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7 Characteristics of Disciplemaking Leaders: #4 – Disciplemaking Leaders Create a Disciplemaking Culture

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This post is a continuation of the series Reaching the Missing Generation: Characteristics of Healthy Disciplemaking Ministries outlined here.

It’d be tough to overstate the importance of possessing a healthy group culture when it comes to helping believers develop spiritually.

A good disciplemaking leader uses their influence to foster a group mentality that places a high priority on disciplemaking values. The following will discuss how that’s accomplished.

Leadership Characteristic #4 – A Disciplemaking Leader Creates a Disciplemaking Culture

The presence of culture is a universal phenomena. While cultures may vary a little or a lot from one another, there’s no such thing as a group without a culture. Every group that’s ever existed, exists, or will exist possesses one, and the influence a person’s primary culture has on them is profound!

Some may not have a clear understanding of what the term ‘culture’ refers to. For a simple overview, I turned to chapter 2 of Essentials of Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach by James M. Henslin (one of my textbooks from college I enjoyed enough to hold on to).

According to Henslin culture includes the language, beliefs, values, norms, behaviors and material objects that are passed from one generation to the next.

To put it a bit more simply, you can think of culture as a group’s way of thinking and way of doing.

The phrase way of thinking refers to the beliefs, values and other assumptions about the world making up their shared worldview while way of doing describes common patterns of behavior, language, gestures and other forms of interaction.

Please do not underestimate the influence culture has upon every person. Henslin describes it this way:

Culture’s significance is profound; it touches almost every aspect of who and what we are. We came into this life without a language; without values and morality; with no ideas about religion, war, money, love, use of public space, personal boundaries, and so on. We possessed none of these fundamental orientations that we take for granted and that are so essential in determining the type of people we become. Yet by this point in our lives, we all have acquired them. Sociologists call this culture within us. These learned and shared ways of believing and of doing (another definition of culture) penetrate our being at an early age and quickly become part of our taken-for-granted assumptions about what normal behavior is. Culture becomes the lens through which we perceive and evaluate what is going on around us. Seldom do we question these assumptions, for, like water to a fish, the lens through which we view life remains largely beyond our perception.

Pay special attention to Henslin’s words set in bold type above; they’re important.

An individual’s culture shapes nearly every aspect of their personal identity and how they view the world around them.

He’ll go on to say later in the chapter that a person’s culture “provides implicit instructions that tell us what we ought to do and how we ought to think; it provides a fundamental basis for our decision making.” That’s because we tend to adopt the values, way of thinking and doing of the people we spend the most time with.

So if culture affects nearly every aspect who and what we are, how important should this be for church leaders to understand?

Some reading now may think Henslin is overstating the impact of culture on a person, but think about the biblical truth illustrated in his analysis. People typically do adopt the beliefs, values and behaviors of those they spend the most time with. That’s why the Bible says things like this:

Proverbs 13:20
20 Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.

 

1 Corinthians 15:33
33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.

 

2 Corinthians 6:14
14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

 

Hebrews 10:25
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

We’re instructed that those who want to be wise should spend time with wise people, warned that bad company will influence our own character, commanded not to be closely connected with those practicing unrepentant wickedness, and encouraged to spend time with godly people who will spur us on toward being the people God created us to be.

Who you spend time with matters because people are shaped by the beliefs, values and behaviors of those they spend the most time with – this is the truth. That’s why those scriptures above exist, and that’s why we should also pay attention to what the sociologist quoted above says. Culture is profoundly influential.

Now, what does understanding this have to do with leadership?

Very simply, leaders will determine the cultural climate of their groups.

True leaders within a group are in a position to influence group culture more than anyone else because of the influence they have in shaping the values, beliefs and behaviors of the individuals making up the group. I say “true leaders” because sometimes people occupy an office of church leadership without the character or relational connection to wield much influence over the people they’re supposed to be leading. True leaders, whether officially named or not, have that influence, and an effective disciplemaking leader is no exception.

Disciplemaking leaders purposefully use their influence to create a culture made up of individuals who love God, one another, and the lost.

A leader who’s passionate about loving God, making disciples through reaching the lost and helping believers achieve spiritual maturity will transmit those values to the rest of the group. As a group of people internalize disciplemaking values, it becomes contagious. Creating that contagious culture is what disciplemaking leaders should shoot for – that’s when things really get moving.

So how is this done?

