Steve Henwood has discovered that changing any youth group is hard and it’s even harder if you don’t realise that you have to change the culture first


Once more unto the breach, dear friends. The new academic year is ahead of us and our start of term to-do lists kick in (store summer camp tents, book assemblies, find the surface of your desk again, yada yada). It’s likely too that nestled in amongst the standards churning around in your brain, there are some new things quietly glowing :

- Fresh ideas - Alternate trajectories - Brand new projects - Minor or major restructuring

It’s all vibrant, it’s all (hopefully!) God-inspired and the change you think it will bring is energising. But there is something that you may well be underestimating: the impact that culture is going to have on those plans.

This quote, attributed to Peter Drucker, is famous in the business world.

 Culture eats strategy for breakfast

In other words, if the culture in place does not support it, the best strategy in the world will just be swallowed up and be lost to the status quo. Real transformation cannot take place without directly addressing the culture.

It’s not just businesses that need to factor this in. I’ve lost count of meetings I’ve sat in where it’s believed that the new sermon series is all we need to instigate transformation in our church community, including in us.

Without realising, we can think of strategic change like driving a monster truck. We were going this way, now we announce a new direction and drive. We implicitly treat our team and groups like passengers and our enthusiasm and plans like giant tyres, able to trundle over any obstacle ahead.

Sometimes this can appear true. We make changes and it just works. Praise God. But usually that’s not because the monster truck worked. Something else is at play.

In the river 

Think instead of a river. It flows in a given direction. While its momentum carries it forward, the direction is primarily influenced by the banks around it. The geography may accommodate some new streams, or temporary enthusiastic flooding, but ultimately the trajectory is contained. Only relandscaping is going to change that. 

In short, culture dramatically empowers the strategies it is designed to support and hugely impedes the ones it is not.

It’s obvious when you think about it.

There’s a reason you are planning change: what you want doesn’t currently happen.

There’s a reason why it doesn’t happen: the current culture (riverbank) doesn’t support it as an inevitable outcome.


Understanding your culture

The long-established routines and organisational structures, the unspoken customs, the unofficial powerbrokers and story tellers who influence the narrative*. You already know a lot about the culture where you are. We children’s and youth workers love nothing more than to gather in groups and share how the culture in our place impedes our natural genius. (We of course never mention how what we’d invent instead would be just as problematic).

 *Unsurprisingly, there’s a mountain of resources on this topic, most of it from the business world. If you want to dig a little deeper into this, start with Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural web.

Factoring in culture to your plans

Getting started

Don’t overthink, remember the question here is not how do we transform the entire church infrastructure? It is simply, what influence will culture have on the small or big changes that I’d like to bring?

Grab a coffee, pen and paper. Write two columns, i) what you want to do. ii) how might current culture impede this? Now make notes in both columns.

The answer to column two may be, “not much”. Great, we’re done here, you’re good to go. (Though why hasn’t it happened already?). 

Consider some key questions:

1. What new skills and experiences will people need?

Resistance often comes from fear of the unknown and fear of failure. Bring in external trainers, go on road trips to see things working elsewhere, find ways to practice. Resources outside your cultural setting are often a shortcut to change. Make most of what you do as experiential as you can. The more you equip and excite others the less resistance you will face and the more riverbanks are reshaped.

2. What new behaviours will this strategy require of everyone?

Culture is reinforced by the behaviours that are allowed. If you want to change the culture to suit your new direction you must be prepared to establish and uphold new codes of behaviour. It’s not just about telling them what new things you all will do, it’s also highlighting what things you are now not going to do. This resources everyone to monitor change more effectively together.

3. What valuables might you be abandoning?

You can’t do everything. Time is finite. To do more of one thing means less of another, including things that work, have value, and give people familiar safety. Surrendering these things will be hard for some and so culture resistance will happen.

4. What can you realistically keep to?

You too have inbuilt ‘culture’. If you aren’t going to keep to the new ways, neither will others. Only plan changes that are realistic for you. Consider what external input you need.

5. Who will be allies? Who will possibly find this problematic?

I don’t always guess this right. People are surprising both ways. Either way, don’t treat anyone as an automatic passenger to your shiny plans. You’ll need to invest time in talking it through. Which brings us to the sales pitching.

Selling vision - we can’t stay here

Selling change to others has two parts not one. One is explaining where we are aiming to go. The other, often overlooked part, is emphasising why staying here is not desirable.

Sometimes it’s easier. Passengers on the Titanic needed less persuasion to change to a different boat, (no guarantees here either!).

Other times it’s more nuanced. The current system works, it produces certain results, it has certain benefits. You’ll need to highlight (and keep highlighting) where it is problematic or how it doesn’t achieve the other results you want to prioritise.

Work hard to keep people on the journey

For some it will be a gleeful, for others it can be a painful.

We’ve recently changed the way we do baptisms. There are multiple wins and we’ve found the families prefer it. Nevertheless, key players on the baptism team still grieve the loss of the other valuable things we let go to accomplish this. They are gracious, supporting and brilliant people who are still yet to be fully convinced that this way is better and that the problems we’ve fixed are worth the cost. Culture change takes time and at it is best done together.

The multi-hat culture changer 

Some riverbanks can be moved with a spade, some need a bulldozer. But a hardhat isn’t the only headgear you wear.

Reshaping culture is a multi-hat role.

Lifeguard – They keep watch, rescue those struggling, nudge back those off course and yes, occasionally blow a whistle at unhelpful behaviours.

Roadie – First to arrive, last to leave, they keep the band on the road (see make doing it easy – below).

Cheerleader – The enthusiasm is relentless, cheering on at every turn. Constant celebration happens as team members experiment, try, have successes or failures. Get those pompoms out.

Gardener – Spotting the new green shoots and signposting so that others recognise them.

Door Security – Sorry sir, this way is now off limits. Please follow the new signposts. Yes sir, I appreciate it’s different. No, I can’t make an exception. Yes sir, I do know who you are. No, I didn’t know you know the Arch-Bishop.

(Encouraging others to wears these hats too lightens the load).

Make doing it easy 

Last term we began a project to reshape collective worship in local primary schools. In all our planning with senior staff and excitement about children’s prayerful encounters with God, we identified one simple but vital, practical step – all the resources must be a click away on each hall computer. Why? Because teachers are busy and will arrive later than they should. If what they need isn’t instantly available they will default to doing what they know best - what they’ve always done. (Even then it’s not going to be a given).

You have to make it SO MUCH EASIER for team to do the new different rather than the old familiar.

Be present

You may need to spend the first few times modelling what you want. Then the next times setting it all up for them and handholding so they a) experience success themselves and b) don’t have the opportunity to avoid it! Don’t then leave them to it. How will you really know what’s happening unless you see it all in action?


Change the atmosphere isn’t just a line from a Rend Collective song. It is the constant heart cry to God of those who seek genuine change. Culture is determined by people and, conveniently, people are exactly those in whom God works. Of course, planning and prep is God-given too (otherwise this is a major waste of time and digital ink) but not to the detriment of asking Him directly for each and every provision. Plan as if He will require you to do culture change the long way, pray as if He will offer countless shortcuts. May God bless you mightily in your new kingdom ventures.