Look Before You Lead: How to Discern & Shape Your Church Culture (2013), the new book by Dr. Aubrey Malphurs, is by far the most comprehensive and practical explanation of church culture to date. As Dr. Malphurs points out in the opening chapter, that many authors are currently writing about culture but fail to accurately define the term. Consequently, there are a number of books being published that use the same nomenclature, but vary in its demarcation. Culture is a very abstract concept. People often claim they can sense the culture, but have trouble describing it. In one of the first books to concisely articulate culture, Dr. Malphurs explains that this crucial aspect of any congregation consists of three elements: behavior, values, and beliefs.
Using the analogy of an apple, Dr. Malphurs compares a church or organization’s behavior to that of the apples skin. It is the first element witnessed and easily observable. At a deeper level is the flesh of the apple. This is where the churches values are. And at the center of the “Cultural Apple” are the core beliefs that drive and inspire the first two. Dr. Malphurs continually returns to the “Cultural Apple” metaphor throughout the book, and while I’m sure some critics will find this redundant, I think his example reinforces the teaching. It also helps to present a concrete visual for representing an abstract concept. The imagery will help as a tool for a leader’s cultural memorization and ultimately cultural manipulation.
Look Before You Lead is divided into three parts. Part 1: “The Basics of Congregational Culture” among other insights, presents the importance of church culture, how a church’s expressions of culture matters, and why the church needs to respond to culture in a healthy, biblical way for the expansion of the Gospel. Chapter 6 “How We Respond: The Church’s Relationship to Culture” should be required reading for ever seminarian, pastor, and lay leader. Dr. Malphurs distinguishes between the two extremes of isolation and accommodation, and presents a third way, contextualization. Dr. Malphurs writes that contextualization “attempts to plant or reestablish churches and communicate the Gospel in language and practices that are within people’s cultural context so that the biblical message is clear” (p. 71). Missionaries in cross-cultural settings practice contextualization. It is well-known that America is a post-Christian society drifting further into secularization. Therefore anyone engaged in church work should respond, like God did through the incarnation, and meet people where they are. All throughout Scripture, we see God communicating with the language of those he called, for example Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. In the New Testament Christ is the ultimate example of going to where the people are. Remember, Immanuel means “God with us.” Paul also altered his message style for witnessing to the Gentiles. The biblical basis is clear; contextualization is the method of Christ.
I found Part 2: “Reading Congregational Culture”, immediately applicable to my current ministry role. As someone who serves with a nonprofit church consulting ministry, helping leaders to understand how to exegete culture like Scripture is essential. In Chapters 7 and 8, Dr. Malphurs explains that leaders can read the church and themselves through questions in observation, interpretation, and application exercises.
On a personal note, I found Part 3: “Shaping Congregational Culture” the most inspiring. Especially helpful is chapter 11, “The Church Planter as Culture Architect: Creating a New Church Culture.” Dr. Malphurs builds on the idea of cold and warm plants by analyzing the lead planter’s strengths and weaknesses, gifts, passion, and temperament. His discussion on the five core values of the Jerusalem church and the five stages of culture implementation are goldmines for church planters.
Finally, in Dr. Malphurs typical fashion, he includes a number of Appendixes that include worksheets on developing a faith statement, character assessment for leadership, temperament explanations, and belief, values, and behavior audit.
I highly recommend Dr. Malphurs new book, Look Before You Lead for every leader looking to learn how to be a culture sculptor. Church planters, pastors of established churches, ministers considering church “adoption” or leaders seeking to revitalize their church will all benefit from the practical lessons on discerning and shaping congregational culture.