A 5 Step Guide on How to Create An Amazing Church Culture

Every church has a culture. Yours does. Mine does.

If the culture is healthy, amazing things happen.

People love being there.

People grow.

Great leaders come and stay.

Your church becomes attractive to the community and more fully accomplishes its mission

 But sadly, for many churches, the culture isn’t healthy.

Culture is invisible but determinative. You can’t see it, but it defines so much.

A bad culture will consistently undermine an amazing mission, vision and strategy.

As Peter Drucker is quoted as saying, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Think about it:

Culture is the reason you love shopping in some stores and despise shopping in others.

It’s why you love some airlines and pass on others.

It’s why some families always have fun when they’re together and others can’t stand to be in the same room.

So the question becomes: how do you create an amazing culture?

church culture

I’ve worked hard on creating a better church culture over the years.

As I’ve gotten healthier, our church has gotten healthier.

Two years ago we finally wrote down six cultural values at Connexus Church, where I serve.  It took us a year to define what those values were. You can access them here (scroll down when you reach the page), and I’m emailing a PDF copy to everyone on my email list if prefer your own version (subscribe to my email list here). I also preached through our cultural values in this weekend series called Doing Time.

So how did we get there?

We started with a one day off-site where our leadership team brainstormed around some of the concepts outlined below. Then, for about an hour or two each month during our leadership team meetings, we refined the concepts and the language behind our values until we came up with our final six.

Throughout the process, two resources were particularly helpful for us:

Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage

Andy Stanley’s two-part Leadership Podcast episode, Defining Your Organization’s Culture.

Although this resource wasn’t around two years ago, Craig Groeschel has a fantastic new leadership podcast and his most recent episode is on creating a values-driven culture. It’s a must-listen.

Capturing your organization’s culture is helpful because it allows you to reproduce it and export it as you grow. If your culture is healthy, it will become one of your greatest assets.

If you want an easy way to acclimatize every new staff member, board member, volunteer or person to your organization, having defined, memorable and repeatable values is one of the most effective ways to do it.  If your organization’s cultural values are NOT written down, acclimatizing new team members can take a year, or actually, it might never happen.

You can cut that time in less than half and double the buy-in by having your culture defined. Having a healthy, exportable culture is a key to every effective organization’s growth.

What follows is a 5 step guide on how to create a healthy church culture that echoes throughout your organization, even if you’re starting with a bad culture.

Step 1: Identify and eliminate the toxins

Church culture isn’t naturally healthy because people aren’t naturally healthy.

As a leader, one of your chief jobs is to figure out why your culture isn’t healthy and change that.

Look for the toxins that are making your culture unhealthy.

Conflict, selfishness, personal agendas or even toxins like a lack of passion for the mission can be lethal in a church.

If you want to drill down further, I outline 6 warning signs that your church culture is toxic in this post. And I outline 6 early warning signs that a person is toxic in this post.

You can’t eliminate what you don’t identify, so identify the things you want gone from your culture.

Step 2: Model the change you want to see

Here’s a sobering reality for all of us who lead: your church will only be as healthy as you are.

Expecting a church to be healthy when its leader isn’t is like expecting an athlete to run a marathon with a missing heart. It’s not possible.

Any conversation about church health starts in the mirror for a leader.

As I discuss in detail in my book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow, healthy leaders produce healthy churches.  The healthier you are as a leader, the healthier your church will be.

The same goes with all the change you want to see.

As a leader, you need to embody the things you want your organization to embody.

Want to see a church that invites people on Sundays? Then invite people on Sundays.

Want to see a church that gives generously? Then give generously.

Want to see a church that has deep passion for the mission? Then exude passion.

You see the point.

As a leader, culture starts with you.

Step 3: Start with WHO embodies your values

So how do you find your values? There are a lot of words in the English language. You have to choose just a few of them to define you.

Further more, how do you avoid meaningless platitudes like “Value Excellence” which sound great but practically mean nothing.

On that first off-site day we did, I had a spontaneous thought that ended up moving our team forward immensely.

Rather than start with what we valued, I decided to start with who embodied the best of our church.

Let me explain.

I went to the whiteboard and asked “Of all the people who attend our church, who best embodies what we’re about and WANT to be about in the future?”

Immediately, names started coming to all of us. I wrote them down.

Your church has these people too: they are amazing. They are all you want to see in a church member and more.

Then I asked a simple question: “Why? What is about them that makes them the embodiment of our mission, vision and strategy?”

I’ll come back to those answers in Step 4.

But before we move on, I also created a second list.

