A starting response to Paul VK on Structure and Culture change

28 Jun

These are some thoughts about and objections to some of what Paul VanderKlay wrote in a blog post linked below.

To me, structure is derived from culture which is created by values.

Let me write that again with bracketed definitions included: structure (buildings and organizational patterns and power controls) flow from culture (behaviour in which values are expressed) which flows from values. So, to me, values are the starting point of everything we do as individuals, congregations, agencies and denominations.

Values, in my experience, come in two categories: idealized or ‘preferred’ and real or lived-out values. Behaviours that reveal the actual values we hold are the real thing, together creating the real culture. Values that we have selected as optimal or ideal are the dream. In between is hypocrisy. See:

So, my starting point for any structure and culture conversation and reflection would be the question: What are our real behaviours and what real values do they play out?

The way we organize church leadership in a congregation, for instance, reveals a set of values. “Checks and balances” or “no one person or group having too much power in the organizational system” is one value set.

The way we might invite people to our churches (value: outreach) but then expect them to understand and learn our cultural patterns by osmosis (value: Cosa Nostra, a residual remnant of immigrant preservation) is a values conflict, or a conflict of behaviours that come from values that are contradictory.

The newcomer is likely to assume, in the face of this, that they are not really welcome or that they can only be welcome if they accommodate to the existing values, behaviour and culture, most of which are not written anywhere, such as church dress codes. They tend to then fall away.

So, when others, like Paul VanderKlay, write about structure and culture, I am watching for what I describe above to be evident in the reflections. I don’t find it. Paul’s latest post on this is found at:

Paul asks:

What do we want from this experiment?

  • We want the North American “in support of” staff to better support the North American church

  • We want denominational staff to be more responsive to cultural changes in the North American church

  • We want to see a new culture develop, more permission giving, less controlling.

All of these are good things.

In reply, I say: “more permission giving, less controlling” will allow the stasis quo (spelling intentional) to continue. The problem, in my view, lies in individuals and congregations not being broken out of their game of believing hanging preferred values on the wall will change their structure and culture. Who – if the congregations are going to keep their autonomy – is going to challenge that denial?

You say, Paul, that “we want denominational staff to be more responsive to cultural changes” but who is going to foster congregational responsiveness to cultural change when their very organizational DNA is preservationist?

How can denominational staff be “supportive” if a prophetic challenge is needed? Somebody needs to be the bad cop. Someone needs to be the prophet calling people back to something essential. But if the congregation has the power to do away with leaders who challenge their false comforts, how will that happen? They are unlikely to fly in a denominational staff person at great expense to be challenged in that way. And if they do, they can easily let the wet sand close over the footprint and forget the impact saying to themselves “that person just does not understand us” not realizing that they maybe need to understand themselves better.

So you can see my mind was full of questions at the outset. Until I read “The issues are in the churches and there are multiple challenges.”

At that point I began tracking with you better.

I would say the Cosa Nostra Challenge is actually an outworking of the My Church challenge, as is the Pre-Post Christendom one. Culture war is a hijacking of values by non-gospel agendas and, as you say, a sign the church has lost the radicalness of Jesus rejecting culture wars to establish a Kingdom that operates by out-of-this-world principles. Etc.

In sum, to me, starting the work by changing structure and culture is a work of futility. It is tinkering to avoid the real sink-cause. We need to challenge the values our culture and structure show now, and we need to confront the dissonance between our wall-plaque values and the ones we live individually and congregationally. Structure and culture change will follow that. It won’t create it.


Posted by on June 28, 2014 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “A starting response to Paul VK on Structure and Culture change

  1. PaulVK

    June 28, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks Pete. You are right. This is starting at the wrong end of the tree, the tops and not the roots. Remember the narrative, that the exoskeleton, or the tree tops, distant branches are worried about the roots and hope to do something to help the foundation that they depend upon.

    You are also right that it is in the local church where you can best address the challenges. What makes the denomination worried is that 85% of CRC churches are plateaued or in decline. You may turn around a church or two but if the CRC tree tops or exoskeleton wants to survive you’ll need to reverse those numbers.

    There is of course far more hope for any one individual local congregation. It only takes a few people to really help turn a church around, if it can be turned around.

    The hope, probably a false hope is that whatever happens that helps a church learn to be fruitful in personal transformation, evangelism and discipleship beyond its walls can somehow to turned into a system and reproduced in church after church. While revivals do happen and they do go viral this factory, cause-effect approach is quintessentially modern. We’ll see.


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