Creating a disciplemaking culture is primarily accomplished through 1) exemplification, 2) communication, and 3) time.

I touched on the importance of exemplification in a previous post in this series and I’d rather not rehash everything that was said there. Instead, to explain disciplemaking culture creation I’d like to tell you how I’ve seen this play out in my own experience.

I’ve been a minister for over ten years now. My wife and I have always been very evangelistic people, and I’ll tell you why.

Before we knew one another, we were both very different people. While our struggles, backgrounds, and hurts were a lot different, there was one thing we had in common: we were both very lost and in need of Jesus.

She and I both came to Christ separate from one another but in the same way: we encountered members of a campus ministry in Florida whose group culture highly valued outreach to the lost and hurting in the world. Because this was highly valued within that group’s culture, they were constantly reaching out, throwing parties, hosting events, intentionally spending time building relationships with people who needed God and offering to study the Bible with them when they were ready. Our group spent a lot of time together too. It seemed like there was something going on nearly every day whether it was a scheduled ministry event or not – there was constantly something to do together even if it was just getting together to enjoy one another’s company.

Those being touched by this ministry who responded positively were baptized and added to a group where these values were present, and that evangelistic fervor was contagious! It seemed like everyone in that group came to highly value being evangelistic, and what made us most excited were those phone calls in the middle of the night to head up to the church building to witness another baptism. Those were great moments, and our group bonded through our shared values and behaviors (i.e. culture). That’s probably why my wife and I have always been very evangelistic – we both learned to be that way as we internalized the values and beliefs of the culture present in the group that led us to Christ.

That old saying, “Evangelism is more caught than taught” is true, and it speaks to the impact of group culture on an individual.

Why was the group that led my wife and I to Christ super-evangelistic compared to others? Simple – that was due to the influence of the pair leading the ministry in Lynn and Carol Stringfellow.

Lynn and Carol were constantly shaping the values of our group through the time they spent with us, what they said to us and what they exemplified for us. We spent time with them several days a week, and I remember them constantly reminding us that our job was to reach out to a lost world. When attitudes or behaviors got in the way of that mission, they were quickly confronted and corrected. I remember more than once Lynn pulling our group aside and telling us that we were slipping in terms of our evangelistic focus or to point out a lost person we needed to reach out to. He and Carol also set an example for us to follow in doing that themselves too – we all saw them reaching out to people themselves. They weren’t distant – they were among us and engaged, and we responded when they asked us to do something because they’d proven over and over again their love and commitment to those of us making up the group. They’d earned influence with us and were loved and respected.

The values they instilled in us were contagious, because it seemed like each new person we’d baptize would quickly catch that evangelistic fire to reach out to their friends. To put it in sociological terms, new people quickly adopted the values, beliefs, worldview, and behaviors of the group. They adapted to the culture and became part of it.

I only interned with Lynn and Carol’s group for about a year before heading off to Bible college in another state. During that time I’d married my wife, and we brought our cultural values with us as we moved to a little town in Arkansas where I would go to school. After the move we quickly came to realize the average believer around us didn’t place the same value on evangelism that we did. The culture in this new place was very different from where we’d come (in my immaturity I was more than a little arrogant in pointing that out), but we immediately starting reaching out to people, baptized a few and formed our own group in this new place.

We started meeting together on Sundays in a little coffee shop for worship and Bible study then in homes throughout the week but that little group struggled.  We did our best, but we’d never learned how to take people who were baby Christians from one stage of development to the other. Airiel and I were pretty much baby Christians ourselves – I’d only been baptized a year earlier and Airiel just a couple of years before me.

Speaking personally, while I loved reaching lost people at that point in my life and was trying to follow Jesus, I was still an angry, insecure, and immature 25 year old who didn’t play well with others and regularly came across to people as pretty hateful. Our group suffered and that ministry was unhealthy. Beyond a value for evangelism, our little group had other values I’d help instill in it that killed much hope of it being healthy: a penchant for gossip, relational distance, shallowness, unholiness, immaturity and several other negative and sinful things.

I say that to illustrate this truth:

While evangelism is more caught than taught so is everything else, and that’s not always a good thing.

The influence of culture is a double-edged sword. While people may “catch” good values, attitudes and behaviors, they can just as easily “catch” bad values, attitudes and behaviors.

I learned this the hard way by creating an unhealthy ministry culture during my Bible college years before moving on to a paid position on the west coast where I did the same thing.

