Recently, I heard a pastor give a message about the difference between a thermostat and a thermometer. The message’s point was that a thermometer tells us the temperature and the thermostat allow us to change the temperature. The audience was encouraged to be a thermostat and not a thermometer.
I’ve thought a lot about the pastors’ message. I now wonder if there was more to be said about the temperature gauging metaphors. The mornings are now cooler than they were a couple of months ago. And when the temperature in our house gets too uncomfortable (either too hot or too cold), I use my phone app to read the current temperature. What I’m reading from my phone screen is the thermometer function of my thermostat. After reading the temperature, I then adjust the settings with my finger’s touch to change the room temperature.
Whether you can change the thermostat from your phone, voice command, or the old-fashioned way of getting up and adjusting a knob or pushing a button, today’s thermostats come with a thermometer included. For instance, we have smart thermostats that provide the inside temperature and humidity and the device’s temperature setting. Perhaps the metaphor shouldn’t be separated but taken together. Another way to say this is that I cannot change the temperature until I can properly read and understand the room’s current temperature.
Reading, understanding, and changing room temperature is a similar exercise to changing a church’s culture. To be a thermostat in the church is to read and understand how past stories have influenced the current temperature. After gauging the current temperature and understanding what makes your church tick, you can now change the temperature by adding new behavior like a thermostat. An overlooked biblical passage refers to Issachar’s tribe that illustrates the thermometer and thermostat metaphors. Here’s the back story to the scripture.
In 1 Chronicles, the people name a new king, but the previous king is still on the throne. David, the newly anointed king, is in exile; his predecessor Saul is still is on the throne. But the men in Saul’s army are defecting to David. David becomes the new king. The tribe of Issachar is one of the troops who joined with David. Issachar is known as “those who had an understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). Issachar served as King David’s thermometers and thermostats in ancient Israel.
For centuries, historians, storytellers, and anthropologists’ task was interpreting culture through various symbols, rituals, ceremonies, stories, and languages. Now texting, e-mail and online social media platforms have emerged as the preferred form of receiving information to interpret the “signs of the times.”
But for most of us, reading the signs of the times in our congregation isn’t something that we know how to do. And for others, especially of a certain age, the phrase means nothing more than a title of the late musician Prince’s song, “Sign O’ the Times.” Understanding the signs of the times, and knowing what to do, is similar to the process of reading, understanding, and changing your church’s culture. But how is this task accomplished? The good news is that church cultural change can happen. The not so good news is that it takes time.
It’s my experience that every church has a predictable pattern, no matter the size or age. Because most churches didn’t get the way they are today overnight, the things the church used to be known for may not be appealing today. Not because the core values changed, but because the culture has changed, and people see the church differently.
Before we attempt to change our congregation’s culture, we need to become great students of the church’s current culture and then understand people’s perceived needs outside the church’s walls and how they see the church today. We need help to be the thermometers and thermostats to understand what our church does by looking at the “stuff” we see and listening to the “sayings” we hear. Understanding the disconnect between the two begins to interpret the “signs of the times” to change the church’s culture.
In January 2021, I will be offering a webinar to our district churches to discuss how you can understand and change your church’s culture. Stay tuned to this space for more details coming soon. If you like to learn more before the webinar, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
On the Journey,