The Cultural Web and the Neighborhood Church

After taking some time to use the cultural web to exegete the neighborhood within the city, the same cultural web can be helpful to discern how to be the church in your context.

In Creating a Missional Culture, I mention that if we are going to have churches where the community more fully reflects the character and ministry of Christ, we need to understand the hidden power of culture. Like gravity, the culture of a congregation can either pull people down to their base instincts or lift people up to their redemptive potential. We create culture and culture recreates us. So let’s take a look at the six elements of culture and the four core questions that each church needs to ask in light of her context.

Cultural WebI’ve put the different elements of culture on the cross, reminding us that the church is not just a social organization, but has divine roots, and that the foundation of the church is Christ. The dove in the figure reminds us that the church is holy as well as human.

God has a part and we have a part in cultivating the culture of the congregation. Paul said, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder” (I Cor. 3:10).  Paul understood that he planted seeds, Apollos watered them, and that God causes them to grow.  In other words, when it comes to being cultural architects, it’s important to remember that God has a part that we can’t do, and we have a part that God won’t do.

With this in mind, let’s look at the elements of culture and the four core questions we need to answer.  As you look at the figure, you can see that language and artifacts are central to developing a missional culture, for they typically shape the other elements of the cultural web. The other four elements of culture – narrative, rituals, institution and ethics – give meaning to language and artifacts.

The following four questions with the Spirit’s direction will help us understand and shape the congregation we serve.


Narrative: What is God’s calling for our church? (Missional Calling)
The communal calling of a church is shaped by her approach to theology, the significant stories that shape the community – stories from scripture and stories from the the lives of people in the congregation – and the primary teachings of the community (doctrines).

The calling of the church is not something we invent, but something we discover through the scriptures.  We can discover our unique calling after taking time to exegete our neighborhood, understanding the needs of the neighborhood and how our gifts and passions relate to the needs of the neighborhood, for as Fredrick Buechner has said, “Calling is where your deep hunger meets the world’s deep needs.”

Aaron and Amy Graham, who founded The District Church in Washington DC, where I serve locally, often explain the heart of the mission of the church with three words – Worship, Community, Justice.  Because the city is filled with people who are very involved with social justice issues around the world, justice is a bridge to the neighborhood, while community and worship are some of the components that people often need.   These three words shape the life of the congregation. The mission of Trinity Grace in New York is “Joining God in the renewal of all things.” What is the calling of your congregation in light of your context, and in light of the story of scripture?

Rituals: What are our core practices? (Missional Practices)
Identifying core practices moves us beyond espousing values to living values.  If we hope to see transformation in our communities we need to consider the rites, practices and liturgies in which we engage.

Some ritual actions include rites of passage, ceremonies that accompany and dramatize major events at birth, graduation, marriage and death.  Observing the Christian calendar is also a form of rites.

Practices are spiritual disciplines we engage in. Dallas Willard defines spiritual disciplines as “activities in our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort alone”.

Liturgies are what James K.A. Smith calls “thick” practices, which are embodied practices that reshape our desires and form us into the kind of people we want to become.  Thick practices shape our identities and move us toward God and his vision for the world.  So what core practices will you lead your congregation to practice in light of your context?  I will talk about developing a rule and rhythm of life next week.

Institution: How will we fulfill our calling together? (Missional Methods)
The institution describes our missional method. Structures, symbols and systems are closely related to the institution. Structures deal with the various ministries of the church.  They answer questions like: How is power distributed? Who makes what kind of decisions? What is the strategy of the group, and how is the group organized to fulfill that strategy?  When thinking about the strategy, one has to ask, as I’m seeking to make disciples in the four social spheres of life, the intimate (2-3 people), the personal (12 people), the social space (20-50) people and the public space (more than 50), which space do I focus on developing leaders and which space am I primarily seeking to multiply?

Symbols have long been a part of what it means to be human, from the Egyptian hieroglyphics to the drawings found on the walls of catacombs. The architecture of the building we meet in and even how it’s set up and organized symbolize different things. In developing a missional culture, leaders ask questions like: What does the physical environment signal to people? What does our logo or church name signify to our community? What are the symbols of success in the community? Do they move people toward God and his mission for the world?