Next we made a list of people who, honestly, didn’t embody our mission, vision and values, or to put it more positively, who are the people we would need to really encourage along in order to get them in line with our real mission? We actually wrote their names down (and then I burned the list).

And we asked the same question: “Why? What is it about them that makes them the opposite of what we want to accomplish?”

I know that’s dangerous.

Maybe it’s even sinful.

But it’s true. And you know it’s true.

And it was SO clarifying.

Figuring out who you value helps you discover what you value.

Step 4: Isolate the unique principles

Figuring out why some people embodied our mission, vision and strategy and why some people didn’t was a break through for us. It helped us get to the values that we, frankly, valued. And those we didn’t.

When I asked our team why the people who best embodied what we’re about and WANT to be about in the future were their top choices, the team started saying things like:

Because they serve so selflessly

Because it’s not about them

Because they are so generous

Because they are always considerate of other people

Because they make it happen

Because they are all about our common mission, vision and strategy

Those were the first clues as to what our cultural values were.

“Make it Happen” actually made it to the list of final values a year later. We just love people who are willing to do what it takes no matter what the obstacle, and we didn’t want to lose that value as we grew.

Similarly, when I asked our team why the people who didn’t embody our mission, vision and strategies make it on the list, our team started saying things like:

Because it’s always about them

Because they criticize but don’t contribute

Because they don’t actually value unchurched people

Because they want to be served, rather than serve

Again, that helped us understand what our values were.

Try it. On a sheet of paper write the names of ten people who embody what your church is all about and what you WANT it to be about. And then write down why.  Do the same for people who AREN’T what your church is all about, and again, write down why.

You will learn a ton about what you value. Then burn the lists and save the principles.

For a few hours each month, we chiselled away at the principles we unearthed that day until a year later, after a lot of debate, discussion and prayer, we had our final six values.

Step 5: Create memorable, exportable language

It’s one thing to know what your values are as an organization.

It’s another to phrase them as a way that’s memorable and exportable.

In our case, we decided to create a two word phrases for each value (i.e. “Battle Mediocrity”) followed by a question (i.e. “Am I allowing what is good to stand in the way of being great?”).

Having 6 two-word phrases allows the values to slip into every day language, and the question makes the application personal.

We also wanted the values to be both prescribe and describe our church. In other words, we want it to be accurate enough that people say “for sure, that’s you,” but aspirational enough that it keeps us motivated to keep getting better.

However you do it, having short, memorable phrases will help the values spread through your organization.

It means you can bring new staff and volunteers up to speed much faster and that as you expand, what you value will remain shared.

Does sharing your values this way work? Well, as I mentioned, our values proved so popular with our volunteers (who kept telling us they wished their workplace/family operated the same way) that I ended up preaching through them on the weekend. You can watch the Doing Time series here or listen via podcast.

What Have You Learned?

That’s what I’ve learned about how to define and reproduce cultural values.

Again, I’ll email out the PDF of our cultural values (including a frameable artistic version we did for our church) later this week to my subscribers. You can get that by subscribing here.

What are you learning? Scroll down and leave a comment.

30 Comments

  1. JJx5NC on April 18, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    I read your article on how to demotivate volunteers. Everything is spot on, and I would add one more thing: No job description or delegated responsibility (or no significant role). Maybe it falls under micromanagement. Thanks for the pointers.

  2. […] wrote more about creating a positive team culture in this post. Have a […]

  3. Andy on April 3, 2016 at 9:59 am

    I needed to read this post. it is great food for thought!! Our Church Family is currently going through BIG changes and we are an “established church body of 187 years” It is slow going but The Holy Spirit is moving and people are getting behind the new direction and vision. This post helped me to see the next steps in our movement forward. Thank you for your faithfulness on this blog!!!

  4. Lesa Aiken on March 24, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    I really enjoyed this article! Step 3 & 4 seemed like a great way to move from gossip to positive action. I love the concept of “Burn the list, save the principles.” This allows you to still identify what principals are working (or not working) without making it personal. I also loved Step 2. Being the change we want to see is really important. If we will not change as leaders, then how can we expect others to be willing to change? Thank you for sharing.

  5. A Amos Love on March 23, 2016 at 11:59 am

    Carey – Was wondering…

    If a someone, who calls them self a **leader,** is NOT healthy?
    And, as you say, “your church will only be as healthy as you are?”

    Should these pastor/leaders remove themselves from ministry?
    And be a good example to the flock?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 23, 2016 at 12:02 pm

      Or just get better. That’s a good option too.

  6. Paul Chastain on March 22, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Pastor, you said something in your last comment to me that struck me. You said that people actually do come to authentic faith in Jesus Christ, are baptized and years after are exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit. You said it was amazing. What did you mean by that?

