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Monday, April 15, 2013

"Look Before You Lead" (Aubrey Malphurs)

TITLE: Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture
AUTHOR: Aubrey Malphurs
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (272 pages).

Before anyone attempts to shape an organization, one needs to understand its culture. Before anyone can re-write or change the culture, one needs to read it for what it is, why it is that way, and to discern what kind of change is needed for its future. Just like we need to look before we leap into any abyss, we need to look before we lead in any organizational change. Malphurs, an experienced leadership guru in the area of Church strategy and leadership, has provided a three-part guide to help us do just that. He borrows widely from different leadership and management sciences, as well as his own learning and experience to help readers understand culture as comprehensively as possible, to read culture as intelligently as possible, and to shape culture as wisely as possible. More importantly, this book's strategy is largely borrowed from Howard Hendricks's method for inductive Bible study, the OIA approach to Bible reading.
  • O = Observation of the text (culture)
  • I = Interpretation of the text (culture)
  • A = Application of the text (culture)
Just like many Bible students will learn to exegete the biblical text in order to understand and apply the Word, in the area of organizational change, leaders will need to learn to "look" at organizational culture before one "lead" in organizational changes. This crucial idea is often left out in many change efforts, which lead to results that are often discouraging, even unhelpful for both the organization as well as the people. In this review, I will be using "church" and "organization" interchangeably.

The first step in understanding culture is to define what culture is. Malphurs gives readers a helpful metaphor using the "Culture Apple." Borrowing from Edgar Schein's understanding of culture, Malphurs defines culture as follows:

"The church's congregational culture is the unique expression of the interaction of the church's shared beliefs and its values, which explain its behavior in general and display its unique identity in particular." (20)

The "Culture Apple" is understood in three layers. Layer One, the apple's skin or peel is the behavior of the church or organization. This is the external layer  like demographics, language, facilities, communication style, ministries, symbols, worship manners, leadership, etc. This layer is often most visible to the guest or visitor to the church. It is very much about what people in the organization do and visibly seen on the outside. Layer Two is the flesh of the apple, or the values of the church. This is the layer that defines the ministry distinctives, core importance, leadership choices, ministry character, etc. Malphurs argues that at this layer, a value is something that is constant, passionate, shared, a core belief, drives and guides the church. Such values can be consciously or unconsciously practiced. It can also be mixed with personal as well as community values. The value of a Church can also determine whether a Church ultimately is more education-heavy (classroom church), evangelism-strong (soul-winning church), worship focused (experiential church), or relational-strong (fellowship church). Layer Three is the apple core, which is about what the church believes. Malphurs points out that it is not mere doctrinal or theological beliefs. It is about what a congregation holds true about the church and the world, and how believes effects behaviour. Aware of the possible confusion of beliefs vs values, Malphurs takes pains to describe the differences between the two. Simply put, a belief is one of conviction, while values is one of being a guideline that acts on a belief. Only after understanding the three layers can one learn to explain and to adopt appropriate strategies to engage the world. Strategies that question one's organization like:
  • Have we isolated ourselves from the world to avoid any influence inside and outside the church?
  • Have we accommodated too much of the world into our church life?
  • Have we contextualized our ministries in order to influence the world?
Part Two is about "Reading the Church." Here Malphurs integrates the OIA paradigm into the Apple Culture using the following:

Apple Culture Exegesis
Peel Behavior Observation
Flesh Values Interpretation
Core Beliefs Application

The two main application of this paradigm is to read both the organization culture as well as the pastor as a person. The assumption is that the pastor is the key change advocate. Reading the church is about understanding the organization's complete culture picture through the three layers of the Apple metaphor. We can observe the organization simply be noticing what are the external symbols, the way things are done, and the many movements of activities. Interpreting the culture requires discovery of values through questions, interviews, and other exercises that ask to probe a little deeper beyond the external facade. Application of the culture means asking what is unique about the church, its strengths and weaknesses, and its relationships inside and outside. In reading the pastor's culture, Malphurs is more interested in the leadership aspect of the organization. It takes leadership to make changes. Knowing the organizational culture is not enough. It is necessary to know the people in the culture, who may be called upon to make changes. In the same manner, Malphurs applies the OIA paradigm in helping to read the leadership culture.

Part Three of the book will be of great interest to anyone desiring positive change strategies. Once the heavy lifting of understanding and reading have been done, the organization will be ready to make changes where necessary. With the key change champion in mind, Malphurs gives tips on how to create a new church culture for church planters as well as "culture sculptors" for existing churches. He identifies some barriers to change such as refusing to slaughter sacred cows, vested interests in preventing change, personal agendas, distrust of leadership, and so on. He talks about the spiritual gifts in the church and thoughts about some modern scientific methods of discovering temperaments such as the Myers-Briggs Temperament indicator (MBTI) or some personality profiles testing. He even gives tips about the scenario where the pastor in charge do not feel like he/she is the one to be the "turnaround" person! Going through the preparation, the process, and the personnel issues, Malphurs packs in lots of material to ensure that the reader will be helped with clear practical steps on what to do. On top of that, the appendices are provided for church leaders to take and do their own audit to know what and where they are, and to discern the how in moving forward.

My Thoughts

A good book is one that not only wows the reader, it shows the reader how to go about making changes in their own lives or the life of the church they love. With theory backing up the application, Malphurs has given us a vital resource on how to go about making positive change for any organization. I have long enjoyed Malphurs's teachings and this book certainly does not disappoint. Culture is so much a part of us, that often, we are not aware of how much culture is influencing our work in any organization. Misunderstanding or misreading culture is one sure way to destroy any change strategies. Like looking into the mirror before we first decide whether we need a facelift, or to look at the rear end mirror before we change lanes when driving, we need to know where and what we are, before we can decide to go to where we want to be. Then, and only then, we can exact the change that we discern we need, and more importantly, to change to what is best in order for God's Church to flourish even more as the salt and light to the world. Malphurs's book touches on something very simple but extremely important. Knowing who we are. Culture is a huge way to know who we are. For example, even though many churches want to say they are very balanced and that they emphasize all aspects of Christian living, it takes a leader to boldly identify and state themselves for who they are. Before any organization can make the next leap, they got to know where they are, what to do, and how to go about any changes. This book shows us the way.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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