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When my husband and I were first married, we moved to Denver, Colorado. We knew we wanted to attend one of the CRC churches in the area, and there were four of them near us in South Denver. My grandmother attended one of those churches. My mother was baptized there, met my Dad there, and got married there. When we visited that church, it didn’t seem like it fit us well and, frankly, being just married, we wanted to assert some independence, so we chose one of the other churches.

It turned out that the church we chose was going through a culture shift. The leadership wanted a congregation that was different from the church we thought we were joining. Within five years we decided to make a change and ended up joining grandma’s church after all. We’re really glad we did. That church was warm, caring, and just right for where we were with our family at that time. It wasn’t that the preaching was better or the style of music suited us better. It was the culture of the church.

Identifying Your Church Culture

Every congregation has a unique culture. We don’t often talk about it, but we all know it's there if we give it some thought. For example, every church wants visitors to characterize it as friendly. But some churches are only friendly to the people who are already there. Long-time members who are greeted warmly by friends every Sunday might never notice that aspect of their church culture. It is hard to see beyond our own perceptions. 

A church’s culture is a living thing. It’s often characterized by inertia—it tends to want to stay the same—but with work, a church’s culture can be shifted. Sometimes a gentle nudge is all that is needed to start a process of change.

One informal, quick way to get information from your congregation about your culture is to generate a “word cloud.” You’ve probably seen a word cloud even if you don’t know the term for it. It is a grouping of words, often in different colors, that graphically represents the answers to a poll or survey. Words that people use most frequently in their answers appear larger in the word cloud; words that arise less frequently are smaller. 

Using this tool to get information from your congregation about your church culture is easy:

  • Provide paper and pen (or an electronic survey) and ask each member of your congregation to write three separate words that describe your church. 

  • Collect the responses.

  • Enter each person’s responses into a word cloud program such as Wordle, Word Cloud, or Word It Out. Be sure to enter every word, even if it duplicates a previous response.

  • Follow the program’s instructions to generate and save your word cloud graphic.

And the Survey Says…

The review of the word cloud graphic that these programs generate can be very interesting. A team from a church that I was working with went through this process. When they reviewed their word cloud, they were bothered by one word that stood out even though it was small. That word was “clique.” 

They decided to take an informal but more deliberate look at what happens within their walls on Sunday mornings. At their next meeting, they reported that they were indeed cliquish. They had two congregations in their church and didn’t realize it. People parked on different sides of the building, entered through different doors, and sat on different sides of the sanctuary. After worship, they exited the same way they entered. People from one side didn’t cross over to talk with people from the other side. 

The team knew they wanted to change this about their culture, and they found a simple solution. Once a month they set up tables in their fellowship room after church and offered coffee and cookies. It worked! People came, ate, and mingled together as one body, no matter which side of church they sat on. A simple word cloud and some cookies started to change the culture in this church. 

What would a word cloud about your congregation look like? Try it and see!

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