Culture Building #4: It starts at the top

Chris’ observation summed up months of frustration for me.

“We need to think about how to move you from the periphery to the mainstream. We need to get the senior pastor on board.”

Chris and I were training disciplemakers but this ministry wasn’t embraced by the senior pastor. In fact, I had only met him once. Chris, the administrative pastor, was my point person. Our disciplemaking emphasis wasn’t on the senior pastor’s radar screen. Starting a movement from the “bottom up” wasn’t working.

This is the on-going debate among church culture-builders: do we start from the bottom-up with lay leaders or the top down with pastoral staff? Do we demonstrate a movement to catch the pastor’s attention or do we start with the pastor? Here’s how one church leader viewed this dilemma.

In a recent session I led with some lay leaders, Jane angrily slammed down her book, “We can’t make any progress unless the senior pastor endorses what we do! Without his support our lay efforts are useless.” Jane had grasped the reality that culture building and change often starts at the top.

In his book, The Diffusion of Innovation, Everett Rogers documents the change efforts of aid workers in impoverished countries. After much work and effort to change the sanitary habits of a village, they met with limited change and much resistance. Why wasn’t a logical and time-tested sanitation practice embraced? The researchers concluded that “the village opinion leaders, who could have activated local networks to spread the innovation were ignored.” If the people of influence, the leaders, were not embracing the change, then why should the common villagers change? Change often starts at the top.

As Christians we lament the ability to change society. Even with the explosion of Christian publishing, Christian media, mega-churches, and the political movement of the Christian right, real cultural change has been negligible in the U.S. Sociologist James Davison Hunter documents that “the deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occur from the “top down.” In other words, the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites . . . . Even when the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.” In other words, change starts at the top.

Hunter argues that culture is embedded in the dense networks and structures of organizations and societies. The elites often control these networks and serve as gate keepers, allowing, affirming, embracing, or denying new ideas for change. We can argue about this Christian sociologist’s thesis (check out his book, To Change the World: The irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world) but practical experience tells us that culture change in a church matches change in a broader societal setting — it starts at the top. This should only be natural since spiritual leaders take the initiative for the spiritual growth of the church (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Disciplemaking can take two routes in a church — we can build a disciplemaking ministry or build a disciplemaking culture. Both are legitimate goals. In a disciplemaking ministry, the senior pastor gives endorsement but his or her participation is not required. However, building a culture requires intentional buy-in from the lead pastor. To build a culture, the pastor must be an active participant, modeling a disciplemaking ministry and championing disciplemaking within the congregation.

This is not an “either/or” proposition but a realistic assessment. In some churches, we can be encouraged when a disciplemaking ministry is established. In other churches, we aim at building a disciplemaking culture. We can develop a ministry without the senior pastor or staff but we cannot build a culture without their commitment and involvement. Culture building starts at the top.

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