with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of websites, articles, blog posts, and video links about the topic. There are even entire conferences dedicated to building church culture, taking place every year around the country.
I’m an avid podcast listener, usually catching a few podcasts a day, and building church culture is one of the most frequent topics for church leaders, and for good reason. Jesus built a culture that drew people in. Luke 15:1-2 says plainly that all of the “sinners” made a habit of hanging around Jesus. This is healthy culture at it’s finest.
Think of church culture as the atmosphere in which a church functions, it is how the church does things. Figuratively speaking, you can smell culture when you spend enough time with any particular church. Culture is the single strongest driving force in a church, even more than vision, strategy, or a pastor’s leadership style. A church’s health, growth potential, and kingdom impact will all rise and fall based on culture.
Currently, I serve the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the niche of young adult ministry. Today’s young adults, generally referring to those in their 20’s, are possibly the most gifted, driven, networked, and creative generation this world has ever seen. This generation wants to change the world for the better; they believe they can, and so many of them already are making their mark.
Meanwhile our church has been sounding the alarm for years about losing this generation. But, loss is not merely about attendance numbers on Sabbath morning, but loss in mission engagement. If our church could harness the passions and giftedness of today’s young adult generation we would experience spiritual revival and mission explosion like never seen before.
A friend of mine, who is now a bit beyond the young adult age demographic, has a story that is all too familiar for many young adults. In his early twenties he wanted to connect with a Seventh-day Adventist Church, be part of a community, and put his gifts and talents to work. Over the course of more than ten years he visited countless churches, walking into church lobbies, sitting through worship services, and even attending regular potluck meals. He commented to me that in all that time no one engaged him beyond the typical “Happy Sabbath” greeting. He never received an invitation to Sabbath lunch at someone’s home, or was asked about his story, his job, or his hopes for the future. This story reinforces my passion for building church culture because my heart breaks hearing stories like this. The things that break our heart the most are often what God is calling us into to create change, and change is possible.
My friend ended up launching a weekly small group gathering with a few other young adults. The core leaders of the small group were very intentional about building culture, modeling the culture described in Acts 2. The weekly gatherings, involving prayer, Bible study, and sharing life together, were welcoming, warm, encouraging, and empowering. The small group met every Tuesday night, eventually expanding into a young adult Sabbath School class at the local church, which would often be the the largest Sabbath School class on any given Sabbath morning. Within a few years what started as a small group, built on a healthy culture, began to change the entire culture for all ages within the local church. Today in this community, young adults are actively leading out in all aspects of church life, including serving on the church board.
So what’s the first step? How can a church begin building a culture that draws people like Jesus did during His time on earth? In my experience the journey toward healthier church culture follows this general progression:
Step 1: Commit to Change
Step 2: Pray as a Team
Step 3: Assess Reality
Step 4: Start a Learning Journey
Step 5: Create a Plan
Step 6: Implement the Plan
Step 7: Reflect
Step 8: Repeat Steps Again
One of the best catalysts for church culture change is the Growing Young Adventists initiative (GrowingYoungAdventists.com) spearheaded by the North American Division Young Adult Ministries Department. This movement is a learning journey aimed at creating a thriving church culture for all generations. Seventh-day Adventist churches across the country are contextualizing the findings of a groundbreaking research project piloted by the Fuller Youth Institute, called Growing Young, which identified churches across the country that were building a thriving culture for all generations while effectively reaching and retaining younger generations. The research project identified six strategies being implemented by all thriving churches in their research:
1. Unlocking Keychain Leadership
2. Empathizing With Today’s Young People
3. Taking the Message of Jesus Seriously
4. Fueling Warm Community
5. Prioritizing Young People Everywhere
6. Being the Best Neighbors
The Growing Young Adventists initiative has taken some of the best research and resourcing available and contextualized it for our church, along with providing a network of support to help churches develop a healthier culture for all generations. Last year I worked with 10 Seventh-day Adventist Churches in the North Pacific Union Conference facilitating a yearlong learning journey for culture change.
Port Orchard Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Washington Conference, one of our ten project churches, is led by Pastor Dustin Serns. Empowered by this project, and through God’s leading and the commitment of local leaders, significant changes happened at Port Orchard. Young adults started showing up and engaging in church life and ministry; a new Young Adult Sabbath School was launched. Young adults teamed up with seasoned church members and led a huge community health project, and the church voted a $2,000 young adult ministry budget, the first young adult ministry budget in the church’s history. And now, five members under the age of 35 are on the church board. Dustin Shared this quote:
“I am convinced that one of the best steps for revitalizing a church is to intentionally focus on discipling young adults and rallying behind them in the mission to reach the community. Even 3-5 young adults can have a transformational impact on an entire church. God will bring as many young adults as we are ready to connect with and activate for his kingdom. We have seen God do it here and we know he can do it anywhere.”
As you finish 2018 and move into 2019, commit to building a healthier church culture for all generations. I might even recommend that you become a little bit obsessed about it. If you haven’t already done so, read through the book, Growing Young, for yourself. Take a look at the Growing Young Adventists website and start the cultural change conversation with your team. Together you can shape culture for mission. For those of you who think culture change is impossible.
I’ll leave you with this thought; my wife’s 92-year-old grandma has I-Phone 10. Think about that.
Benjamin Lundquist Is Oregon Conference Young Adult Ministries Director and NAD Young Adult Ministries Coordinator