In both cases my ministries were evangelistic, but neither one produced mature disciples. I simply didn’t have the knowledge or training to instill the values, beliefs, worldview, and behaviors within the people I was leading to help them achieve maturity mainly because I wasn’t maturing myself. I didn’t know what to do.

My first several years of ministry were spent banging my head against a wall watching most of the people I’d baptized fall back into their old lives of sin, and it took a while but I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed major help. That’s when I reached out to the leaders of the church I’m currently apart of – The Crossings Church in the St. Louis area.

I’d been familiar with the work here for a few years after becoming friends with the ministers and a lot of the church members at a conference back in 2005. I noticed this group was not only evangelistic and reaching a lot of people, but they were also keeping a high percentage of those reached and helping them develop to the point of becoming leaders within the Kingdom. This was something I hadn’t witnessed other places at the level I was seeing with this group. There was something a lot different about their church culture compared to others.

My wife and I decided to move here so we could try to learn to develop leaders like what we were observing in Missouri – we so wanted the ability to help people become mature enough to be Kingdom leaders after they’d given their lives to Christ.

After arriving here I began having regular meetings with a man named Robert Cox. Robert is the lead evangelist and church planter for The Crossings Church in Wentzville, MO. Under his leadership and with the help of an excellent team, the church has grown from around 20 or 30 adults when it was first planted in 2004 to around 500 attending on Sunday mornings and the addition of another congregation nearer the city of St. Louis (with more church plants to come in the future). The vast majority of church growth has come from reaching unchurched people (which is rare) most of whom were reached through evangelistic youth and campus ministries. The resulting congregation is very young compared to others with the median age probably falling somewhere in the twenties, and is also very diverse in an area where diversity is not usually present.

As far as the culture of the church goes, reaching lost people is a high value, but equal value is placed upon the personal spiritual maturity of members and on leadership development.

The church plant team sent out a couple of years ago is a good illustration of that. Out of a team of over 30 people sent out in 2014 to plant a church nearer the city, all but two of those team members were Christians before they encountered The Crossings. Nearly every person on that team had not only been reached out of the world, but closely worked with for a period of time to mature to the point where they could be trusted to help provide a healthy foundation for a new church.

There aren’t any other churches I’ve encountered who are having the types of results in reaching and developing people that I’m witnessing here, and I believe that’s largely due to the impact of the culture that has been cultivated in this congregation. That’s not say there aren’t weaknesses present too – there certainly are. But this congregation is strong in key areas where most churches are weak – namely the value placed not only on mission, but also personal spiritual and leadership development. The reason things are that way here is due to the influence of the leaders present.

During my weekly meetings with Robert I observed very quickly his excitement in reaching lost people, but he was equally excited about people’s development post-baptism and their experiencing victories in overcoming issues and weaknesses. This came out all the time in what he was most excited to talk about and how he spent his time, and between his influence and the influence of other friends in the church around me it didn’t take long before I came to value the same things in a way that affected my everyday life.

Culture and the values/actions that accompany it are contagious, and leaders (i.e. persons of influence in a group) play a major role in shaping what those values and actions will be.

In Sum …

This was a bit of a long post today, so let me break it down for you:

  1. The influence of a group’s culture on the individual is profound, and will either be good or bad depending upon group health.
  2. Ensuring a healthy group culture is vital if you want to lead a disciplemaking ministry.
  3. Leaders create culture as they influence the values, thoughts, worldview and behaviors of group members.
  4. The primary way leaders will influence group culture is through communication, exemplification, and time.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you want to be a leader who instills disciplemaking values into your group’s culture:

  1. What do I get most excited about? Does this have anything to do with disciplemaking? If so, how does it come out in my speech and actions so that I can influence others? If not, why not and what do I need to change?
  2. What do I talk to my group members about? Do I talk about who I’m reaching out to or who they’re reaching out to? Do I talk about my excitement at the personal development of people I’m helping or people they’re helping?
  3. How do I model disciplemaking values (loving God, one another, and the lost) to my group members? How much personal time do I spend with my group? Do the people in my group see me personally reaching out to people? Do they hear of me studying the Bible evangelistically with outsiders? Do they see me modeling what it means to be on mission? Do they hear me talking about my own weaknesses and personal development in my relationship with God? Do they see me modeling what it means to be a growing disciple?

 

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