Who is Responsible for the Culture of the Local Church?
Every church is distinct. Different people from different places do things...well, differently. Anyone who has been to more than one church has seen this. Each church has a distinct feel, it’s own culture. Sometimes that culture can be uplifting and encouraging at other times that culture can make one feel alone or even judged. What I have come to learn is that this culture is not something that the members of the church are alone responsible for developing. The elders of the local church are the ones primarily responsible for the culture of the local church. In fact, I would go even further to say that the membership of the church has far less to do with the culture of that church than the elders. I’m not saying that is necessarily the right way for a church to function, but it is what I have experienced and have seen to be true.
So how does an elder set the culture of the local church? Imitation. You can think of imitation as a mirror. The local church is to mirror the elders and as they do this the culture is built within the local church. Just as Paul told the Corinthians to imitate him as Paul imitated Christ, so does the local church imitate their elders. There are several ways this happens, here are just a few brief thoughts on the matter.
A church mirrors their elders’ theology
The regular teaching and preaching time is the primary way the elders influence the culture of the local church. It is here that the elder expounds the Word of God and as he faithfully preaches, theology is imparted to the congregation. This means that the congregation’s theological preferences, which go beyond the essential doctrines of the Gospel, will be at least influenced by if not identical to their elders over a prolonged amount of time. So if an elder is a dispensationalist, then his congregation will most likely be as well. If that elder is a calvinist, then the congregation will most likely pick up that theological trait as well.
All members must think for themselves and come to a decision on these theological subjects, yet their elders will still have a major impact on where they will land theologically. I have witnessed churches that have been taught certain robust theological systems abandon them within just two years of hiring new senior pastors. I have also seen unhealthy churches become more theologically minded not because the membership had transferred out, but simply because they hired a solid senior pastor. Surely, elders have far more impact on the theological culture of the church than many members would care to consider.
A church mirrors their elders’ priorities
Whatever an elder sets as a priority will inevitably become a major priority for the local church which will then become part of the culture of the local church. If an elder prioritized foreign missions, then the congregation will most likely take it upon themselves to also be concerned with world missions. If an elder prioritizes hospitality and personal evangelism than this too will most likely be embraced in the culture of the local church. The elders than have a great responsibility to make sure their priorities are biblical, appropriate, and healthy for the local church. It is easy for an elder to make priorities out of secondary or even unimportant subjects, which then becomes part of the culture of that local church. An example of this type of failure would be a dedication to accomplishing a ministry such as Awana or “revival meetings” when there has been no success in years. Or prioritizing a certain Bible translation over others.
A church mirrors their elders’ personality
Any parent would be able to see how their children, for better or worse, are little mirrors of themselves. They absorb key aspects of our character and implement them into their own personalities. Yet, this doesn’t stop at childhood it continues through our teens and into one’s adulthood. A certain friend or group of friends might cause one to act just a little differently, why? Because they are absorbing certain characteristics of other’s personalities and mixing it with their own. This happens within the culture of the local church as well. Here’s just a small example, during my first pastorate, my senior pastor always called people “Brother” or “Sister.” I remember thinking that was odd at first, but do you know what I call people now at church? You got it, “brother” or “sister.” I absorbed that small characteristic into my own personality. It happens in both big and small ways that can be difficult to track.
The reason for this is that the elders are in front of their congregation constantly. They are the authorities over the congregation and thus they have a tremendous impact on the personalities within the local church. Congregations will absorb certain characteristics of their elders. If an elder is overly aggressive it will most likely cause their church members to also be aggressive. Or if an elder is too passive, the congregation will absorb that into their collective culture as well. Elders must be careful that their personalities are being a help to the culture of the local church.
The burdens of being an elder are plentiful and heavy. Yes, the elders of a local church have a tremendous burden to meet the qualifications of I Timothy 3, but that is the lowest bar. They must also consider whether they are affecting the culture of the local church in a healthy manner that leads to the edification of others and the evangelism of the lost. Of course, this does not leave the congregation without any responsibility for the culture of the local church, they are to strive to be biblical and healthy. Yet, the elders are the ones who in reality are the greatest help or hindrance to building a healthy community within the local church as they preach the Word. Let’s pray our elders are up for the task.