Small Groups, Rebar, and Culture Blindness

The following post is by Michael Kelleyis an author, editor, and communicator whose works include Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Born in Texas, Michael holds a Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala. Michael and his wife have three children and live in Nashville, Tenn. You can read more from Michael at or find him on Twitter.

This post originally appeared at the LifeWay Church Leaders blog.

No one comes to a building in its early stages and marvels at the extensive nature of its rebar. Instead, we wait until the structure actually starts to go up; we don’t want to see what makes it stable—we want to see what makes it pretty.

Even though rebar isn’t pretty, it’s incredibly necessary. Rebar gives a building its stability and strength. It’s what holds everything together below the surface, making a structure resistant against the forces of time and nature.

Without rebar, a building crumbles.

An organization’s culture, especially in a church, is like rebar. Culture is the core of who we are that shapes the practices we do. It is the summation of what we value, what we believe, and what makes us unique as a church.

In a church, you have both the privilege and the weighty responsibility of constantly framing and tying rebar. You do this through common everyday decisions that might not seem significant at the time, but nevertheless form the shape of what’s to come. It happens when you say “no” to some things and “yes” to other things; it happens in the way you give or don’t give announcements from the stage; it happens in the way you equip your leaders. Every one of these decisions does more than employ an action; it teaches something to the church.

With each of these decisions and actions, we are laying the foundation because we are teaching those around us. The way we read the Bible, the songs we choose to sing, the manner in which we take Communion or the offering—all of these are teaching tools. The problem is that because they also involve tasks, we skip past asking the question of what they are teaching in order to get to the utility they are providing.

In other words, we look past the rebar in favor of the color of the walls.

If this becomes our normal practice, then someday we will turn around and wonder why this church, the one that God called us to and gave us vision for, behaves and does the things it does. And at that point we can’t simply change the practice, because that practice has been propped up by the culture we have unknowingly created all along.

Instead, we must be cognizant of the fact that every decision is reinforcing something; every action is a teaching moment. If we are, then we can ensure that the decisions we make accurately reflect the culture we are creating.

Nowhere is this more important than in the small group environment.

The small group is one of the easiest windows into whether or not the culture of the church is truly being understood and embraced by the people. That’s the environment when the staff members aren’t in direct control; it’s when a secondary person has been handed the responsibility not only to lead that particular group, but to do so in accordance with the culture of the overall body of Christ.

Just as the vocational pastors have the tendency to suffer from culture blindness, so do the small group leaders. And just as the pastors are always teaching something about the culture of the church, so are the small group leaders.

Think about it—what happens when a person walks into that small group for the very first time? Do they eat food and talk for half of the group time? How much time do they spend praying for each other? Do they leave there knowing anything deeper about one another’s lives? Do they just push play on a DVD and expect spiritual transformation to naturally occur?

While some of those options might be easier, the bigger question is whether or not they contribute to the kind of culture you want to create in that group, and therefore in the church as a whole.

How, then, can we lay the rebar of church culture at the small group level so as to avoid culture blindness?

1. Articulate your culture

Culture is hard to pin down, but it’s important to be able to say in a few words who you are as a church. It’s unfair to expect yourself or others to operate according to a culture that hasn’t yet been defined. Just like rebar must be solidly tied and framed, we must also be able to put words around who we are as a church and what God has called us to do.

2. Define the win

What are your expectations, according to your culture, for what needs to happen in the small group environment? If you can’t answer that question, you are setting up the leader for failure. Is the primary purpose prayer? Teaching? Intimacy in relationships? Depending on how you answer that question, the leader will know what must be done on a weekly basis and what can be done on a weekly basis. Keep in mind, though, the lower the standard you have for the win the lower the commitment you’ll have from both the leaders and the people in the group.

3. Feed the people

Don’t neglect the amazing opportunity you have in these small groups. These are life-changing environments where people learn how to walk in intimacy and holiness with God and each other. As much as we hate to admit it as church leaders, these are the environments that have an even greater impact than the large group worship time because these are the pockets of community where anonymity is an impossibility. If that’s true, then they are worth investing in. It’s worth taking a very careful and intentional inventory of exactly what content is being presented in your group environment to see if it’s not only quality, but also fitting to what you want to accomplish. As you take that hard look, you might consider a tool where you can create custom Bible studies that will truly fit the culture you are trying to create. Using this tool will allow you to guard your church culture while ensuring your people are being fed the life-changing Word of God.

Culture, like rebar, isn’t always visible, but it’s always there. The more attention you pay to it in the beginning, the sturdier the building will be in the end.