July - August 2017

Written by Daron Brown
From his column Pressing On

07-17_article

Every pastor knows pastoral ministry includes a broad range of responsibilities which often feel disconnected from one another. It’s a common reality that may result in personal confusion and frustration. My attempts to make sense of pastoral ministry over the years have led me to the conclusion that it is primarily about one thing: shaping culture.

Culture is defined as the sum of customs, habits, practices, and values of a group of people—a collective personality. The word has its origins in the Latin term cultura, which meant “growing” or “cultivating”—as in the farm type.

Every group of people, including local churches, has a distinct culture. More than simply leading individuals, pastoral ministry is primarily about the complex work of tending to the intangible stuff that occurs between individuals over the course of time.

Throughout the scriptures, God is the primary culture-shaper. In both the Old and New Testaments, He is intent on making Israel and the Church into His holy people. God shapes the cultures of these groups to be holy as He is holy. Pastors too are culture-shapers insofar as we cooperate with God’s work of making people holy.

With this in mind, the first task of pastoral ministry is to learn a congregation’s existing culture. Unless the church is a plant, it has a culture that predates the new pastor’s arrival. Over time, through active listening, incarnational living, and the Spirit’s guidance, the pastor begins to read the culture of a congregation.

The finest pastors I know are those who understand and appreciate their church’s culture.

Without adequately identifying it, a pastor has little chance of shaping the culture of the congregation into what he or she would like it to be. The finest pastors I know are those who understand and appreciate their church’s culture.

There are three primary means of shaping the culture of a local church: tables, towels, and telling. Jesus consistently embraced all three to shape the culture of his followers.

Tables

Tables include the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and formal and informal fellowship gatherings for meals. When people gather around tables, they are called together. Sitting together and breaking bread is a sign of kinship and connection. Throughout the Bible, meals are occasions for covenant celebrations that shape individuals into God’s people. When God’s people gather at God’s table for God’s meal in which God is present, the gathering becomes a powerful means of His transforming work.

Towels

In the New Testament, towels were the tools of servants. Jesus used one in John 13 as he served others by humbly washing their feet. Christ consistently “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7), and He summoned His disciples to do the same. When pastors create spaces for Christian service and equip people to spend themselves for others in the name of Christ, the culture of the congregation is shaped toward selflessness, service, and missional living.

Telling

Telling includes the formal and informal work of speaking the story. There is no more powerful resource for shaping culture than storytelling. As God’s people, we are shaped by a story that begins with “In the beginning…” (Gen. 1:1) and ends with “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). Our story declares the truth about God’s redemptive purposes and finds its climax in the resurrected Christ.

Through preaching, teaching, and conversing, we tell and retell the biblical story of God’s salvation. We also take time to tell the stories of the local congregation’s past within the larger context of the story of God. In so doing, our parishioners are given the opportunity to locate and embrace their shared identity as God’s people.

One of the learned truths is that past and present cultures shape future ones. As congregational cultures are influenced, so they continue to influence others for years and decades to come. This can be a positive or negative thing. As pastors we are guided by the question: “Is the culture of my church becoming more Christian, more holy, and more missional?”

Finally, while shaping the culture of the congregation is central to pastoral work, it is not the final goal. The church exists to change surrounding culture—our neighborhoods and our world. We must be ever aware that God has chosen us to be His agents of change. Through the shaping of our individual church cultures, we pastors work hand in hand with God and our people to change the world.

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.

Subscribe to eNews!