Up to this point in my life, I have been a member of 10 different churches in five different states. They had much in common but significant differences as well. Each had its own culture.
There is always a disconnect between the "official" way that things are done at churches and the "actual" way they are done, Harrison observes.
For the sake of clarity, perhaps a definition of "culture" would be helpful. The one that applies here, drawing from the Visual Thesaurus, is "the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization."
Although all were Baptist churches, they differed in the way they worshipped, studied the Bible, made decisions, spent "their" (the Lord's) money and assimilated people into their fellowship. I am talking here about the actual ways that these things happened and not the "official" way of doing things.
There is always a disconnect between the "official" way that things are done and the "actual" way they are done. The leadership structures were often very different from what was printed in the church constitution and bylaws. Most of the time, the procedures were fair and Christian because the majority of the congregation and its leaders understood "how things worked."
In recent years, I think we have seen an acceleration of change within and among congregations. As church consultant Lyle Schaller points out – as quoted by Will Mancini, Church Unique, p. xxi – "The differences between congregations are becoming greater with the passage of time. The safe assumption today is that no two are alike. Each congregation has its own culture."
What does this mean for church leaders? It means that they must become social anthropologists and learn to read the culture of their particular congregation. As participant-observers, they need to peel back the layers of authority, custom and process to really understand how their congregation is unique.
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Does this mean that there is no standard or template for the church to follow? If I were to choose a template, I would suggest the missional paradigm – the church is the people of God on God's mission. Paradoxically, this is both broad and specific. The missional paradigm allows a great deal of leeway in how church is "done" while providing a focus on what the church is to "be."
Perhaps, as Schaller states, no two churches are alike, but they can all serve the same Lord.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.