A Culture that Prays is a Culture that Wins – Part 1
August 25, 2014 Vicki Ohlerking

A Culture that Prays is a Culture that Wins – Part 1

August 25 2014

“One of my favorite things about the ARC Conference is the war stories we get to hear from some veteran church planters. It always makes me think about our journey at The Life Church.”

Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
-Exodus 17:9-13 NIV

This story has so much to encourage us. Moses prayed, and because he prayed, it opened the door for God to be involved in their battle. And when God is involved, when we depend on Him, when we pray, we win. Our success as pastors really depends on our ability to stay in the presence of God, to pray, and simply believe God. When we don’t pray, we tend to worry, and to attempt to figure out everything in our own strength rather than in the strength that God will provide.
One of my favorite things about the ARC Conference is the war stories we get to hear from some veteran church planters. It always makes me think about our journey at The Life Church. We just celebrated sixteen years, and the last eight or nine years have been phenomenal in terms of growth and moving forward. We’ve been blessed to have added services, facilities, land, buildings, and campuses. But the last few years look totally different than the first few years. The first few years were a challenge. It took us five years to break the two-hundred barrier as a church. There were periods of time in the first two years, when there would be not even one salvation in our services for months and months. When God called us to go to Memphis, He told me three things. He said that our church was going to be full of young people, that our church was going to be diverse and multi-ethnic, and that we would reach thousands of people who were outside of the faith. But for the first few years, we had no young people, we were all white, and no one was getting saved. No one, I mean no one.

I remember our second Easter. I don’t know what happened, but I got this idea. I felt like God spoke to me, but it turns out it really wasn’t God who spoke to me. It was just an idea. I had this idea that we were going to have thirty people get saved at the altar at the end of the message. Thirty people. Now, think about it. We hadn’t had one. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I found and trained thirty people to work in the altars. This is a true story. And this is how not to do it. I told the altar workers, “When I start to pray, I want you to come down and line up and face the congregation. And as people begin to stream down to get saved, they’re going to come to you, and then you’re going to pray for them.”

That Easter morning, I think we honestly probably had 70 or 80 adults in the service. When the moment came at the close of the message, I started to pray, and the team was getting in place across the front. Then I gave the best salvation call I could possibly give, but no one was responding, so I started to work it harder. I did everything I could think of to just get one to respond. And after a while, it kind of started to get uncomfortable. The workers that were standing up front kind of started looking at each other, and then they started looking up at me. And I was sweating… It was a total fail – a total disaster. The rest of the story is that although in those early years it was a massive struggle, we didn’t quit. And this past Easter, thank God, we had more than 730 salvations. Thank God we didn’t let that one Easter define our calling.

I think the difference between the first several years and the last five years has been momentum. Momentum is really a hard thing to describe or define. But you know it when you have it. It’s when everything is starting to move, there’s some success, things that used to be hard become easy, and people are motivated because they see success. Momentum has made the difference for us. So, what were some of the things that created and sustained momentum for us? I wrote down a list, and honestly, there was only one thing on that list that really is a transferable factor. The rest of the list was unique to us and our situation.
But there is one thing that I believe is transferable. It is going to sound so simple, but I think it is one of the keys to creating and sustaining momentum. It is culture. We all need a strong and healthy culture in our churches. You could define it this way; Culture is simply the predominating attitudes that characterize the functioning of a group or organization. I think culture is more powerful than vision, because you can have a vision to do something great, but if you don’t have the culture to sustain the vision, it just ends up bringing frustration.

Every church has a unique culture, but I honestly believe that there are three cultural identities that every great church must possess. These three cultural identities are like the three-fold cord for church growth and health. As we go through them, take a look at your church and see where you are.

The first is a hospitality culture. This is the ability to welcome people and embrace people. The word hospitality in the Bible literally means “fond of guests.” The key with hospitality is being able to embrace people that are different than you. Jesus said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” That means everyone’s going to feel accepted and welcome.

My wife Leslie and I have been married twenty-three years, and when we first started dating, the difference between her family and my family couldn’t have been greater. Her family is from Louisiana, mine is from Wisconsin. Do I need to go any further? My mom’s like five feet tall, very shy, very quiet. At my house when we ate dinner, it was just the family. We ate dinner every night at six o’clock, and my mom cooked just enough for our family.  When the phone rang while we were eating dinner, we were not allowed to answer the phone. My dad was very strict about this, and it was before the days of voicemail, so if it was someone that was persistent, it would ring, and ring, and ring. And finally if they didn’t hang up, my dad would get up and pick up the phone, and slam it back down. We also weren’t allowed to answer the door while we were eating dinner. Where I sat at the table, I could see the back door, and it was one of those doors that had windows. So it was horrible when one of my friends would come over right around six o’clock thinking we could go run around. He’d be knocking at the door and I would be eating at the table. I would try to look at him like, “Go, get away.” No hospitality culture.

Leslie’s father is the youngest of twelve in a family that emigrated from Sicily. Everyone was always loud and hands were flying. When we first started dating, I asked Leslie, “What are they mad about?” I was concerned because the volume in my house was so very low, and the volume in her house was intensely high. And everybody was kissing each other. I’d show up to her house, and there were always people everywhere. It was so different, but I loved it because I felt the hospitality. That’s the difference between a church that is open and friendly, and a church that isn’t.

The second cultural identity I believe every great church possesses is a leadership culture. Great churches are raising up leaders, and they have strong leadership that’s moving the church forward. How do you know if you have a leadership culture in your church? The church is moving forward, and the church isn’t ashamed of calling people to commitment. In these churches, you’ll see a strong sense of commitment. And you’ll see clear vision and direction. Leaders know where they want to go, and they have this keen sense of direction. And you’ll see a pool of quality leaders that can function at high levels. Leadership culture attracts leaders. When you’re in a leadership culture environment, you’ll often learn that a lot of them have been raised up from within, providing a strong sense of honor and respect because they’re sons and daughters of the house who are functioning at high levels of leadership.

[Continued in second part of this two-part post. Read it here.]