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Why Is the Culture of a Disciple Making Church So Important?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

That statement, attributed to the most influential management guru of our time, Peter Drucker, describes a reality that church leaders must face in the pursuit of creating disciple making churches.

A disciple making church culture is what your church actually does in disciple making; strategy is your plans on paper. Unfortunately, while we have good intentions to make disciples, our strategy and church culture do not always line up.

What Drucker meant by “culture eats strategy for breakfast” was that lasting change in an organization comes only when the culture of an organization changes. Applying this to church, if you do not change the culture of a church, the church will not change. Many leaders fail to account for this reality.

This gets at the root of why our disciple making plans can so easily fail. We try great strategies—preaching on disciple making, small groups, D-Groups, etc. But our churches will not change—indeed cannot change—because “culture” easily defeats the strategies we adopt.


“A disciple making church culture is what your church actually does in disciple making; strategy is your plans on paper.”


This reality is why Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, went one step further: “Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner…”

But there is hope.

At Discipleship.org and RENEW.org, we have been working with national and international leaders on the key elements of creating a disciple making culture. We are working to better understand how to create disciple making cultures. We believe that we will not see truly revolutionary disciple making movements within churches in North America until we create disciple making cultures. So we are excited to pursue help from those with national and international experience.

What is “Culture”?

The Harvard Business Review describes culture this way: “The values, beliefs and behaviors practiced in an organization formed over time because they are rewarded or punished (i.e., by formal or informal rules, rituals, and behaviors.”

The Mckinsey Institute puts it more simply: “Culture is how we do things around here …”

In the book Spark: Igniting a Culture of Multiplication, Todd Wilson and Brian Zehr present a framework for understanding church culture. It is a free ebook that you can download by clicking here. I am utilizing their work in what follows (including further conversations with Todd), and I have created a similar but slightly different graphic that summarizes the material.


“We believe that we will not see truly revolutionary disciple making movements within churches in North America until we create disciple making cultures.”


It is helpful to understand a culture by looking through the lens of three elements: values, behaviors, and narrative.

  • Values and Beliefs – These are the things that are truly important to us. They are what we really value and really believe about disciple making. The values are the hills we have been seriously wounded defending (or the hills that our people have died upon). The beliefs are both theological and philosophical. They define our identity and motives.
  • Behaviors – These are specific practices that embed the beliefs and values. These typically emerge first out of discipline. The discipline of specific practices then leads to habits. These habits, applied time and time again, become lifestyles. Our lifestyles in turn are defined as our behaviors, which reflect what we really believe and value. They are reflected by our rules (often informal and unspoken), rituals, and behaviors.
  • Narrative – These are the stories we tell and the language we use. These are the sayings we repeat which explain and give meaning to our behaviors and disciplines. They are the stories we regularly tell and celebrate. The narrative is how we tell others about our behaviors. The narrative also includes the consistency of definitions and words we repeatedly use.

The following graphic pulls all the elements together:

The Importance of Discipline in Creating Culture

You might be familiar with Shodankeh Johnson and the story of his disciple making movement in West Africa. You can learn about his movement and others by reading the free eBook, Kingdom Unleashed. This disciple making movement (and others like it) takes away our breath in terms of the disciple making movements that have been created and what they have accomplished (millions of people are disciples who make disciples).


“It is helpful to understand a culture by looking through the lens of three elements: values, behaviors, and narrative.”


When a group of us met with Shodankeh, he challenged the conventional wisdom on how a disciple making culture is created. Since he has such a significant track record in creating disciple making churches and movements, we slowed down and listened to his advice.

He surprised us with his emphasis on discipline. He is a big advocate that we embrace discipline as the heart of disciple making. What he means by discipline is the explicit practice, adopted upfront, of specific things like fasting and prayer rhythms, Discovery Bible Study, starting with persons of peace, etc. He believes that discipline is more important than talking or explaining.

Johnson believes we place too much emphasis in the North American context on Narrative (our stories and words) without first putting disciplines into place. This observation may be more of a reflection of his culture. Here in North America, stories and language are very powerful it terms of influencing people and helping create a culture.

I believe there is wisdom in listening to Shodankeh, but we also may need balance. We do not want to underplay the importance of narrative in the western context. In tribal, more authoritative environments, narrative may not be as important. In North America, you need to create narrative to help people with behavior and discipline. For its strengths and weaknesses, North Americans come from a broader culture that values autonomy.


“In North America, you need to create narrative to help people with behavior and discipline.”


Take-Aways for Disciple Making Leaders

Those who want to lead disciple making churches will be helped by a systematic approach to these issues. We must first clarify the values and beliefs at the heart of effective disciple making and then work our way outward, by clarifying the disciplines we will need to embrace (the elements).

As we explore creating disciple making cultures in North America, one path forward for many church leaders may look like the following:

  • Embrace, at a deep level, the core values and beliefs of Jesus-style disciple making.
  • Commit to the right disciplines, prayerfully (and with wisdom) adopting simple disciplines that capture the essence of the values, beliefs, and elements of disciple making. It is essential to adopt the right disciplines first.
  • Fight tenaciously to uphold the disciplines.
  • These disciplines consistently held and practiced will create habits, and these habits will create lifestyles.
  • Develop language and narratives to explain and make viral the lifestyle of the culture. Use the language and tell stories that make sense of things early on in the process and every chance you get through it. Use them regularly in sermons, teachings, writings and conversations. Make the narrative sticky.

We are still in the early stages of our learnings about disciple making movements for North America. We have a church culture that was built around the assumptions of the modern world, and now, in a post-modern world, we are learning to go back to the Bible again. We are looking at examples of those who point us to the Bible in new ways so that we can establish church cultures that will make disciple making the norm. I am so grateful for all those leaders from diverse theological tribes who partner with Discipleship.org and RENEW.org and who are exploring these things with us.


“We have a church culture that was built around the assumptions of the modern world, and now, in a post-modern world, we are learning to go back to the Bible again.”


We must remain clear that Jesus is our model. We need to be focused on his message and his methods of disciple making. So, as we go back, we keep asking again and again, “How did Jesus make disciples and how can we emulate him in our context?

We are certain that the focus on Jesus is our best path forward as we seek to create disciple making cultures that will thrive in our new post-modern context.

The National Disciple Making Forum is May 1 and 2 (immediately following the RENEW.org National Gathering), and its theme is Disciple Making Culture. To register for a combo ticket for both conferences, click HERE


From Discipleship.org. Used with permission.

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Want fresh teachings and disciple making content? Sign up to receive a weekly newsletters highlighting our resources and new content to help equip you in your disciple making journey. We’ll also send you emails with other equipping resources from time to time.

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