The Power of CultureMarch 17, 2023 Worldview
I read a book on my most recent study break that has really gotten my attention. I’ve begun sharing it with the staff here, and hope to do the same with the Session. It’s not a “Christian” book – but it applies directly and powerfully to how we live together, as followers of Christ, in our families and our church.
The book is called, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle. It examines the question: “Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?” In other words, why do some groups (families, companies, sports teams, etc.) just seem to “work” better than others? The answer is – culture.
Case in point – why are the Detroit Lions suddenly finding success? Why, suddenly, do other players want to play for the Lions?? (I don’t think that’s ever happened in my lifetime!) Everyone will point to the new coach, Dan Campbell. But what, specifically, is he doing differently than the myriad of other coaches the Lions have had? Every coach has tried to win. They have all failed. Why does this time feel different? Campbell has focused 100% on creating a culture. Most people assume that a winning culture is created by winning. Campbell believes just the opposite – winning is created by culture.
Here's a fascinating illustration from Coyle.
“A few years ago, the designer and engineer Peter Skillman held a competition to find out. Over several months, he assembled a series of four-person groups at Stanford, the University of California, the University of Tokyo, and a few other places. He challenged each group to build the tallest possible structure using the following items:
- twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti
- one yard of transparent tape
- one yard of string
- one standard-size marshmallow
The contest had one rule: The marshmallow had to end up on top.
The fascinating part of the experiment, however, had less to do with the task than with the participants. Some of the teams consisted of business school students. The others consisted of kindergartners.
The business students got right to work. They began talking and thinking strategically. They examined the materials. They tossed ideas back and forth and asked thoughtful, savvy questions. They generated several options, then honed the most promising ideas. It was professional, rational, and intelligent. The process resulted in a decision to pursue one particular strategy. Then they divided up the tasks and started building.
The kindergartners took a different approach. They did not strategize. They did not analyze or share experiences. They did not ask questions, propose options, or hone ideas. In fact, they barely talked at all. They stood very close to one another. Their interactions were not smooth or organized. They abruptly grabbed materials from one another and started building, following no plan or strategy. When they spoke, they spoke in short bursts: “Here! No, here!” Their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together.
If you had to bet which of the teams would win, it would not be a difficult choice. You would bet on the business school students, because they possess the intelligence, skills, and experience to do a superior job. This is the way we normally think about group performance. We presume skilled individuals will combine to produce skilled performance in the same way we presume two plus two will combine to produce four. Your bet would be wrong. In dozens of trials, kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.” 
The kindergartners also beat the team of lawyers , who averaged 15” and the CEO’s who averaged 22”. How is that possible? The secret is not the skill levels of the individuals – but the interaction of the group – the culture. You see, the adults were trying to do two things at once. On the one hand they were trying to build a tower. But their efforts were hampered by what psychologist call “status management”. Most of their energy was spent trying to figure out things like: “Who’s in charge? Who will be easily offended? What are the rules for getting along in this group? Is it ok to criticize? What do I need to do to have people like me?” As Coyle says, “Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty with one another.”
The kindergartners weren’t burdened with that interpersonal uncertainty. They trusted each other. They weren’t competing for status. They worked shoulder to shoulder, everyone fully focused on and fully engaged in the same task – building a tower.
What if your family functioned like that? Everyone on the same page and working towards the same goal? What if the church functioned like that? What if every member was able to set aside their fears and self-concern and work shoulder to shoulder for something much greater than our personal desires and needs? What could we accomplish for the glory of God if we had a culture like that?
The answer is found in Acts 2:42-44.
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
That is a perfect picture of a Spirit-crafted church culture. Coyle defines culture as “a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal.” That’s precisely what we see in Acts 2: many different people standing shoulder to shoulder, happily sacrificing personal needs and possessions in the shared pursuit of a glorious gospel goal. And the Lord blessed them, day by day, with gospel fruit.
Isn’t that what we want to see happening in our families, our small groups, our church? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that gospel culture? Who wouldn’t want be willing to sacrifice time, money, security and comfort to be part of a group like that? I would and I think you would too.
So how does that happen? In the coming posts I will share some of the obstacles to creating this kind of culture and some of the basic building blocks for moving forward. Let’s pray for this together! The Lord promises to build His house by His power! Let’s labor then, to build it His way.
- The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle
- Anything by Ruta Sepetys. My favorite is probably “The Fountains of Silence” though I loved “I Must Betray You” and “Between Shades of Grey” as well. These are all books about people enduring tremendous oppression and suffering. They helped me to realize a) how blessed we are, b) how wicked and wounded this world really is, and c) that these atrocities could happen anywhere – yes even here. If you enjoy historical fiction and good writing, I highly recommend her!
- Depression: Looking up from the Stubborn Darkness by Ed Welch. In the spirit of continuing to familiarize you with Dr. Ed Welch, Harvest’s featured speaker for our upcoming “Caring Well for One Another” conference (April 21-22), here’s commending his book on depression. From the back cover, reformed theologian Sinclair Ferguson writes, “Over the past several years, I have come to rely on men like Ed Welch and others at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation for guidance and insight in better understanding the issues of the soul that plague many people today. For those who want to address more than just the symptoms of depression, Ed’s counsel is invaluable.”
- I would ask you to pray for my fellow pastor David Vander Meer who lost his wife Carol this Tuesday to a completely unexpected heart-attack. David was pastor at Rockford Springs OPC. He and Carol had just retired a few years ago. Please pray for David and his grieving family.
- Thank you to all who are lifting up Joanne and I as we walk this road of having charges filed against me. The Lord is graciously answering your prayers and sustaining us.
- Pray for the Elders as they shepherd the Harvest family through these troubled waters. I am so thankful for these brother who are “working hard for you” (Col 4:13).
 Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code, Bantam Books, New York, 2018. page xvii
 Ibid. page xvi
 Ibid, page xviii