Three Things That Changed Our Culture

There were six of us around a kitchen table in the home of one of the three founding couples who planted our church. It was early 2004, and if you would have asked me then if, in 20 years, I thought First Family Church would have

  • planted 7 churches,
  • have 3 additional locations,
  • watched 2 granddaughter churches birthed,
  • sent 7 of our own families and their children to the mission field (with 5 more and their children in our partner pipeline),
  • shared multiple staff with our state convention and partnered with them for several statewide events,
  • formed a team of preachers who would fill the pulpit for rural, small town congregations, and
  • engage about 80% of our church in over 60 small groups,

I probably would have said, “I hope so, but doubt it.” Sure, we had a stated and printed goal to see a church planter sent from our own ranks within the first five years, as well as the sending of missionaries. So multiplication was in our minds, but in the back of them.  In all transparency, I was consumed with this plant. Frankly, I was just trying to get our own congregation to 100 people consistently before the end of year one.

Thankfully, by God’s grace, we did see that occur. But the larger goal of church planting and developing a sending culture—the kinds of things I mentioned earlier—seemed further away. Why? Because after five years, we had no church planter on our radar, and multiplying seemed a distant thought among our leadership.

So if you would have asked me that same question in year five, I would have moved from “I doubt it” to “No way!”

Fortunately, God had a different answer. His grace always does. His irresistible power has brought about what we describe as a culture less about the machine and more about the mission. A place where partnership is truly a priority, not just a pipe dream. A culture now more about becoming something, not just doing something. We’re watching God turn us into a people ready to reproduce.

Little by little, step by step, we’ve watched God overturn obstacles, clear hurdles, and provide resources so that we could embrace his heart of multiplication. We’ve got a long way to go still, but looking back, God has brought us so far from where we were that our leadership joyfully lives in a perpetual state of spiritual surprise.

Can I share three practical things God empowered us to pursue — postures to take—that made a world of difference in our culture and context? Though they are worded as a positive step we took, I could just as easily have worded these three things as a negative habit we had to break. Each of these things—and there are plenty I’m not mentioning—are, in my opinion, the hinges that enabled most everything else to start swinging more easily.

Furthermore, I identify these three things in the following way: the first one is an action, the second an attitude, and the third a mindset.

1. We took the first small step we saw. For us, that was planting a church in a town just six miles away with four of our small groups who all lived there. We were in year seven, and, admittedly, it wasn’t a big splash, but at least we jumped. This action required we develop more leaders, reengage the pioneering spirit that is so crucial in sending cultures, and get our eyes off a warehouse we had just purchased. After all, we were becoming fixated on a place. What better way to get “unfixated” than to send some people out of that place.

This was necessary because we were behaving like analysts, not catalysts. Somehow in the beginning years we became experts at breaking down every possibility and opportunity to the degree that we could always find a reason not to do something multiplicationally. Reproducingly. We were turning into protectors, not pioneers. Fortunately, four of our best leaders representing 40 of our committed members brought the idea forward of a new church in their community, and I and our leaders, though not forced or cornered, knew we could not analyze our way out of this. We had to act.

I’m so glad we did. It oiled the springs that got us jumping. It greased the wheels that got us moving.

Let me suggest you ask yourself and your team, “What’s the first small step in front of us that we can take right away?” I caution you not to compare and measure the size of the step in relation to other people’s steps. Instead, just take the step and rejoice in the fact of the step. Consider this metaphor — Every runner was once a baby who took a really small first step. Take yours.

Here’s what this action does: it communicates expectations and sets trajectory. I predict you’ll be shocked how taking the one small step right in front of you will communicate to people who you are, what you value, and what you’re willing to do.

2. We partnered with those going anywhere near our destination. Our attitude became one that I’d describe like this: If a train was going anywhere in the vicinity of where we were headed, we’d board it. What resulted was an amazing amount of healthy opportunities from which we could then select the one or two to act on in a more specific manner. 

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not advocating for mere activity or unfocused effort; I’m not saying you can do everything. But you can probably do more than one thing. You can be focused and flexible. Aimed and available. Targeted and open.

In a simple phrase, what we adopted was a ‘yes’ posture without becoming a ‘yes’ people. When we’d hear of good opportunities, genuine open doors, available resources or personnel, and legitimate possibilities, we’d at least investigate, hearing them out and asking questions. We’d look it over. Our first response was usually, “Let’s see if we can get to a ‘yes’ so that there’s a win in this for us both.” If we couldn’t, we were content that we had put our best foot forward and moved on with a clear conscience and no regret.

