A Key to a Culturally Relevant Church


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



Modern-day Tribes


In this 2009 TEDx Talk, David Logan, Professor of Management at USC, describes about five levels of “tribes,” groups of 20 to 150 people who work, live, or otherwise interact together. He then gives some suggestions for moving your own “tribe” from being groups of individuals to world-changing organizations, steps that we can take to become more unified in our purpose.


To Live A Well-Connected Life


My first year teaching in S. Korea was challenging in several ways. Not only did I have to adapt to a new culture and language environment, but I also had to adapt to a new student population. I had previously taught college-age international students in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, but that first year in Korea I found myself teaching classes to elementary school students.

St. Louis Botanical Garden

St. Louis Botanical Garden

On top of that, for most of my classes, the mothers of my students sat along the walls of the classroom observing the class. I did the best I could to deliver lessons that were full of content and language practice, but in the end students started leaving my classes because they were bored. In fact, my first teaching contract was not renewed for a second year, primarily because I failed to connect with my students.

As a young and fairly inexperienced teacher, my focus was on the content of my lessons. However, I needed to understand the specific needs and wants of the individual students in my class. For my elementary students, this was their need to have fun and play as well as learn English. By the time I moved to my third teaching position in Korea, working with mid-level managers in an international corporation, I finally began to understand the needs of my students well enough to connect with them in ways that led to their success and mine.

Until I learned to take the students’ perspectives into consideration, I was unable to connect with my students in ways that encouraged them to engage in the lessons I prepared. In their book Real Influence, John Ullmen and Mark Goulston identify a primary cause of disconnection as the “blind spot” in our brains. Because we naturally approach any issue from our own perspective, we fail to consider other perspectives, which creates a mental “blind spot.” They further describe four traps most people fall into when it comes to connecting and influencing others:

  1. the fight or flight response – “your nervous system … doesn’t know the difference between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and an tyrannical boss” leading you to either respond aggressively (fight) or avoid the situation (flight)
  2. the habit handicap – when stressed or challenged, we resort to our “comfort zone” of behaviors that have worked in the past, but which may not be best in the current circumstances
  3. error blindness – being wrong feels just like being right, and it isn’t until we realize our error that we can correct it
  4. the double curse of knowledge – even when you are right, you may find it difficult to explain what you find obvious to a less knowledgeable person.

I think I experienced all four when I moved to Korea!

Through trial and error I eventually learned how to connect with my students. However, I now recognize that John Maxwell has summed up these strategies of how to connect with others in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership:

  1. Connect with yourself – know who you are and be confident in your skills and abilities
  2. Know your audience – learn the goals, hopes, and dreams of the people you are working with
  3. Go to where they are – meet people in their circumstances, or as Ullmen and Goulston say, in “their there”
  4. Communicate with openness and sincerity – being transparent is essential to creating a connection
  5. Offer direction and hope – present the positive and optimistic view; there are enough negative voices in the world
  6. Live your message – practice what you preach and you can build credibility
  7. Focus on them, not yourself – show people you care about them and their circumstances
  8. Believe in them – encourage and support people, even at their lowest.

These guidelines have become the backbone of my teaching style.IMG_6764

Many of the Old Testament prophets failed to connect with the people of Israel and Judah, in part due to the nature of their messages of repentance, messages the people simply weren’t interested in hearing. However, a notable exception is Daniel who practiced connected influence as an advisor to the kings of Babylon and Persia.

  1.  Connect with yourself – Daniel had such a clear view of himself that he asked for an exception when given “the king’s delicacies” (Daniel 1:5, 8-16).
  2. Know your audience – when Daniel first approached the chief eunuch about his diet, he demonstrated a concern for the man’s predicament (Daniel 1:8-10).
  3. Go to where they are – Daniel suggested a 10-day trial of a vegetable diet to limit the risk to the chief eunuch (Daniel 1:12).
  4. Communicate with openness and sincerity – when Daniel came before Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream, he was clear that he didn’t have the interpretation because he was wiser than any other but because God had revealed it to him (Daniel 2:27-30).
  5. Offer direction and hope – when Daniel gave a negative interpretation for one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, he also gave counsel for how the king could avoid the coming personal disaster (Daniel 4:19-27).
  6. Live your message – when the lower government officials tried to discredit Daniel, they couldn’t find any opening to accuse him of wrongdoing (Daniel 6:4).
  7. Focus on them, not yourself – Daniel humbly served those set above him as well as those under his authority (Daniel 1:8-13; 2:14-18, 24-30, 49; 4:19, 27; 5:17; 6:1-3).
  8. Believe in them – Daniel consistently encouraged the best in the kings he served (Daniel 2:37-38; 4:19, 27; 6:21)

Connecting with others is an important step towards developing a sphere of influence. Daniel exerted a gentle influence upon the pagan kings of Babylon and Persia by connecting with the rulers of those countries. We, too, can exert a similar influence upon those in our sphere of influence if we follow his example and truly begin to connect with those around us.


