A Key to a Culturally Relevant Church

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As someone who has spent most of her career teaching in short-term, intensive language programs, I have worked with many different classes, and I have found that each class has its own personality. Most groups are simply a collection of individuals largely focused on their own individual goals; however, occasionally the class comes together and forms a dynamic and supportive learning community. As the instructor, I do what I can to encourage the development of a community, but it also depends heavily on the personalities in the class.IMG_6645

I have seen the same patterns in Christian organizations and church groups. In some churches, people simply interact at Sunday service but have little or no contact during the week, while in other churches, the members create strong bonds of friendship, frequently meeting for dinner during the week and sometimes becoming roommates.

It is not always clear to me what makes one group of individuals come together and what prevents another group. However, David Logan’s TED Talk has given me some tools to start exploring this issue. He discusses group behavior from a “tribal” perspective, defining “tribes” as smaller groups of 20 to 150 people.

Based on organizational research that focused on observable language and behavior, his book Tribal Leadership, co-authored with John King and Halee Fischer-Wright, identifies five stages of “tribal” culture based on the language used and the actions taken by members of the “tribe” (the following labels are my own):

Stage 1: Survival Mode.  People in a stage 1 culture have a sense of hopelessness and despair and will do anything it takes to survive, even if it means resorting to violence. David Logan says that this is the culture of gangs and of prisons; about 2% of organizations are in this stage.

Stage 2: Victim Mentality.  While people in stage 2 cultures have moved beyond mere survival, they still have little or no hope for their circumstances to improve, leading to very negative attitudes. I believe most people in such cultures have simply given up and are going through the motions. About one quarter of organizations are at this stage.

While I have seen individual students in these stages, it is rare for an entire class or church group to be here. However, the next stage is very common.

Stage 3: WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). At this point, people have moved beyond hopelessness and helplessness and see the value of putting in an effort. However, at this stage, it is all about personal advancement, even at the expense of peers and colleagues. Nearly half of all organizations are at this stage.

At this stage, I can see the importance of the role of attitude, that intangible quality of people that influences their thoughts and behaviors. John Maxwell, in his book Attitude 101, lists the signs of a bad attitude, which I believe make a very good description of someone in a stage 3 culture:IMG_6651

  • inability to admit wrongdoing
  • failing to forgive
  • petty jealousy
  • the “disease of me”
  • a critical spirit
  • a desire to hog all the credit

Stage 4: Group Cohesion. At this stage, people begin bonding over shared values. It could be as lofty as a shared mission (end human trafficking like the organization A21) or as quirky as a personality trait (be a little weird like the company Zappos). Because of the shared values and vision, people form bonds and are willing to collaborate and cooperate to meet their goals; 22% of organizations reach this stage.

Stage 5: The “Mountaintop.” At this stage of culture, the group no longer forms around a limited goal while comparing themselves to other groups; they are now ready to take on global transformation and compare themselves to what is possible. Only 2% of organizations reach this stage.

In these last two stages, we see healthy relationships being formed, whether within the group or beyond the group. In his book Relationships 101, John Maxwell lists five characteristics of solid relationships. While his focus was primarily on one-on-one relationships, I believe these characteristics can be applied to group cultures as well.

  • Respect
  • Shared experiences
  • Trust
  • Reciprocity
  • Mutual enjoyment

I would argue that Christians are called to develop Stage 5 cultures, and I believe the early church had a stage 5 culture based on solid relationships. The Book of Acts recounts how the first disciples of Christ formed a community that changed not only the individuals within that community but eventually the entire world.

  • They frequently “broke bread” and prayed together (Acts 2:42, 46-47).
  • They shared everything in common and trusted each other (Acts 4:32-36).
  • They bonded through the persecution of the Jewish leadership (Acts 5:41).
  • They worked together to solve community problems (Acts 6:1-7).

As I learned about the concepts in Tribal Leadership, I was not surprised that the majority of organizations have “me-centric” stage 3 cultures. This is the pervasive characteristic of modern American culture, one I believe needs to change. Christians are meant to be known by their unity, but Christianity in the United States today is too often characterized by bitter divisions and self-righteous criticism. If the American church is going to have an impact on the surrounding culture, we must develop a Stage 5 “tribe,” first within individual churches and then among the churches of America and beyond.

 

Links and Resources:

David Logan’s TED Talk Tribal Leadership 

Book review of Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization

Minute with Maxwell: Relationships

31 Bible Verses about Relationships

Minute with Maxwell: Attitude

35 Bible Verses about Attitude

 

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