Permit me to share, quite vulnerably, when this occurred in a most dramatic way. I was in a meeting with other pastors hearing about a campus coming to our city from a church I knew was a premier and leading church in our state. I wasn’t aware of their intentions till that meeting, and when it was announced, they asked me right then in front of everyone, “What do you think?” In all honesty, I had a hundred thoughts in my head, some better than others. But what came out was the truest motive of my heart — “I’m glad you’re coming to our city because that’ll mean less people in hell. Welcome to Ankeny!”

We boarded their train, and it truly was then, and still is, a good friendship between our churches. Little did I know then what a value we were setting in place. Ten years later it was that very spirit and value that led us to plant a church with one of our residents and our own people right in our own town—actually, only about 2 miles away from us.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself: “What options for greater impact are in front of me that aren’t directly connected to me which I’m simply avoiding for no good reason?” My guess is there are more than you know. But if you’re like most pastors, including me, we too often think we have to be the one with the idea and also be the main engineer. Reject that thought pattern. If you can get past yourself, you will usually get to greater levels of impact.

Here’s what this mindset does: It builds relational bridges. It creates healthy partnerships. It proves the old adage is true — you can go faster alone, but you can go farther together.

3. We laid down lots of runways. I’m a big fan of long runways. Ask our staff, and they’ll probably tell you this is one of my key questions in most endeavors: What’s our communication plan and protocol? But that hasn’t always been true.

Maybe I should first define “runway.” It is the intentional and incremental rollout of initial information necessary for an idea to land well officially. By way of contrast, a runway is the opposite of a sudden stop or turn. Some call it a crash; others a jolting detour.  Regardless, a runway is planned. A sudden stop or detour? Not so much.

So when I say we laid down lots of runways, what I’m actually saying is we began communicating much earlier about key things we knew had to get good traction. This was a stark realization that came from many meetings and proposals that ended with sentiments like “This is the first time we’re really hearing of this”, “I thought you said we were going to do (fill in the blank)?”, or “Seems like a quick change and somewhat surprising.” It’s one thing to welcome divine surprises clearly outside of your control that offer potential open doors. It’s quite another to breed surprises by a lack of communication. One seems to be letting in more light to people; the other seems to be keeping people in the dark.

We had to change our communication practices and information runways, which is precisely what we did. We became more insistent about planning, more prioritized about content, more intentional about timing, and more committed to common language. In fact, our leaders worked hard to develop and use the same words and phrases everywhere all the time. And over time, it paid off. Admittedly, we still have a ways to go in runway building. But we have a lot more trust currently because we were pretty meticulous about it earlier.

In fact, I only knew our long runways had paid off about a year ago. Here’s what happened.

A church we were helping  asked if they could become a campus. We were initially simply asked to assist them in finding a pastor. Now they wanted to be part of us. So our leadership prayed and talked, and agreed this was an open door through which we wanted to walk.

After confirming the main things with the new campus over the next few weeks, we then announced it to our people one Sunday morning. They had known we were helping that church, but the idea of adding them as a campus was new. I announced it, and there were smiles. But no real applause or gasps or raised eyebrows. Nothing dramatic on either end of the spectrum. Frankly, it caught me a little off guard, so later that day I asked a few key people their thoughts. Know what they said? “We weren’t surprised or shocked at all. Isn’t that what we do—multiply?”

Even as I checked in with some small groups later, the same kind of comments surfaced. I humbly realized the culture of multiplying was becoming more common — the runways were paying off. I got so excited as I thought about the future —We’re going to be able to land a lot more planes!

Here’s what this mindset does: It reduces the wrong kind of surprises. Remember — informed people are usually supportive people. And when change is on the horizon, supportive people are important. So build runways as a way to create an environment of supportive people.

Remember, people don’t actually resist change, but loss. Long runways reduce the sense of perceived loss and help people adjust to the coming change.

One last thing about runways. The “pavement” for the runway is essentially the ‘why’ and the ‘what.’ Maybe you call it vision. Perhaps you refer to it as mission. Or simply information. However you describe it, I’ve learned somewhat painfully that the runway’s “pavement” isn’t the priority. Runway length is what matters. I’ll admit both are highly important, but if I had to rank them, I’d say the length of the runway comes in just a tad higher in priority than the pavement.

And when you find yourself disagreeing with this opinion regarding length versus pavement, and you’re sensing the urge to rush a new idea to the front of the line, call a pilot. They’ll tell you the length of the runway matters most.

That’s just a peek into a bit of our story; a brief look into three things that helped us turn a corner at a pivotal moment, giving us a clearer view of what it looks like to live with a reproducing posture in a multiplying culture. By God’s grace, he is doing this continuously in our quite average faith family in Ankeny, Iowa, and I pray we will remain faithful to these habits for the good of God’s people and the glory of his name.

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