Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

More Culture Talk!

Written by: on May 9, 2019

I was standing in front of about one hundred people in the Social Hall of my congregation. As I looked around the room at the folks who had stayed after worship to hear my presentation, I could sense their excitement.  Afterall, I had promised them a slide show of pictures from South Africa and Hong Kong, and to this well-traveled group, that was like catnip.

But I knew that we had bigger topics to talk about.  I told them that one of the key learnings for myself in my program, especially in cross-cultural settings, is that we all have a culture.  I looked out at the group and said, “you have a culture” but I doubt they believed it.

Sprinkled around the room of members of my congregation were some people who everyone would agree “had a culture”.  They were Korean or Chinese or even from Uganda.  But for the majority of White folks in the room, this statement seemed incongruous.  In her excellent and practical book, Being SMART about Congregational Change, Diane Zemke writes about working for change within churches, and the impact of culture in particular.

She cites a definition for the word culture by Edgar Schein, writing, “that within a group, culture creates a way of being together that is learned, shared, and passed on to new members.  Culture enables group members to get along with each other since it defines appropriate behaviors.  And, it enables the group to interact with the larger culture.”[1]

In this case, Zemke is describing congregational culture, as that is the focus of her work, but it also describes our cultures of origin.  Sometimes in a place like a mainline denominational church in the United States, it can seem as if only those from exotic, foreign locales have a culture, but it turns out that everybody does.

Understanding one’s own culture, individually, and within a church is one of the key steps for how congregations can grow in welcoming and integrating newer people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds.  The majority white church needs to do the work before it seeks to engage with the other.

Zemke writes, “note that culture is created by what problems the congregation chooses to address, how they solve problems important to them, and what choices they repeat over time.”[2]  This is an insight that applies to many local church contexts.  What are the fights worth having, what are the societal issues worth tackling, what are the topics that get onto the agenda of decision-makers, and which are the ones that are not addressed.  All of these choices contribute to the building of a congregational culture, and often, they reflect the racial/ethnic culture of the church as well.

For example, I recently visited a Spanish-speaking Presbyterian church in San Jose, California, where the pastor is from Colombia and most of the congregation work in restaurants, car-washes, and cleaning services.  At their mid-week worship service, the two concerns that came to the surface were about the recent immigration policy changes and the need to hold onto God’s truth in the midst of a changing world.  They are a church that is directly impacted by government policies toward immigrants, and they are also a church that sees itself as a haven and bastion of true faith in a place where that is not the norm (the Bay Area).  Their distinctive congregational culture is shaped by the people who are in the room.

By contrast, my own congregation is made up of highly educated, white collar professionals. While the church cares about social issues like immigration in an intellectual way, it is not directly impacted. In the same way, because people have reached a certain place in life, they do not have that ongoing fire and fervor for upholding the one true faith.  Instead, the concerns of the congregation turn inward, toward questions about musical choices, seating arrangements, leadership flow-charts, and budget priorities.  Again, as Zemke has pointed out, a congregation’s culture is developed and grown from the shared experiences of those within the group.

I met this past week with the pastor of a second generation, English speaking, Korean church.  In his congregation, the culture that they inherited is very particular, it is the classic “Korean Church”, which expects morning devotional prayer, lunch together at church every Sunday, and a pastor whose family is the exemplar to all.  But he shared the struggle of moving from that cultural base, into a new season where their members will extend well beyond the Korean community.

Zemke’s book is a resource that I would pass on to a pastor like him, or to leaders within my own church. It is set up as a kind of practical resource, an easy to use handbook for church clergy and lay leaders alike. She intentionally writes it to have broad-based appeal, across denominational lines and into different settings.  In her opening remarks, she draws the reader in by describing the different reasons that someone may have picked up her book.  It ranges from those in declining congregations to those seeking revival, to those who are hopeless, to those who are frustrated, to those with big dreams! This book is worth the read.

[1]Diane Zemke. Being SMART About Congregational Change. (2014) location 79

[2]Diane Zemke. Being SMART About Congregational Change. (2014) location 81.


About the Author

Dave Watermulder

11 responses to “More Culture Talk!”

  1. Mike says:

    Great introduction and definition of culture by Schein. How was your presentation received? Anyone ask about going on a mission to either location?
    I like Zemke’s work too. She has a good perspective on many issues both Western and cross-cultural. Is your church climbing, plateaued, or declining?
    Thanks for sharing about the Korean church and the impact of the immigration policy. One of my drivers was hoping to take his family to El Salvador to visit family, but he cannot get Visas for some of the same reasons.
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Mike,
      My presentation was very well received, actually. I think that people are more open to talk about complicated topics that I give them credit for. I put the word out and they all showed up!
      At this point, our congregation sees itself as growing (and by most numerical metrics, this is true). But I really sense a growing plateau situation ahead. My time has been divided while doing this DMin, so that is probably part of it (since some of my best/first thinking goes toward Dmin stuff). But, it’s a very healthy and happy church, and is a good place to be.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dave!

    So cool that you got to show the pics from our shared adventures. And even cooler that they like is like catnip. That is a specialized and culturized congregation, for sure!

    Diane Zemke is a fine person, like salt of the earth, and I am thrilled that we get to interact more. She is way smarter than I will ever be, and so are you.

    Here we go, our last summer together. Let’s make it count!


    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Jay,
      Yea, it’s a pretty good congregation, and they definitely love to travel :). Of course, the places that I’m interested in are pretty different from some that they’d most like to go-but that’s okay. I am looking forward to the time together in London!

  3. Kyle Chalko says:

    Great job Dave. what very different congregations! HAving worked with a few ehtnic churches recently, I hear many of them saying they want to reach out to more than just thier own, but often they don’t know how to do that. I suppose they need to be SMART about their congregational change.

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Yea, Kyle–
      I think your work with those racial/ethnic churches recently is so cool! We do seem to serve in pretty different contexts, but that’s part of why it is zesty and helpful to be together in this program! Appreciate you, and looking forward to London.

  4. Dave,

    Identifying that we all have a culture and are promoters of it is a key learning from this book for communities we are a part of. We are often so blind to our own cultural patterns. It’s similar to how we can’t hear our own accents, yet each of us has a particular accent and way of speaking that is conditioned by geography and experience.

  5. Dan Kreiss says:


    I think this book came at a critical time for all of us. It does provide opportunity to be introspective about our own culture and that of our congregational setting. They are each unique but not static – though I believe many of our congregants wish they were in some way. Utilizing the insights of this text should help each of the congregations you mention in your post with the transitions that are occurring in their midst. If churches decide to ‘ride things out’ for a season often it is too late to make critical adjustments to remain relevant to the community, as Zemke highlighted. What do you think are the critical changes that you are guiding your particular congregation through? I know you have mentioned growing in diversity and what that means. Are there others that you think are critical for the church to remain relevant for another generation?

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Dan,
      I think the diversity piece is a growing edge for us, but another one is really about being open to continually renewing what we do. We have been in a growing season, and there is a very buoyant feeling in the congregation. Which is all good. Except, that we can be lulled into inaction and repetition when things seem to be “all good”. So, that’s a challenge to me: not to be critical of what we are doing, but leading folks into continued growth (in faith, and in how we express that faith and live it out).

  6. Greg says:

    Dave. I laughed out loud the catnip reference. We do what we do to draw people in :-). I have had the “everyone has culture” conversation with more people than wanted to have it with me. I usually talk about a minister moving from the Deep South to the northwest as an extreme example of US cross cultural ministry. I think understanding the stories and narratives of the culture represented in our ministries are crucial to begin reshaping our local worldview (is that an oxymoron?).

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