I pay much more attention to the theme of culture than I used to. This signifies that I recognize how important culture is. Of course, culture has always been important, but I did not recognize how important it is. Culture is important for high performing teams. And clearly, the reverse is also true. Culture is important for low performing teams.
Culture is not inherently a spiritual issue. But it can and does become involved in the spiritual dimension when that dimension is present. There is a huge amount of scholarship about culture. It is a concern in various departments on a college campus---sociology, business, history and so on. But I am not interested in the scholarly, formal definitions of culture. I prefer to use a simple definition.
Culture is how people think, feel, and act alone and when they are together. Groups of all kinds have culture; it is impossible not to have a culture. Teams, churches, businesses, sororities, etc. all have some kind of culture. However, most of us live in a particular culture and act out of that culture, but we never think about it. It is like the air we breathe.
It is easy to guess that there are strong and weak cultures, lively and deadly cultures, and so on. I suggest that cultures can change, but they do so very slowly. They can change by giving intentional leadership to culture change. This often happens when a group gets a new president or a team gets a new coach. It is easier to change the culture of a small group. If you have a business with fifty thousand employees, it is going to take some real effort and time to change a culture.
The other side intentional culture change is the fact that culture change can happen rather unintentionally. This is especially true for the groups with smaller memberships. Consider the old saying: a rotten apple ruins the whole barrel. This represents culture change. A good barrel of apples is a sitting duck for a few bad apples. Many of us have had experiences with teams or groups where one or two new characters came into the picture and seemingly messed things up for the whole group.
Any of us who are members of churches, synagogues or mosques know this is true for our groups as well. Sometimes I visit a church and very quickly you get a “feel” for the place. That “feel” is a quick sense of the culture. Is it a warm, welcoming place? Do they seem happy that I am here? Sometimes groups pay lip service to the right kind of culture, but they live it out very differently. The bulletin may say they are a welcoming community, but then I wonder why no one greets me, speaks to me or seems to care that I am there!
I am very aware of this when I begin a new class each semester. I know that this group of students and I will form some kind of culture. Even if we don’t think about it, a culture will form. And once it forms, it is indeed difficult to change. So I am very intentional about trying to help the group form a culture that is going to be open, curious, etc. I know I cannot form the culture by myself. But I know I have a major role in its formation.
To form a culture means we form how people think, feel and act in that culture. Certainly, reputation and tradition play a part. For example, if my reputation is that I am a boring professor, then people come expecting me to be boring and the culture begins to be formed around that expectation. That same thing holds true for local congregations and perhaps even entire denominations. If a church’s reputation is that it is a “cold place,” visitors come figuring that will be their experience. Again, it’s difficult to change, so my idea is to form it in good ways from the beginning.
So when I meet a class for the first time, I know the foundation for a culture is being laid. A key for me is to begin making connections and helping students make connections with each other. I do this because connection is the link to caring. If I feel connected to you, I am much more likely to care about you and to care for you. And that is reciprocal. You care about me. So if we begin to build a web of connection---even that first day early on---then the caring will follow. That builds a strong culture that is not dependent on me to carry the load.
It seems to me this is exactly what Jesus did with his disciples. He called them into friendship. In fact, in John’s Gospel Jesus explicitly said, “I call you friends.” He intentionally had small groups. They worshipped together, they ate together, and they cared for each other. They were forming a culture.
I am amazed that the culture became so strong, it survived the death of Jesus, their leader, and has evolved and grow in unbelievable ways over 20 centuries. Strong cultures survive and thrive. Strong cultures are caring culture. They pursue and promote peace. They are effective agents of the Spirit in our world.