Culture is who we are and the world we have created to live in. It is the predictable patterns of who does what and habitual strategies for telling the world about the things held most dear.
The discussion will focus on the following types of culture:
- Activities – What the Congregation Does Together
- Artifacts – What the Congregation Makes Together
- Accounts – What Stories the Congregation Tell
Related Links: Understanding Your Community’s Culture, Space Tour: Queen of Heaven Parish, How is Your Congregation Oriented to the Community: Mission Orientation, Implicit Assumptions and Expectations: Spell Them Out, The Introduction of Newcomers, Rituals as an Indicator of Congregational Culture
Click here for more examples of cultural frame.
Click here for a bibliography of scholarly examples of the cultural frame.
Rituals – all cultures have particular rituals that shape the common sense of identity and purpose of the group, and churches are no exception. Worship services, and the various rituals within services, are likely the most common rituals within religious organization. Rituals like worship services help to explain important meanings and values of the congregation. Perhaps there is an extended welcoming period during the service, where each congregant talks to fifteen to twenty people. This ritual would suggest a strong sense of community and inter-connection.
Think of how you would enact this ritual in a play – What costumes would you need? And how would the characters respond if a different costume (such as if the leader wasn’t wearing a robe, or if the people in attendance were wearing jeans versus dress pants)? Do people have specific places where they sit, stand, preach a sermon? What props (hymnals, religious texts, candles) are needed to complete the ritual? Whichactors (religious leaders, congregants, designated readers) are needed to make the scene work? How strictly do the actors follow the same script from week to week?
Pay attention to the actors – who has significant roles in the ritual, versus who primarily observes? What status does ordination or other religious credentials provide, such as an ability to get into particular areas of the worship space? Is there different dress codes for those leading the rituals versus those participating (such as robes or stoles)? Pay attention to how demographic characteristics, such as gender and age, are differentiated. Are women expected to perform different roles than men? Do the young get particular rites and rituals for themselves, apart from adults?
Use your senses– Rituals appeal to all the of your senses. Think about what you see, touch, smell, taste, and hear during your rituals. Look for what flags or banners are displayed, how and when furniture is used, and what clothing and linens are used in conjunction with the ritual. Listen for bells calling followers to worship, or the volume of prayers and songs. Smell the mustiness of the religious texts, or the perfume of the individuals at worship. Examine what your body feels during the ritual, such as the hard ground under ones knees in prayer, or the rich fabric on the pews, the immersion of water during baptism, or the feeling of thetallit or yarmulke overhead. Taste the wine and bread during communion, or the eating of matzo and fish during Passover, or how one savers food after a fast such as during Ramadan. Examine your senses individually to better understand how individuals experience rituals.
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Congregations produce and consume a number of cultural objects to symbolize their community. Walk through the sanctuary of your religious community — what sorts of objects do you see? An altar with a holy book? Stained-glass? Pews facing a certain direction? Fabric decorations that people within the congregation have made? These artifacts are all important parts of the congregational culture.
The building is likely the most obvious artifact. Examine both the inside and the outside of the building to understand more about the community within. Does the congregation have signage to welcome people in the neighborhood? Is the landscaping around the building maintained? What about the parking lot? In what ways does the church seem welcoming? Is it clear what the main door is? Is the main door — along with the rest of the building — accessible in some way for people in wheelchairs?
A walking tour with a small number of participants is a useful way to get a fresh set of eyes on the interior and exterior of the building. Encourage the participants to talk about important events in and around the building and grounds. Are there annual picnics or community events? What about important rituals within the sanctuary? Ask about feelings associated with particular areas — how does it feel to be in a particular place in the building? What makes particular places special? Some areas are sacred — what sorts of artifacts make those areas special? What sorts of special meanings are given because of the congregation itself, aside from the theology? Did a particular member build the altar, or donate money for the book of scripture?
Groups create these artifacts to help perform routine and sacred tasks. Physical objects, like the items in the kitchen, sanctuary, or nursery, can tell us a lot about the type of culture that uses those items.
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Congregations are full of language — language to convey history, common concepts, myths, metaphors, and theologies. Following the language can help explain much about the congregational culture.
Language – Key into ways in which congregants use certain language. Some churches have communion, while others have Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. Some communities might have Potlucks, while others have community dinners. Some communities might have a Narthex while others have a vestibule or gathering area. Create a lexicon for actions, objects, spaces and times. See how pervasive these concepts are across the community — if you use the word “Narthex,” does everyone know what that means? Do some people call Eucharist “communion?” Then examine how much your specific lexicon separates you from the broader community — is there a large divide between those inside the organization and newcomers?
History – Each community has commonly-told stories that share the history of the group. They might describe times of great growth or success, or outline times of overcoming communal crises. These stories are passed on from the older generations to the younger generations, but are also created in interaction. Not all events that happen are remembered, and the stories that are remembered are based on those who are present to keep remembering them. Telling stories of the past can help to illuminate important images or symbols that are useful for energizing the future. Sit down with long-term members and individually interview them about what the community was like when they first started attending, how things have changed since they started attending, and what a new member should know about the community. They might raise particular topics of interest, such as building projects or divisive leaders. Be sure to ask questions about before and after those events. Encourage them to tell stories, not just explain facts. A congregational time line might be another useful way to examine a group’s view of the congregation’s past.
Myths – Myths are stories that ground history into something bigger, often relating to divine actions that help to define important aspects of the culture of the congregation. These stories involve explaining crises or times of growth in terms of the God’s will, creating a mythic story.
Symbols, Images, and Metaphors – Sometimes congregational identity isn’t encapsulated in a myth so much as a particular image or metaphor. The idea of Eucharist as a chance for the community to come together and share a meal is a common symbol. The symbol can extend to community dinners, to donating money to soup kitchens within the community, or welcoming neighbors to the Communion Table. These symbols are often spoken of regularly, but they have a low level of specificity — they can take on several meanings and aren’t specifically targeted at one particular event or object.