Looking back, looking forward: Cultural Evolution


Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing a series of blog posts written by Egil Elling (@egilelling), from Stavanger, Norway. Egil is a good friend of 3dm, a gifted leader, and a man of integrity.  In Autumn 2011 Egil Elling took on the role as lead Pastor of IMI Kirken, a large local church, following Martin Cave who had led the church since 1979. He’s married to Hildegunn, and has two children , Elia (3) and Frida (1). They have lived in Stavanger for six years.

Each of Elling’s posts reflect on the process of taking an existing church culture and foundation, and building on it to further the Kingdom of God. This often involves asking the question of  “What has God already done and how does He want to move us forward?”  This week he shares how communicating vision in accessible language is a key part of building on what’s already been established in the local church.

The Power of Words

Walking this journey of discipleship and mission always requires a good deal of pioneering. However, many of us aren’t necessarily called to start something completely new, but rather to lead within existing contexts.

So how do we do that? Does everything need to change? How do we apply everything we’ve heard and read when we’re not in the position to set all the parameters ourselves?

In this series of blog posts I want to share some of the simple theories and practices I’ve learnt in my early days of leadership. So let’s start with a glimpse of my context:

18 months ago I took on pastoring IMI Kirken in Stavanger, Norway. In 1979 Martin Cave started leading what was then a prayerhouse with 25 old ladies. After over 30 years of Martin’s leadership IMI now has over 800 members and has developed many different initiatives to bless the city and beyond. It has been a remarkable story of God at work through his people.

As our ministry grew, the vision expanded beyond the local context – to Norway and other nations. Martin felt increasingly led to focus on this other aspect of our ministry and released me to take on leadership of the local church at IMI.

Many outside voices encouraged me to “put my mark” on IMI. But I never sensed from God, or from the church, that my mandate was to “recreate IMI in my image”. Rather I heard a call to steward and build on the strong culture that was already established here. But to steward a culture isn’t to protect and conserve it, but instead to use it to extend the borders of God’s kingdom.

So I found myself leading a church where there had been a lot of pioneering and much experience had been gained. A strong culture had been established at IMI, but very little had been written down or formalised in teaching. In other words, there was a lot of unconscious competence. So, together with my team, we started looking at language. We recognised that language is an important factor in reproducing culture so we wanted to find a way to express in an accessible way what God had already taught and done amongst us.

We built our language around a well-known triangle, finding words that reflected who we are, and our way of living out the three dimensions:

* God’s presence – reflecting our charismatic culture and belief in a God that is active and near to our world.

* God’s family – reflecting our way of understanding this dimension as something more than community, it’s actually family.

* God’s goodness – reflecting our long history of looking for ways to let people taste and see a God that is good in concrete and tangible ways.

An important note for leaders: This is a process where you need to be clear as a leader, and at the same time do a reality check with your people. You can’t lead a democratic process where the language that gets the most votes is what you use – it has to be something that you as the leader own. In one sense this is about you finding your words to express the heritage that’s there. If you don’t own and feel comfortable with the language, it won’t work. At the same time, you have to make sure that people can connect with the language you use and recognize the culture that they’re a part of in the words used.

In our case, I came up with the suggestion of the three dimensions, and then spent time both with my staff and Martin, making sure it worked and reflected our culture.

We are stronger on some parts of this language than others. The words you choose are also an opportunity to start shape the things you want to add to the culture; areas that you want to see growth in for the future.

I know IMI Kirken isn’t the average example of a church many people take on leading. There will be lots of churches with a less defined culture, and more changes that need to take place. But I think these two questions are relevant in any situation:

1. What has God already given to this church that we can use to build on as we go into a new season?

2. What’s an easy way of expressing it?

Obviously, language isn’t everything. A culture that can be reproduced needs concrete practices. And that will be the topic for our next post.

Suggested further reading:

Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim: Permanent Revolution gives a good distinction between how the apostolic ministry can work in a pioneering way, and in a renewing from within existing churches.

Mark Lau Branson: Memories, Hopes and Conversation: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational change gives a good picture of how you can use what God has done in a church history as a starting point for planning the future.


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