  7. Jeannie Prinsen on March 21, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    I attend a church that I think has a very healthy culture, so I’m really interested in your list, especially points 3 and 4, and have already started trying to answer these questions for myself. I had the same question Michael did re how to ensure we’re not encouraging over-serving to the point of burnout, etc. — and your response makes sense. “Serving yourself sick” is not a value a church would want to reproduce, we hope, so it would need to be framed in a way that encourages healthy participation: e.g. serving in a way that honours both our gifts and limitations.

    Thank you for this: it’s very interesting and helpful.

  8. Paul Chastain on March 21, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Don’t want to be a wet blanket here, folks, but the gospel of Jesus doesn’t include “making a church unbelievers love to come to”. The gospel of Jesus is an offense to the unsaved. Doing things to make them ‘comfortable’ goes against everything Jesus did and taught. He said to be merciful, sure, but He never bent over backward to make the sinner comfortable.
    The Holy Ghost will draw people to your church if you just preach the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, to be honest, when was the last time your church had an altar call for folks to get saved in your services? A bit to old fashioned? The founder of the Foursquare movement, Aimee Semple McPherson didn’t think so. She taught that altar calls were an essential part of any church service. She never preached inoffensive sermons. Her’s were meant to convict and inspire the lost to get saved, and for those who were already saved to get deeper into the Holy Ghost, and to witness to the lost. When was the last time you had a message in tongues and interpretation in your services? Those are essential parts of Foursquare doctrine also.
    Words of knowledge? Now that one might REALLY offend the unsaved in your church.
    If I have offendedanyone, I am truly sorry. But building a church to placate the lost is just wrong. The church is for equipping the saints for ministry to make disciples.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 21, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      First of all, I think we all have far more in common than you think. Honestly, from your tone, I don’t think you’re truly sorry. At least your tone doesn’t suggest it. More churches than yours preach the Gospel. Please remember that. We’re going to do it again this weekend. So will thousands of other church leaders who read this blog. If I’ve mistaken your tone, forgive me. I do appreciate your commitment to the Gospel and I know many other leaders who preach the Gospel in traditions different than yours do too.

      • Paul Chastain on March 21, 2016 at 7:32 pm

        I AM sorry about your thinking that I am attacking you- far from it. I was only trying to press the fact that we as the church are not to make sinners (notice that I didn’t call them the “unchurched”)
        comfortable. Jesus NEVER did that, so I feel that we shouldn’t either. Let the gospel be preached, so the Holy Ghost can do the drawing of souls to be saved. Also, just so you know, I am not Foursquare. I am , however a very passionate follower of Jesus. Institutional christianity has no part in my life.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on March 22, 2016 at 5:27 am

          I love your passion for Jesus, and thank you. Jesus actually made sinners feel very comfortable. That’s the point of the Gospels. Their friendship with him (think Matthew, Mary Magdalene, prostitutes and others) ultimately led to their salvation and repentance. I’m not picking a fight, but I just don’t want your characterization of Jesus life and ministry to go unchecked. It was the religious people who were uncomfortable with Jesus, not sinners.

          • Paul Chastain on March 22, 2016 at 7:43 am

            I see Jesus’ interaction with them as not so much making them comfortable, but reaching out to them, since the religious leaders (whom I believe knew EXACTLY who He was, by the way ) refused to recognize Him publicly because they liked their positions and the prestige and the power they had over the people. Talk about a religious machine…
            However, in touching the lives of sinners, to get back to my point, look at the woman at the well; she was most certainly NOT made comfortable. I think the sinners were open to Jesus because He was honest with them, not because they were comfortable around Him.

            But, tell me this: is your message to sinners one of a “loving god who only has good things for them”, or do you you speak against sin and preach about living holy lives before God?
            There will be lots of people (I call them churchians ) will stand before God on that day, thinking that they were saved, and He will say “depart from Me, I never knew you.” If the people who attend your services don’t hear the message of the Finished Work of Calvary, and that they must repent and turn from sinful lives to live holy before Him, then what do you preach? I live in Missouri, USA. and 5 can never attend one of your services.But I would like to think that you preach the above. Preaching a “feel good gospel” and telling people that they don’t have to repent (ala’Joseph Prince) isn’t right. I am not saying that YOU do that, but there are many, many churches that have taught that because we are “under grace” ,
            it’s okay to sin, because “God’s grace has it covered”. How wrong is that?



