“Do not call to mind the former things, Or ponder things of the past.” – Isaiah 43:18
At some point in your church’s past, someone may have said “We really need to identify our core values,” so you did. Perhaps a previous pastor saw other churches do this, or maybe they read a book that suggested it. Perhaps a business person in the church led the process because they indicated that successful organizations need to identify core values.
In any case, if your church has actually identified your core values, there is a strong likelihood that the result of that exercise was a list of nice words or phrases and perhaps some decorative art pieces hung in the church stating those values.
What we often see is a disconnect between what the church said it values and what the church actually values.
Aubrey Malphurs defines core values as “The constant, passionate core beliefs that empower and guide the ministry.”
Let’s break that down just a bit.
Values are constant.
You shouldn’t be revising your values every year. If developed through the right lenses, the core ideas should last a very long time, though the language used to express them may change over time to maintain relevance and to be understood.
Values should be passionate.
Values should have an emotion attached to them. You could also say that the values are instinctual. Values decide what you will do by default.
Values should empower and guide.
Most churches have an action-driven values system. A church’s core values are usually not conscious or intentional but are the byproduct of the church’s organizational habits. The unconscious nature of values is often true, even if the church has an “official” values statement. When our habits form our values, it’s a bit like the tail wagging the dog, and the results may not be desirable.
Churches need to move to a values-driven action system. In this system, the church uses its core values to shape their culture by building actions, forming new habits, and shaping ministries around them. This shift requires leadership and self-awareness.
To make this transition, church leaders must raise the awareness of the current (likely unconscious) values to a level in which everyone begins to see them and understand them. Once you identify your current value system, your church can start to identify the good, the bad, and the aspirational.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at Good, Bad, and Aspirational Values.
Good (Healthy) Values
There are two critical aspects to a good (or healthy) core value in the church.
First, a good core value is actionable. Core values are not intended to be wall art; they’re meant to drive the actions of the church.
Second, good core value drives desirable results. It may seem elementary, but you must consider the ends, so you build the proper means.
Let’s look at the actions of the early church as we see it in Acts 2:41:47 and deduce their values.
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God, and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
You might find more, but you likely discovered at least six core values appear from the text:
Evangelism (Acts 2:41, 47)
The Church presented the Gospel to unbelievers, and many were giving their life to Christ.
Teaching (Acts 2:42, 46)
The Apostles were fulfilling the second half of the Great Commission in “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19
Fellowship (Acts 2:42, 44, 46)
Community in the Early Church was not a few minutes of meet-and-greet; it was a deep relationship.
Worship (Acts 2:43, 46, 47)
They ascribed worth to God and celebrated and honored Him together.
Service/Generosity (Acts 2:45)
Early Christians willingly gave time, talent, and treasure towards the needs around them.
Prayer (Acts 2:42)
The Jerusalem Church communed with God in the most direct and personal way.
As you look at the actions of your church, do you see these six values at play? The question we often ask churches is: where’s the proof?
For example, you cannot say, “We value evangelism,” but the church has not baptized an adult in three years. There’s no proof that the church values evangelism. An actual core value is one that the church owns and demonstrates through its actions.
Bad (Unhealthy) Values
If your church is struggling, you likely have allowed some unhealthy core values to creep in and drive your actions to where you are now. Declining churches commonly have a host of unconscious, unhealthy values.
If you have already established as a church that the Great Commission is at the heart of your congregation’s mission, you must have a core value system that is aligned to embody this mandate.
Bad core values have two critical aspects to it.
First, bad core values are unconscious. If your church is on autopilot, going through the motions, and makes decisions because “we’ve always done it that way,” the chances are high that some unhealthy values are driving your church. The lack of intentionality in the values system will always sabotage your best intentions and plans.
Second, bad core value drives undesirable results. Valuing things like tradition, the status quo, and your facility will encourage the church towards an internal focus. This internal focus will push people away from your church and hold you back from the healthy actions exemplified by the Acts 2 church. A church that is resistant to change reveals that they value comfort and tradition. The Gospel is not about comfort and tradition; it’s about transformation, action, and progress towards Christlikeness!
A word of caution: a bad core value may not look unhealthy on the surface. For example, churches sometimes say they value “Love.” This is genuinely a good sentiment, but “Love” isn’t an outcome you can measure as a group. It’s too vague and will not be a good test for planning ministries. The result is most likely to be nothing at all, which is an undesirable result.
Aspirational values are the bridge between unhealthy and healthy value systems. Aspirational values give us the freedom and permission to change. After an honest look at what your church truly values, you have a choice to make. Do you want to stay as you are, or do you want to be healthier?
For example, maybe you’ve discovered that your church is not genuinely making any concerted effort in evangelism. You can choose to change that. By stating that you will value evangelism moving forward, you put it on your aspirational values list.
Keep in mind that any aspirational values aren’t supposed to stay aspirational! At some point, it must become something that your church truly owns and acts upon. Declaring a new aspirational value does not in itself make progress though. Two things are required:
Stop the old behavior of the old value that it’s replacing. Aspirational values usually replace an undesirable value or collection of values. “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” Mark 3:25
Begin acting on the new value. The dreaded “C” word… change. Here’s the truth: some people will leave your church when you begin to operate from new values. Most likely, they have been there for a long time. Your fear of people leaving has likely been holding you back from changing. Don’t be deterred. Going back after committing to change will only lead to further decline.
A change of values takes strong leadership, but it’s worth it. Hope and life on the other side of bad values and God has been wooing you there for a long time.
As leaders, let’s embrace the promise of 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
A.J. Mathieu is the President of the Malphurs Group. He is passionate about helping churches thrive and travels internationally to teach and train pastors to lead healthy disciple-making churches. A.J. lives in the Ft. Worth, Texas area, enjoys the outdoors, and loves spending time with his wife and two sons. Click here to email A.J.