Shaping Church Culture: Social Action

When I was in college, my adviser instructed me to be aware of how I use my time. He said that students typically have three areas where they delegate their time: Sleeping, Playing, and Studying. Then he said that my college career would be marked by how I choose to balance the three and that if I’m not careful, studying can easily be replaced by the other two.

Church has a similar tension. We have worship (focus on God), we have community (which traditionally focus on us), and we have service (focus on the least). We love to worship. We love to be in bible study and hang out together. So much so, that serving the least can easily be neglected, often getting only what’s left over of our time, our budget, and our efforts. And when we do serve, we often serve ourselves or our agenda.

While our current missional momentum has brought with it a refreshing change in posture for helping us focus outward through incarnational community, it doesn’t automatically translate to serving the poor.  It requires an additional and intentional effort to take service beyond our neighborhood and into the streets of our city and the slums of our world.

Introducing social action as new value into an existing church structure is difficult but not impossible. Here are a few suggestions:


In order to create a culture of service, we have to communicate and structure serving as a priority not an add-on or optional event. If it doesn’t feel like a priority to you, it won’t become a priority to our congregations. We can do this in a number of ways:

  • Use Your Platform: The most underutilized platform is Sunday morning. We need to use it not only to preach our sermons, but to also cast vision regularly. The mistake we sometimes make is waiting until we have it all figured out before we share. It can be an effective leadership strategy to bring your congregation in on the journey. Being vulnerable, even starting with a confession of neglect, can be one of the most powerful ways to lead towards service. This is a great time to proactively address anticipated objections, concerns, or misunderstandings. If we are not willing to utilize our Sunday mornings to regularly communicate serving, it’s simply not our priority.
  • Use more Scripture: We would never make a point during a sermon without building a scriptural foundation, yet we tend to expect people to serve just because they should. Share not only from your heart, but also from your bible. Scripture has plenty to say about serving the least. We can have confidence that the Word will not return void.
  • Call your people to Prayer: I know, sounds pretty basic, but do we do this? We pray as leaders, but we don’t call our people to prayer often or early enough. We often rob them of making change a personal and spiritual journey. Whether we’re making a major transition or a simple tweak, if it’s a Biblical mandate, prayer might be the most underutilized weapon in our arsenal. We need prayer even without change. How much more do we need it while leading others through change?
  • Be strategic in calling out Leaders: The best leaders don’t have to search for something significant to do, they are being asked by everyone to join their effort. One of the most effective things we can do is to schedule a lunch or a coffee with a key leader, share our heart with them, and ask them to be a part of it. Don’t expect them to fully understand what you’re doing or why, but ask them to be a part of exploring scripture, committing to prayer, and evaluating the process.


Permission means letting go and is therefore one of the toughest things we do. However, giving permission to try new things and to think outside of the box can end up being one of the most empowering and freeing things a leader can do. New leaders are birthed and old leaders have breakthrough moments through being empowered and released. Until we let go, our people will continue to check the box. We also need to give permission for our leaders to stop doing some things:

  • Permission to stop showing up to every program, freeing up time to fully vest themselves in their new mission.
  • Permission to do not volunteer on campus, freeing up time to pioneer ministry outside of the church.
  • Permission to fail and learn from their failure. One moment of failure allows a learning opportunity for every group from that point forward.


We simply cannot ask people to keep adding things to their ministry life. If we do, service will be the first to go. We have to simplify our forms and find ways to create margin in our current structures. Celebrate addition through subtraction. It’s worth the effort to give your people (or yourself) the time to do what you’re asking them to do well. Some of the greatest ways to protect margin are to:

  • Evaluate: Cut events and projects that don’t serve the mission.
  • Consolidate: Identify our most effective existing forms and find ways to utilize them as a funnel for service. One example is missional community. If we value community as much as we claim, is it possible to utilize it as a funnel for all things outside the Sunday experience? This will communicate a clear and simple path as well as make missional community a priority.
  • Reshape: If the structure of our community groups are our main emphasis outside of the weekend gathering, yet meet the same need as Sunday – on the micro level – we may need to reshape what our community groups do. Consider serving primarily through community instead of as a church wide project. Delegate the responsibility of finding a ministry, planning, inviting, and carrying it out to community group leaders. Give permission to replace part of their regular schedule, moving away from the “event” mentality, not just adding on to what’s already there. This will up the ante for each group and increase involvement exponentially.


The breakthrough point in supporting the vision is often found in finding a common and concise language. This requires us to do the necessary groundwork of landing on a structure that supports the vision. We can’t communicate concisely if we’re not sure what we’re doing. Everything we do at ANC happens through what we call a Spiritual Formation Funnel, overlapping the call for communion, mission, and community:

  • Expose Need: Utilize the Sunday morning worship time to EXPOSE relational, physical, and spiritual NEED through scripture, creative elements, media, and seasonal focus.
  • Experience Need: Consider a quarterly event to help people EXPERIENCE NEED as a first touch to serving the least. We do this every fifth Sunday, in place of our Sunday morning gathering, communicating priority, and creating a safe environment for first timers to serve in a group setting. This is only a “taste and see” event and is not the end all. It is something that by itself only creates consumers of the service project. There must be a next step.
  • Engage Need: Missional/Incarnational community is not only a great place to build relationships, fellowship, pray, and learn together, but also to ENGAGE NEED on a more personal level. Our missional communities are structured to give away as much time as we keep, alternating the focus of each week on biblical community and service.

About Brandon Hatmaker

Church Planter, Missional Strategist, Non-Profit Collaborator, and Author of "Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture". View all posts by Brandon Hatmaker

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