Resources and Links

Interview with John C. Maxwell on the 700 Club talking about the Laws of Leadership

Communication Fundamentals course on Lynda.com, taught by John Ullmen

Website for Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving In

Series of blog posts by Mark Goulston and John Ullmen based on the concepts in Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving In

Sunday message by Pastor Jeff Abyad on the life of Daniel: Thriving in Captivity




Motivation for Influence


Nagmeh Abedini talks about her journey of the last two years.  She shares three steps to abiding in God’s love: die to your flesh, listen to the Word of God, and take action by loving others.

Diversity as a Measure of Leadership Ability


Roselinde Torres, in her TED Talk “What it takes to be a great leader,” proposes three questions to measure your fitness as a 21st century leader.  Her second question refers to the degree of diversity found within personal and professional networks, highlighting the importance of connecting with “people that are very different than you” (a theme of a few of my past posts).



The Labels We Adopt


While I was raised in a very conservative home, I inadvertently chose a career dominated by more liberal-minded people. It is probably not surprising that my friendships with colleagues with very different perspectives would influence my own views.

Jeju Island, South Korea

Jeju Island, South Korea

This was brought home to me in an unusual conversation I had with my parents about socks. You see, it has become important to me to use sustainable materials whenever possible, and I have become enamored of bamboo yarns and fabrics. When I told my parents about my bamboo socks, they teased me by saying I had “gone green,” with the implication that I was becoming liberal in my thinking.  What they didn’t realize was that bamboo socks were just the tip of the iceberg regarding my views on environmental issues, and their reaction showed me the extent to which, at least in that one area, my perspective of the world and the role of humans in it had shifted from that of my parents.

This is a very simple example that points to a larger issue: in my opinion, people today are very quick to apply or adopt labels, especially within families or among friends and colleagues, where they can be used to include or exclude members. However, I often find these labels to be inadequate as a method of describing or understanding a person. Additionally, these terms have very broad applications; depending on which field is under discussion, my own views might swing liberal or conservative.

However, when a person applies these labels to him- or herself, it can reveal how they see themselves and what values they hold. This allows others to catch a glimpse of what Stuart Diamond calls “the pictures in their mind,” or in other words, their perspective, goals, hopes, and fears. “One of the most common labels used deals with our political alliances. Research shows that there are significant differences between the values of liberals and conservatives. One of the tools that explains these differences, and increases understanding of each other’s meanings behind the labels they choose, is the research into morality and politics done by Dr. Jonathan Haidt.

In his 2008 TED Talk, Dr. Haidt describes five dimensions of morality, what he believes to be the basis of all human moral psychology. While I might not define “morality” in the same way he does, his talk provides a vocabulary for talking about social and political differences of opinion by focusing on five areas:

  1. Care/harm – to provide care and protect the weak from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating – to provide justice and treat others in proportion to their actions.
  3. Loyalty/betrayal – to place priority on your family, community, or nation.
  4. Authority/subversion – to respect traditions and institutions of authority.
  5. Sanctity/degradation – to avoid disgusting items or acts.
Image from TED.com

Image from TED.com

Survey research indicates that liberals tend to emphasize the first two dimensions, care and fairness, above all, while conservatives tend to give equal importance to all five dimensions.  Dr. Haidt finishes his TED Talk as I would, with a call for liberals and conservatives to practice conscious listening and to work together.

This call for working together is one that needs to be not only repeated but also implemented. Whenever I chance to catch a bit of political talk shows from a conservative or a liberal perspective, I am not struck by how “correct” the speakers seem but by how engulfed in their own perspective they are. I believe the deadlock of Congress is due to this mindset. If we are going to truly achieve a meeting of the minds that can lead to solutions to the many problems facing our country, we need to start by recognizing that those who think differently from us have a system of logic to support their position, a system that makes sense. According to Pastor Bill Shuler, God often uses people who are different from us, first to impact us and help us grow, and second to impact others that we cannot reach ourselves. We need each other, no matter how different. If we cannot first recognize this, we will have no chance of finding joint solutions.

