Here is another maxim I have come across recently: culture eats vision for breakfast.
Here is an example. An aging local church congregation might agree that they need to be more welcoming and inclusive of families and children. They might recognise that their future as a community depends on it. They might even decide to appoint a family and children’s worker. They have a general vision, and that worker might observe and reflect and discuss and present creative ways forward, giving shape and definition to that vision. But if the underlying culture is one that values order and reverence, a liturgy that is light on participation, old hymns accompanied by an organ...that culture will consume any vision for change.
Very often, as church leaders, we seek to hold out fresh vision. Increasingly I am coming to the realisation that this is misdirected effort, likely to frustrate both leaders and those we have oversight of. Rather than set vision, the primary focus of the leader’s attention must be to model and promote the kind of underlying culture-change that is needed if fresh vision is to be released from within the body, the community itself. In Sheffield, this came to be known as ‘high accountability, low control’: that is, senior leaders nurtured a culture of discipleship which released people into mission, and held them accountable to being true to the cultural values while giving them significant freedom – and, as far as possible, appropriate resources – to pursue the vision God had sown in their own lives.
Changing the culture of any given community takes a long time. Holding out vision is far easier, can take place very quickly – especially in a church that is aware that it lacks vision. But it is a shortcut that ultimately turns back on itself, leading to greater entrenchment of the very culture that you might hope to change. Culture-shifting takes longer: but once the hard work has been done, vision is released and nurtured. To return to the example above, if a culture of valuing children, of discovering more about the world through play and questioning, trial and error, imperfection and wonder, can be nurtured, space can be created for the young-at-heart of every age to share.