Are you a Willow Creek, or North Point church? Is your worship style more Hillsong, or Holy Trinity Brompton? Do you have an artsy, Mosaic vibe, a soulful, Brooklyn Tabernacle feel, or a structured, Saddleback system?
For many years, people knew what to expect when they walked into the door of a church by the denominational tag. And not just theologically. Even the style of clothing and music were likely to be similar throughout each denomination.
In recent years, many of the denominational barriers have fallen as a primary determiner of church culture. Now we adopt our style and culture from some of the more influential churches in our society.
A couple months ago, Brent Colby wrote a very insightful piece about this recent phenomenon. In his article, “Submissive Church Culture and Your Lack of Identity” he took a lead from Thomas Sowell’s writings about human cultures, and adapted them to churches.
Colby identified that many churches are defined by having either a dominant or a submissive culture. A dominant church culture not only blazes their own trail and establishes their own identity, but they serve as a template from which other churches – the submissive ones – draw cues for their own sense of identity and culture.
In short, some churches lead and other churches follow.
This is a problem.
If your church is trying to be like another church you admire, then you’re not being the church God called you to be. And the Kingdom of God is poorer for not having your voice in it.
Your Church Has Its Own Voice
God didn’t call my church or yours to be a lesser version of any other church, no matter how wonderful that other church is or how small my church may be. Sure, we can use curriculum, methods and products from other churches. I’m grateful that they design such great materials and make them available so generously, sometimes at little or no cost.
But, while we should use the best ideas we can find, we must be careful not to submit to any other church’s culture, even while using their curriculum or singing their songs.
Small Churches can be especially susceptible to this submissive tendency. After all, most Small Church pastors don’t have the time for leadership, training, vision-casting or sermon prep that a full-time pastor with a full-time staff has. But that doesn’t mean we should give up our unique identity.
Think of the irony of the following situation. A pastor preaches a message about how each member of his congregation is unique before God. Be who God made you to be. Find your purpose. There’s no one else quite like you. But the pastor didn’t even preach his own message – he downloaded it from Andy Stanley’s website the night before.
If we want to help our church find their own voice and establish their own culture, instead of trying to be a lesser copy of another church’s culture, it starts with us, pastors. And it starts, even more specifically, behind the pulpit.
How to Establish Your Own Voice
It’s not easy to develop your own style and learn to speak with your own voice. But if you keep parrotting words and ideas from other pastors, you’ll never get there.
Here are a few tips I’ve used over the years to get to the place where, for good or ill, a message by Karl Vaters is very obviously a message by Karl Vaters. And, taking a lead from that, our church has a fresh voice and culture of its own, too.
Stop plagiarizing. It isn’t necessary for every word of every message to be original. That’s not even possible. But passing off the exact words, outlines or specific ideas of others as your own is a lie. Yes, I meant to say it that strongly. It’s a lie. Journalists get fired for it, students get kicked out of school for it and authors lose lawsuits over it. Pastors shouldn’t be doing it, either.
You don’t have to verbally footnote every time you use someone else’s idea. That would make every message a brutal task to sit through. But a quick “thanks to pastor so-and-so for several of the points in today’s message” or a note in the bulletin saying “check out such-and-such-a-book for more info on today’s topic” gives credit where credit is due.
Trust God, yourself and your congregation. People come to your church to hear the gospel through your heart and in your voice. Trust that God can do that through your voice if you’re listening to his voice.
If your congregation wanted to hear a message written by TD Jakes, Mark Batterson or Max Lucado, they’d listen to them or buy their books. Actually, many of them already do. That’s another reason why it’s important to give credit. If you found that sermon online, they can too. And they do. I’ve worked with embarrassed pastors and angry congregation members over just that issue.
Know the people in your church. The culture of a church is best, not when it trickles down from the pastor, but when it bubbles up from a healthy congregation. Spend enough time with them to know what they’re interested in. What sports do they play? What music do they listen to? What do they spend 40 hours a week working at?
A well-researched sermon that was written by a pastor of a white-collar, big city, suburban megachurch won’t have the same impact if you’re in a Small Church in a blue-collar, agricultural community. Speak from the culture, to the culture and you create a new, unique culture.
Let new ideas simmer. When you get good ideas from a blog, book or seminar, don’t preach on them right away. Let them sit in your heart, mind and spirit for a while. In time, those new ideas will link up with God’s voice, your life experiences and other good ideas, which will morph into something that starts sounding like you.
Preaching isn’t the only element in establishing a unique culture for your church. But it can spark an atmosphere where discovering, appreciating and ministering in and through that culture becomes more possible.
It doesn’t take a bigger building, more money or a PhD in creativity to establish an innovative church with a culture all its own. It takes listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit as he speaks in your church and through your church. Then from your church to your community.
So what do you think? Has your church borrowed its culture from another church? What can be done to find and express your unique voice?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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