We are charged by the Bible to pursue justice, to act as stewards of the resources we’ve been given, and to strive for Christian unity.  These are issues that will need all perspectives – the liberal, the conservative, the libertarian, the moderate – to find creative solutions.  It is time to start practicing conscious listening, to work on understanding the points of view of all sides, not to insulate ourselves from disagreement, in order to generate creative solutions to the problems that plague our nation.  Only by understanding what each other values, and moving beyond labels, will we be able to fulfill these Biblical mandates.


*Note: I realize that bamboo is not the best sustainable material, requiring large amounts of processing in order to make it into yarn or fabric. I still find it a very interesting fabric.


Links and Resources

Stuart Diamond speaking at Google about the concepts in his book Getting More.

Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

Moral Foundations Questionnaire: If you are curious to find your position on these five dimensions of morality and how you compare to other readers of this blog (including myself), you can take a quiz at YourMorals.org.

Scholarly paper on Moral Foundations Theory

66 Bible verses about justice

73 Bible verses about stewardship

74 Bible verses about unity





The Value of Diversity


Some time ago, during a conversation I had with a relative, he made some disparaging comments about a particular religious group. When I asked him if he knew anyone from this religious group, he confessed he didn’t. Elizabeth Lesser, in her TED Talk “Take the Other to Lunch,” points out that when we don’t interact personally with people who think differently from us, it is much easier to vilify, demonize, and ostracize them, buying in to all the negative stereotypes.

Jeju Island, South Korea

Jeju Island, South Korea

Because I intentionally live a life filled with diversity, I am greatly surprised when I encounter statements by people I know that are disparaging of differing religious, social, and political points of view.  I feel my engagement with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives has benefitted me greatly, not only by expanding my horizons but also by increasing my empathy. As I hear people’s stories and begin to understand their views, I find there is more that we have in common than may be immediately apparent.

In our own American history, we can see that greatness of mind is not threatened by difference of opinion. Two of our most honored presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both understood this. Washington chose his cabinet members from the diverse regions of the new United States, and Lincoln brought his political rivals into his cabinet to both unify his party and to get the best thinkers into each position. They both surrounded themselves with advisors who did not agree with them on all political points because they valued the differing perspective they brought to any decision.

If you have not embraced diversity in your own life, let me give you a few reasons, in addition to increased empathy, for why you might want to.

1.  Development of creativity – One of the key barriers to creativity is groupthink.  Introduce one person with a varying opinion to such a group, and suddenly you can look at the project or problem from a different perspective, opening the possibility of a fresh solution. According to creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “useful new ideas are likely to arise from centers where people from different cultural backgrounds are able to interact and exchange ideas.” This is also what Steven Johnson means by “liquid networks.”

2.  Richness of experience – The experiences I have had with people with different perspectives have enriched my life by giving me greater options in how to express myself and how to expend my effort. From the time I was a child, other cultures and other languages have intrigued me, and I have found them to be a rich source of variety.  They have also helped me to become more open to new experiences and given me reasons to travel to new places.

3.  Building of bridges – We live in a society of people who hold many different opinions on the issues of our day.  To live peacefully in our diverse society, we must find a way to live together, and I believe that can only be accomplished through dialogue.  If we want to find a place of dialogue, we have to interact with those from different backgrounds and different perspectives.  Without input from these perspectives, we take the notorious position of “colonizers” – imposing our view of how an issue should be approached without taking into consideration all those who may be affected by it.

Furthermore, I believe there is Biblical evidence, from Genesis to Revelation, that diversity is part of God’s original design for humanity.

  • In Genesis 22:18, God gives Abraham the promise that through him all nations of the earth will be blessed.  God is concerned with blessing all nations.
  • In Colossians 3:11, the Apostle Paul declares that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave or free.  This seems to me to indicate that we are not to allow our differing perspectives to cause division within the Church, but rather we are to focus on relationship.
  • In Rev. 7:9, John sees a great crowd surrounding the throne of God in heaven made up of people from every nation, tribe, people and language.  This shows that God values the entire range of humanity.

To what extent do you value diversity in your own life?  What can you do today to increase your exposure to diversity?


Links and Resources

45 Bible verses about diversity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – quote taken from “Implications for a Systems Perspective in the Study of Creativity,” chapter 16 in the Handbook of Creativity (2004)

 A recent article on the value of diversity that I discovered after writing this post:  5 Reasons to Make Friends Who Are Different From You: The perks of having a community of diversity.