Monday, February 7, 2011

Changing Labels Isn't Changing Culture

Seth Godin puts it this way:
It's a lot easier for an organization to adopt new words than it is to actually change anything.
Real change is uncomfortable. If it's not feeling that way, you've probably just adopted new words. 
There's a significant difference between real change and just changing the labels, whether in church, culture, or one's personal life. 

For example: in the church, we can shift the label from "outreach" to "being missional" and feel a sense of satisfaction, even excitement about the transformation God has brought. But unless that label brings systemic changes, different structures, and new paradigms, then it might be only adding the buzzword of the moment to our mission statement. Changing the church's small groups name to "missional communities" or "house churches" doesn't really matter if the values and systems are exactly the same as before.

To call one's youth ministry philosophy "incarnational" sounds really great on paper. Let's be honest; most of us in the youth ministry world use and embrace the label. But the implications for the incarnation of Christ are huge, requiring adults to actually enter into the messy lives of students, sharing in their place, becoming their advocates, loving them unconditionally, even sacrificial death. Incarnational ministry and attractional "edu-tainment" ministry simply don't mix. (For a better treatment of incarnational ministry than I could give here, see Andrew Root's must-read Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry).

Personally, to embrace the label as a "child of God" means I actually need to view myself this way. It must become my identity, not just a comfortable theological label I can throw around. Similarly, the way I view others must be affected if I view them as fellow "children of God." It doesn't work to just change the label; my entire worldview must change. And that's bigger than just a few minor tweaks to my personality or everyday actions. That's radical transformation.

True, language does shape culture. So, in one sense, changing labels can change culture. But the meaning that those words contain perhaps matters even more. An intentional change of language implies a change of values. A change of values implies a radical shift in lifestyle and paradigm. If you change your labels--and you really mean it--be prepared for a season of uncomfortable-yet-transformational change ahead.

What labels need changing in your own life/ministry?


  1. At our church the name of our department that contained children & youth was called "life development" we changed because we did not believe it truly reflected the purpose of our ministries in a way that made sense to most outside church people. We changed it to "family ministries" as a result. However, it has taken us time and lots of conversation to go from just a cool sounding title to take action and see results that truly reflect the name and culture change we desired within our church.

    I hope that explanation makes sense and helps others.
    Good post and conversation.

  2. John, it totally makes sense, and is exactly what I was pointing out in the post. You could have just called it "family ministries" and been done, but it required numerous conversations (which I imagine got frustrating at some point!).

    Without those prayerful conversations, it's like changing the label on a ketchup bottle to say "mustard" without changing the contents. It's gonna leave people confused or disappointed.