          • Paul Chastain on March 22, 2016 at 7:54 am

            May I ask you a question? I saw a picture of your worship team doing worship. Why did I’d look like a rock concert? Why were all the lights out except those on the stage?



          • Carey Nieuwhof on March 22, 2016 at 9:07 am

            Paul, I see a good heart and I think we actually agree on most things, but it seems like you’re view of what is right in worship is indeed very very tiny, and restricted mostly to your view. Not sure how to have a conversation. Best wishes doing what you’re doing. Please don’t judge others for being different than you, or effective.



          • Paul Chastain on March 22, 2016 at 9:39 am

            Not judging.
            Worship is now a spectator sport, where the audience stands and watches the worship team sing.
            I am asking you to look at things from the world’s point of view. What are you offering them that is different? The Word call us to be different from the world, not offer them what they can get at any rock concert, or bar. At least turn the lights up. My view of worship is biblical, not my own. It’s not tiny by any means. I have been to many churches and watched the light show , the huge sound system, the rock atmophere.
            They are all the same. Same songs, same style, same sound. One church even used a fog machine. I would love to have a conversation with you.
            I must ask a question of you. Does your service always follow the same pattern week after week? What would happen if the power of God came on someone and he challenged you in the service. Would he be removed and the service go on as usual?
            Please don’t write me off. I am very willing to conversation with you.



          • Carey Nieuwhof on March 22, 2016 at 9:45 am

            We use a fog machine. For real. And we sing the same songs other churches do, and we have a band. And I often wear jeans and running shoes. And 60% of the people who come to our church have no church background. And, believe it or not, people authentically come to faith in Jesus Christ and are baptized. And years after their baptism, they display the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It’s quite amazing actually.



          • Paul Chastain on March 22, 2016 at 10:11 am

            Praise God for the new birth, the baptisms and the spiritual growth! I have no beef with your mode of dress. I have no qualms with your having a band. No problem with it. But I challenge you to keep the lights up, and watch and see what percentage of your audience is actually participating. I do have a problem with the fog machine.
            There is absolutely no place for it in worship. Nor is there a place for the light show. Those things are not needed in worshipping Jesus. And in attending churches all across America, most churches have songs that are unique to them.
            What songs are you singing that are unique to you? Instead of being the same as every other church, I encourage you to be unique! New Zealand sounds different than we do. Las Vegas sounds different than the midwest, who sound just like every other place from Florida to Virginia to Idaho . Except the churches pastured by former Jesus Freaks from Southern California. They are completely different. I see the church worship time as the most special time in the service. We get to WORSHIP ALMIGHTY GOD. The God who gave us the gift of eternal life. Why make it a spectator sport as it is in most churches?



          • Paul Chastain on March 23, 2016 at 9:54 am

            Pastor Nieuwhof? Are you still talking to me? If I have offended you, I am so sorry. I would love to conversation with you. However, you have yet to tell me why it’s good to bring worldly things in to attract sinners to your church. I really would like to hear from you.



          • Andy on April 2, 2016 at 2:49 pm

            Please read this as a light hearted rebuttal of the previous statements not in any way meant to be mean spirited. I was not going to say anything because taking about this stuff on the Internet is often pointless. But I feel like I needed to respond. So here goes…

            The difference between the world’s fog machine and the Church’s is the presentation of Jesus. You won’t hear the Gospel at an aerosmith concert but I bet you will at these churches.

            Also, how can we judge who is engaged in a”rock” worship service? People connect with God in different ways and just because they don’t look like the way we are used to doesn’t make them any less valid.

            And to claim your preferred method of worship is Biblical and the right way is offensive and I would argue, Pharisaic.(if the implication in that statement is that, ones that don’t look like yours are not.)

            And finally Jesus did make the lost comfortable in fact he spent at least enough time with them to be branded one of them. He didn’t celebrate their sin but he was available to them while still struggling. You can not make arguments from omission.

            The truth is that Jesus may have used a fog machine if they were available to him. Arguably the sermon on the mount was an insult to the temple priests… To teach about God and his kingdom to the masses with men and women sitting together in the open… That would have been unacceptable or at the very least frowned upon.

            God is so much bigger than our flawed understanding of his word… I mean hey, I could be completely wrong here, but if a church body is LEGITIMATELY reaching the lost and lives are REALLY being changed… Then who are we to tear it down?



          • Paul Chastain on April 2, 2016 at 7:48 pm

            I am not saying that Pastor Nieuwhof is leading a bunch of churchians. He says that there are conversions at his church, that these folks are being baptized and they are growing in the Spirit, and I believe him.

            However.
            I challenge you to go to any church that keeps the lights out during the worship time and see for yourself just how many people are actually singing. I believe you will be surprised at what you see.