Systems work alongside various structures to help a congregation to move forward in their sacred calling. Our bodies have a number of systems that work together to keep us healthy, the gastrointestinal tract, bones and nervous systems carry out their various functions.  Every congregation has ways (systems) in which they monitor the health of the church and encourage people to grow as a community.  Systems ask the questions: Do the structures we have bring synergy and energy to our vision?  What are the written and unwritten rules that shape our culture? What behaviors are considered faithful to the church’s sense of calling and thus celebrated? What behaviors are considered disloyal to the vision and thus frowned upon or punished?

So what is your strategy, and does everyone in the congregation know how you intend to fulfill God’s calling together?

Ethics: What does it mean to be faithful and fruitful? (Missional Marks)
Every community has moral convictions that inform how the community lives, which are the ethics of the group. . When talking about ethics, I’m talking about being, doing and reflecting.  Because missional leaders understand that doing proceeds from being, they help people understand who they are in Christ prior to what he has called them to do.  Because of who we are, we live differently.   Doing is about walking in the power of the Spirit and bearing the fruit of the spirit.  And when being and doing are combined with reflecting, we engage in praxis, where the process of action and reflection, practice and thought is repeated cyclically, each informing the other.

What does it mean to be faithful and fruitful is one of the most important questions that church planters and their teams must ask themselves.  How you answer this question shapes how you answer the other questions.  For if your understanding of success is shallow, i.e. centered on butts (how many people come to a service), bucks, and your building, then go ahead and just be a full blown pragmatist, without any thought of theological reflection.  People who have a shallow definition of success don’t give much time considering the means; it’s all about the ends. But those who are more thoughtful understand that the means determine the ends.  I talk about this more in depth in Creating a Missional Culture.  What if answering the question of being faithful and fruitful was about how many people are mature disciples living in the world, for the sake of the world, in the way of Christ, where they consistently bear the fruit of the Spirit in their lives?

Phillip Kenneson, in his book, Life on the Vine, gives a vivid picture of what it means to be a mature community of faith.  Using the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians, he offers a picture of what Christ is seeking to do in and through us. A mature community cultivates a lifestyle of love in the midst of market-style exchanges; a lifestyle of joy in the midst of manufactured desire, peace in the midst of fragmentation, patience in the midst of productivity, kindness in the midst of self-sufficiency, goodness in the midst of self-help, faithfulness in the midst of impermanence, gentleness in the midst of aggression, and self-control in the midst of addiction.

So what does it mean to be faithful and fruitful?  What are the missional marks of your congregation?

Understanding the various elements of culture not only helps you to exegete your neighborhood well, but it helps you to know how to form a missional culture in the congregation that you serve as well.

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JR Woodward
JR Woodward is a church planter, activist, missiologist and author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012). He co-founded the Ecclesia Network and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (UK).
JR Woodward


  1. Arlene Rauen Jun 17, 2014 Reply

    Thru the years the people I have admired the most were those who were “outside the box” thinkers…visionaries and trailblazers….THAT IS YOU, Jr….The people that mentor me and my heart that I speak about are mostly from the Bible and past missionaries….so it is good to have flesh and bone here alive to show us and come along side us to live out what it means to follow Jesus and to teach others who will teach others…my admiration goes beyond the fresh expressions I see in you but into the little personal ways you lift people up to the great things God has for them….you remind people that we gladly serve a personal God who loves to show off His masterpieces….somewhat like an art gallery….but a open public one that the whole world views in the day to day life stuff we experience….YOU are beyond valuable!!…YOU are priceless…and that is what our Heavenly Father wants you to know as He speaks thru me into your heart….”His lovingkindness NEVER fails…they are new every morning”….Thanks for loving….we will not know the extent of God’s love for us this side of heaven but today and the tomorrows may God show you this love to open doors you never even imagined….for His glory 🙂

  2. Thando Moyo Oct 28, 2015 Reply

    I feel we may miss it, if we are to look at our passion and desires to help community as the basis of our calling. God’s instructions and calling have nothing to do with this. He will send you to do His will regardless of what your passion is, look at the case of Jonah, I think this is what has killed the main purpose of the church- to serve God and bring people to God. Not to serve our interests. There are so many ministries I have seen fall by the wayside as God had not put a ‘seal’ on them

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