Creating Real, Lasting Change Requires More Than New Practices

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When I have taught on 20s & 30s ministry the main thing people want to know is what can they go home and do to fix it. The idea is, if we do the right things the right results will follow. The problem with that is, if the underlying core values, structures, leadership, worldview, or theology are unhealthy (even unbiblical) you can imitate someone else’s practices all day but the change will be slow and the results will be shallow and temporary. You may end up worse than you started because the underlying unhealthiness will squelch and frustrate those invested in making real and meaningful progress.


The reason for that is church culture. The culture of the church plays a huge role in how things work. That is why cookie cutter ministry approaches just don’t work well. Taking one church’s ministry and dropping it into another congregation is unrealistic. Churches don’t usually overlap in their talents, facility, and (on a deeper level) their core values and church culture so what works one place may not work well in practice somewhere else because both places aren’t on the same page and don’t value all the same things. There is more to creating real, lasting change than just adopting a new set of “to do’s”. Real, lasting change has to flow from a change in something deeper than a to do list.

In the book “On the Verge” by Hirsch and Ferguson they spend a lot of time talking about shifting church paradigms. The main model they use really resonated with me when I saw it because it described so much of my own church and ministry experience. The define three levels of who we are as the church:

1 – Core values: the deepest level, hardest to shift, biggest driver of everything else

2 – Ethos: the environment we create that flows out of the things we value

3 – Practice: The things we do as a church that are a direct reflection of our core values and flow from values and ethos.


For example, churches say they value outreach. Outreach is a practice, not a value. The underlying value is more like the statement “We love everyone”. That value should create an ethos/environment where all people are welcomed, loved, treated with respect, etc. In other words, your church will be warm and welcoming to outsiders and not suspicious and cold toward them. Out of all of that come practices like doing things in the community to meet non-Christians, studying the Bible with seekers, greeting them in warm and welcoming ways, making them feel at home, avoiding putting them in awkward situations, etc. This model also quickly demonstrates areas of hypocrisy, where our practices don’t actually reflect what we say we value (but don’t really as seen in the environments we create/ethos and the things we do/practice).

Or take worship. If we say we value vibrant worship we must create an environment that reflects that value and then practice worship in such a way that our value is upheld. If we say we value vibrant worship but our ethos and practices say different people will notice and the value is shown to be just lip service. If we say we want engaging, awe-inspiring worship but our real core value is our comfort zone, when people actually try engaging in the worship we say we value it ends up getting shut down and much harm is done. Say someone raises their hands and the church leadership values comfort above vibrant, heart-felt worship…they will put a stop to that (even though the practice is perfectly biblical). Core values drive our practices and what we permit and discourage.

Let’s apply this to one more thing, 20s & 30s ministry. Churches want better practices to keep and reach them while fully unaware that what really caused these people to leave had more to do with the church’s core values and ethos than it did with a desire for just better, newer, hipper practices. When newer practices are introduced but the underlying core values and ethos remain stuck in an unhealthy place, the changes won’t last and you end up doing more harm than good and hurt a lot of people along the way.

Bottom line is this – know what you value and that what you value comes from scripture. Allow those biblical values to drive the ethos of the congregation and be reflected in what you practice. Don’t ever just come up with a new set of practices thinking that will fix everything. Don’t chase the shallow, quick fix. Do the tough work of challenging the real (not just the stated or assumed) values to make sure they actually line up with scripture. Know that real change is about culture more so than about finding a new approach.

If you want more information on this you can either read On the Verge or you can listen to my talk last week at the Harding Lectures – Audio #163 @  2013 Lectureship at Itunes University

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