            As for Jesus and sinners, He never excused or put aside their sins because they had a talent, as the church plant Hillsong New York did when they employed a male gay pair to be their worship leaders. Or, when Creflo Dollar and his wife took ministry money and bought his and hers Rolls Royces. Or the fact that Dollar also told his people that God told him that he needed a new, bigger, more expensive private jet so that he could “spread the gospel” to more people. Hogwash! Jesus told sinners to stop sinning. Period. When Jesus truly touched their lives, people were changed. They didn’t “struggle in their sin as t



          • Andy on April 3, 2016 at 9:55 am

            Again, Singing or not singing is not the gauge that we should use to evaluate. My Father in-law does not sing AT ALL when he is in Church BUT…he was listening to the words and it moved him to make a commitment. All I am saying is that just because people may not sing it doesn’t me that they are not worshiping. We CAN’T judge that.

            as far as “SINNERS” and leading I agree with you but I don’t think we are talking about that. I can’t Speak for Pastor Carey in this respect but we, in my congregation, we talk about making the Church BUILDING a safe and inviting place for the lost to come and meet with Jesus, I don’t mean put them in the pulpit and let them speak. I am speaking about our Religious traditions that are not key to salvation. So have a good welcome area, be intentional about inviting people back, have people lined up to be friendly, leave the big christianese words out of things, don’t conduct church business during a morning service.

            It is about being welcoming and friendly to the lost. NOT about allowing them to continue in sin BUT that transition is not my job it is my job to love these people and teach truth in love and allow the Holy Spirit to make changes from with in in God’s time. I am only called to be salt not the meal.

            I agree that the lost should not teach or preach but they should be welcome to participate in the community. They won’t do that if they feel judged and unwelcome.

            Craziness for the sake of craziness is wrong but if it is with purpose and that purpose is being realized I think God is all for it. But again, that is MY understanding of Scripture and I could be wrong.

            This is a great conversation though 🙂 I appreciate your thoughts.



        • RWilliams on March 22, 2016 at 8:29 am

          The Gospel is offensive to some, but not all. It is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. It’s foolishness to those who are perishing. But the Gospel in and of itself is Good News.

          For the sake of clarity, I will argue from your side though…

          The Gospel may be offensive, but we don’t have to be. The message doesn’t change, but the method does consistently. Looking at the ministry of Jesus and Paul specifically will show you that.

          Matthew 9:35 – “Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching
          in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And
          he healed every kind of disease and illness.”

          Qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3:7 “… he must have a good reputation with those outside the church…”

          Colossians 4:5-6 – “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every
          opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned
          with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone,”

          That sounds pretty attractional to me. If we offend someone before they walk in the door (of a church or a home), they may never even hear the Gospel.

          • Paul Chastain on March 22, 2016 at 8:59 am

            I do not disagree with you that the church needs to exhibit grace toward sinners, but look at what else it said: …seasoned with salt. Also, be of good reputation with the world is not be like them, but have no disputes with them.
            We are called to separate from the world . Our citizenship is in heaven. We are to be in the world and not OF the world. We should not make our services so world-like that sinners are happy to be there.



      • Paul Chastain on March 21, 2016 at 7:37 pm

        As far as my tone , I get a little worked up about the lost and the reaching of them. Sorry.

    • Adam on March 21, 2016 at 6:30 pm

      Lol, I think you do want to be a wet blanket Paul. Keep up the great work Carey.

      • Paul Chastain on March 21, 2016 at 7:36 pm

        No, sir, I do not want to be a wet blanket. However, when I read something that in my christian experience of over 50 years has always been considered the wrong thing to do, because our example, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul as well NEVER did (or encourage others to do for that matter), then I must speak out.

  9. Michael Warden on March 21, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    Great stuff here, Carey. One question: On Steps 3 & 4, how do you help your people avoid the “should” monster when naming who and what they value? In my own work with churches, I often find leaders unconsciously promote qualities and behaviors in the culture (and themselves) that ultimately lead to overwhelm and burnout. For example, in their desire to serve they often over-give to the point of exhaustion, and praise others who do the same. This may seem admirable and appealing in the short term but as I’m sure you know ultimately leads to a toxic unhealthy culture. How do you engage this tendency to help leaders avoid these traps in Steps 3 & 4. Thanks in advance!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 21, 2016 at 12:12 pm

      Great question Michael. I think you have to really focus on values you want to reproduce. If you want to reproduce ill-health, then you have another issue entirely you need to deal with. Does that make sense? I would think you want to reproduce health.

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