How your culture eats your strategy for breakfast
You’ve heard the famous Peter Drucker phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” When I came across this quotation, I felt that it couldn’t apply more to Catholic parishes. Here’s what I mean.
So many parishes are slowly waking up to the need to evangelise. Events like Nightfever have captured people’s imagination and are taking place in inner city churches up and down the country. The number of parishes hosting courses like Alpha has sky-rocketed, so I’m told. The popularity of parish evangelisation teams is rising, which suggests that outreach initiatives must be becoming the norm in some parishes.
It all suggests that parishes are actually doing evangelisation, which – well, it’s the Great Commission, so it’s amazing. It is our mission and our deepest identity.
That is until you realise, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Culture is so powerful because it is invisible, unconscious and pervasive. It conditions the way we interact, behave and view situations and people. It is manifested in physical space and artefacts as much as in relationships and assumptions. We can’t see it because we are part of it, and it is part of us.
When you enter a cluttered entrance to a church without any obvious indications of what to do or where to go, that is culture. When you walk into a church hall and people look up to see who has walked in but no one comes to greet you, that is culture. When people in the parish predominantly see their church attendance as part of their ethnic or cultural heritage, that is culture. When you arrive at Mass to find the majority of people sitting at the back of the church or at the end of a pew, that’s culture. When you encounter people whose attitude is that the Church should be there primarily to serve their needs, whether a sacrament or a visit from a priest, that is culture. Weekly bulletins that use insider language and acronyms that mean something only to the initiated – yep, it’s culture. A mindset that events organised by the church are for the retired only or those with nothing else to do – that’s culture too. And when you would never consider bringing a non-Christian friend to your parish… you’ve got it… it’s culture.
All of these examples, of course, are of anti-evangelisation culture.
I think that, the more we keep evangelising – both individually and corporately in our parishes – our parish cultures will change. But not if our cultures don’t defeat our evangelisation strategy first.
Occasionally I hear of a parish that runs Alpha maybe two or three times. After this, the numbers begin to dwindle, and then before they know it, they are running an Alpha course for maybe ten Catholic parishioners. After this, they give up. People will always say now, “Oh, we tried that and it didn’t work.”
I would hazard a guess and say that the anti-evangelisation culture of the parish defeated the attempts to evangelise.
Or maybe you gathered a group with a great enthusiasm to organise extra hospitality at Christmas Masses. You pray for the extra people who will come, greet them at the door, give them a flier to take away with events happening in the new year. But extra people mean fewer car parking spots and places to sit. The pushback from other parishioners and lack of support from the priest is such that your team gets discouraged and loses their enthusiasm to do it the following year.
It is a perfect example of your culture defeating your strategy. Your team’s evangelising subculture couldn’t survive the wider anti-evangelising parish culture. It is like putting a freshwater fish into salt water. The environment is uninhabitable and it won’t survive.
Strategising the Anti-Evangelisation out of your Culture!
- It starts with leadership. I’m sorry, but it does. Unless your parish priest is leading the way, from my experience, culture is unlikely to change. Homilies are powerful, culture-carrying vehicles. They communicate whether the parish is about under-taking, care-taking, or risk-taking. So much flows from here.
- Transformation happens through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who gives life back to the dry bones. No real and lasting change will happen without reliance on the Holy Spirit.
- Small changes alter the tone. It is amazing the impact of numerous small changes. Greeting people outside the church. An abundant approach to hospitality. Exploiting every opportunity to share personal testimony until it becomes the norm. Offering opportunities for people explicitly to take a step of faith – until this too feels ‘normal’.
- Be strategic. Just because culture can swallow up your strategy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. In fact you absolutely should. I would go far as to say, strategise the anti-evangelisation out of your culture! Having a strategy basically means planning how you are going to get where you want to be, with the resources you have. And so your strategy should be explicit about how you want your culture to change too.