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New DNA: The Bible Shows Leaders Why Culture Matters in Discipleship

Two styles of leadership illustrate how organizations and societies thrive, survive or dive. The two styles are “caretakers” who sustain and support what they’ve inherited, be it good or bad—and change agents—leaders who press their people to become different from what has been, and to embrace new expectations—in effect changing an old culture into a new way, whether for the good, or not.

A good caretaker with no impact on a bad culture? That would describe Jotham, who, while a good king of Judah, doing right in God’s sight, m,ade no difference in a perverse culture.

Jotham was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Jerushah the daughter of Zadok. He did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father Uzziah had done; however he did not enter the temple of the LORD. But the people continued acting corruptly.  2 Chronicles 27:1-3 (NASB)

A bad change agent driving a bad culture would be Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. He does Breaking Bad early on in his reign, and his influence as king takes the culture of Israel down with him:

When the kingdom of Rehoboam was established and strong, he and all Israel with him forsook the law of the LORD. 2 2 Chronicles 12:1-2

Fortunately, we also have biblical examples of change agents who sought the Lord with all their hearts and changed their cultures at the same time. One is Jehoiada, a priest:

Then Jehoiada made a covenant between himself and all the people and the king, that they would be the LORD’s people. 17 And all the people went to the house of Baal and tore it down, and they broke in pieces his altars and his images, and killed Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. 2 Chronicles 23:16-17

Another example of a change agent for good is King Hezekiah. His leadership meant changing the culture with its pernicious and widespread practices of the Asherah poles and high place idolatries throughout Judah:

All the assembly of Judah rejoiced, with the priests and the Levites and all the assembly that came from Israel, both the sojourners who came from the land of Israel and those living in Judah. 26 So there was great joy in Jerusalem, because there was nothing like this in Jerusalem since the days of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel. 27 Then the Levitical priests arose and blessed the people; and their voice was heard and their prayer came to His holy dwelling place, to heaven. ​1 Now when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah, broke the pillars in pieces, cut down the Asherim and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, as well as in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all. Then all the sons of Israel returned to their cities, each to his possession. 2 Chronicles 30:25 – 31:1

There’s nothing wrong with being a caretaker leader, if the community is right in its mission. But if it isn’t, change is necessary, which is not caretaking.  That transition to change things can require not only winsome communication, but conflict, confrontation and gracious yet change-driven diplomacy.  This kind of leadership isn’t well understood by many in business nor in the Christian community. In my experience, people serve where their strengths exist—for example most church leaders excel in in communication, counseling, in sermons, enthused teaching, encouraging groups, hosting mission trips, putting on programs and events. In the business world all that kind of stuff is known as continuing education and development, something you want groups doing together.  These are things and events that carry on after individuals have been qualified and trained—discipled—at doing what they do. On the other hand, group continuing education is not personal mentoring, which is necessary and very rare component in discipleship in the West.

Equipping disciples is much more granular than larger-scale activities and programs.  The culture of such granular discipling is one of personal relationships involving one, two or maybe three disciples, who are able and motivated to serve alongside each other outside of church operations, relating individually, living as individuals with believers and the people outside the church walls. It takes time, and it takes teaming, which is where leaders have to be present to coach, establish and flourish such pairings. That’s culture development.

Here then is the crucial missing link in most Christian communities: Leaders who understand the role of culture in their community, and are committed to that culture being a discipling paradigm of one on ones that develop new disciples, that go outside of the church walls, that make disciples of more disciples, over and over the rest of their lives.

Think of a culture change as altering the spiritual DNA of modern believers. DNA is the biological operating system that drives everything an organism does, how it functions, and how it interacts with its environment. For example, DNA calls the shots on red hair, brown eyes, and so on. Once the DNA is in place, the features and functions are internally driven and natural, not tacked-on external cosmetics.

We could alter the metaphor slightly and talk of digital DNA, like the iOS or Android operating software driving so many of our personal gadgets. Digital DNA, once burned into memory, has a specific function: to allow a human to interact with a phone, and to keep things in the phone running smoothly. Similarly, an organization’s culture—its DNA—causes its people to behave in a certain way with each other, and in doing whatever they do individually, in good and bad times, in big and small settings, it runs as it was trained to run.

Some of the social DNA in a church can be seen as people gather on a Sunday to laugh, hug, talk, worship. Contrast that social DNA with the one that exists when you’re in a tax audit at the IRS. Not so warm and fuzzy, eh? Organizational DNA is culture. Everything in the institution’s system—from a worldview to particulars on daily operations and ethics—is driven by the DNA.

DNA is what leadership makes it, lest it become a default collection of not-the-main-things.

Don’t miss this important point. Leaders must establish that DNA, and splice it into people’s lives for it to take hold. You can’t simply hand out a book saying, “Here’s what we expect our culture to be.” and hope for much from it. In troubled companies, I often encounter an executive team or board wanting “the answers” to fix their problems.  There’s frequently an expectation that the right people have a canned package that will get things done. It’s a fantasy—that there’s a premixed instafix. In reality, the disciple dilemma Western Christians face today has been compounded by much time, by national and local societal norms, and by the individual Christian community with their unique people and their attitudes and personalities traditions. A complex “knot” to untangle!

In a lot of organizations, a culture is a default of time and circumstances, rather than intentional splicing discipleship’s full context into people’s thinking and acting. Typically, there are lectures, values, and vision—and posters and slogans and programs. But DNA is much deeper than simply the surface stuff. To change an individual disciple’s life requires time, requires personal relationship.  That means in the first few years, someone else further along as a disciple walking alongside the new disciple, so they will understand the culture of discipling and own it themselves. It becomes a disciple’s DNA—their personal muscle memory and ownership of a way of thinking and acting as a follower of Christ, or else discipleship won’t last long.

An example of a leader changing the cultural DNA of someone: My wife will come to me and say, “I need you to vacuum and dust the den. And do a good job please—guests are coming tomorrow.” I fall to her feet and pledge my immediate service.  Then I go dust.  Three, maybe four minutes later, I’m back in my office working on something else as she walks in. “Did you dust and vacuum?” she asks. “I did,” I reply, expecting overwhelming joy and praise for my exceptional work. “Well, if you did, you [significant list of deficiencies] so now we’re both going back to teach you how to do your job right!” Her expectations were clear when she originally told me to do a good job. I heard the words. I attempted to employ my skills in setting very low standards and then failing to meet them. Apparently, she had performance expectations that exceeded my standards as her vacuum disciple. To get the culture spliced into my way of life, she graciously volunteers time and energy to be right there in life with me and coach what and how I do my thing on the dust motes now accumulating all over our materialism. And she helps me get better, to think ahead, to improve my game. She uses personal time and relationship to help me change my DNA of shoddy cleaning into something much more in line with her standards. I am being discipled through a close relationship driving change, and built on love.

Leaders do not have to be “the person” for everyone else in their Christian community. But they have to have a way to set up the teaming as well as the learning, the gathering. And equally important: leaders must set an example of that time commitment and effort with their own teaming with other change agents who will be disciples who go and make more disciples. It is the way Jesus taught discipleship. No shortcuts to establishing that kind of culture.

 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

Philippians 1:27-30 (NASB)

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