Musings on Culture Change, Part 2

January 14, 2013 — Leave A Comment

Fish Bowl

“We are not made of skin and bone, we are made of stories.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd

Culture is the lens through which we see the world. It shapes and shades absolutely everything about our lives, and ourselves. I like that well-known quip about two fish who went out for a swim one morning. Along the way, they ran into a third fish, who greeted them warmly and declared, “The water’s great today, isn’t it!” before swimming on past. But the two fish just looked at each other quizzically and asked, “What’s water?”

That’s how most of us experience culture. It’s the bubble around us that we don’t see, but through which we see everything. This is true whether we’re talking about our national culture, our family culture, or the culture of our church or organization. Culture is ubiquitous in this way at all levels of our experience for the simple reason that it is essential to our human journey. We don’t have instincts as animals do; so the only way we learn to survive in the world is by being taught. Sometimes we learn from our elders; sometimes we learn from our peers. But the end result of all the learning we assimilate ~ about what the world is, how it works, and our place in the grand scheme of things ~ is what we call culture. Culture tells us who we are, and defines for us the story we are living.

The problem with all this, of course, is that no culture ~ and by that I mean, NO culture (either in the Church, or outside the Church) ~ allows those within it an unfiltered view of Reality. Culture is by its very nature, and interpretation. It is not Reality itself. Rather, it’s a way we explain Reality to ourselves. In this way, culture is like a two-edged sword. There are some things it cuts through and allows us to see more clearly, and other things it cuts out and doesn’t allow us to see at all. Once you understand this, it leads to this rather humbling (but also freeing) epiphany about human existence: We’re all (at least partly) wrong about the Way Things Really Are. To bring it to a finer point, let me say this way. If you’re a typical American (as I am), there are some truths about the nature of life you see with great clarity, and other, equally important truths, you probably don’t see at all. (If you wonder what they might be, try asking a native from India, or China, or Egypt. They’ll probably be able to tell you.) In the same way, as a member of a particular church or denomination, there are some aspects of truth and the nature of God that you see clearly, and others you probably miss altogether. This is not a reflection of your intelligence. It’s all about the water you’re swimming in.

On the organizational level, this explains why attempts at change so often fail. A church fails to effectively reach people who do not follow Christ, so they launch a massive “Reach Your Neighbor” program to inspire their people to be more outgoing. It has some effect, for a while, but within months everything returns to pretty much how it was. The culture has reasserted itself. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Every single time.

Same goes for leadership teams. There are probably hundreds of faith-based leadership teams around the country right this moment that are filled with brilliant people who feel burned out, exhausted, bitter, overwhelmed, alone, and untrusting of their coworkers. They’ve already tried a bookcase full of strategic programs, seminars, workshops, conferences, book studies, training classes, retreats and assessments to deal with the problem. But until they deal with the actual issue ~ their culture ~ nothing is going to really change.

But, if culture is so invisible and so deceptive and so ubiquitous, how on earth do you change it?

Actually, you don’t. Not directly anyway. Fact is, the culture has to choose to change itself.

But once you understand that, then the idea of culture change starts to get really interesting.

Click here for Part 3.

Michael Warden

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