Look Before You Lead by Aubrey Malphurs

Malphurs, Aubrey. Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church. Culture Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2013.

In his book, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture, Dr. Aubrey Malphurs sets out to “explore how to form spiritually healthy organizational cultures in the context of church planting, church revitalization, and church adoptions,” with his specific focus in the area of unique church culture and behavior (8). While his ideas are shaped out of his theological beliefs, much of Look Before You Lead is driven by his theoretical and practical understanding of leadership within the context of the local church.

Malphurs builds his arguments upon some theological assumptions. The first is that it is the pastor’s responsibility to understand a church’s culture and lead by way of cultural adjustment. “In a sense,” he writes, “every pastor of an established church, whether a new pastor or one who has been there for years, must be a culture architect” (129). While we see little biblical evidence for such a pastoral role, Malphurs’ argument leaves the reader rightly feeling that the lack of understanding and skill in the area of church culture may leave the pastor in a position where he cannot lead or motivate the congregation in any direction. Lacking in Maplhurs’ argument however, is the idea that the Word of God through strong, responsible preaching should play the largest role—larger than even the pastor’s role—in shaping the culture of the local congregation.

Malphurs’ second theological assumption comes through his view of the shape and structure of the local church. For example, it appears that Malphurs holds that a church is (or should be) led through a single pastor or elder rather than a plurality of elders with a leader among those elders. While there are hints peppered throughout the book, Appendix G provides the most direct view into Malphurs’ theological underpinnings regarding the leadership of the local church. Some of the questions about the maturity of the church assume that a single, highly talented leader is a sign of maturity.  Question 2 for example, suggests that viewing the role of the pastor as a visionary leader demonstrates a higher level of maturity. In similar regard, questions 5 and 24 suggest that a preference for change in the church (presumably under the pastor’s leadership) is more mature than a desire to maintain a status quo with no qualification of what the status quo may be; although it should be remembered that Malphurs is writing specifically to those wanting to revitalize, plant, or adopt churches. Question 19 asks if the pastor is a strong visionary leader and a good preacher. With more than one pastor leading in these areas, gifts and skills may be spread out among a pastoral team providing spiritually healthy advantages. A plurality of elders is biblical and may be a greater mark of spiritual maturity than a church built around the skills and personality of a single pastor.

Other assumptions around the structure of the local church also manifest themselves in Appendix G and seem to surface in the undergirding of Malphurs’ argument. There is an idea presented that a growing church is a mark of maturity; however, no measure of the kind or health of the growth is included. Yet another example is seen in the assumption that a well-kept facility is the mark of a healthy, mature church. It could be however, that the culture of the church is far more focused on spending time and resources on spiritual growth, missions, evangelism, or some other venture. Although correct, Malphurs also assumes that church planting and church adoption are a good way to advance the gospel, but he provides very little discussion behind his reasoning and assumes his readers agree.

Much of Look Before You Lead actually reside in the theoretical areas of practical and organizational leadership. While his focus is for revitalizing, planting, or adopting churches, it would be rather simple to apply Malphurs’ ideas to a new or struggling non-profit organization that utilizes volunteers. Even so, Malphurs says, “I wrote this book for any church leader whose heartbeat is for Christ’s church” (9). For this reason, the first half of the book deals with exegeting church culture and the second is filled with practical methods of shaping, changing, and leading that culture in its vision and mission. The entire book, therefore, depends upon accuracy of Maluphurs’ statement, “The better a pastor knows his church’s culture, the better he’ll be able to lead his church” (16).

Culture is the primary building block of Malphurs' argument and through an explanation of what church culture is, Malphurs writes, “Churches are behavior-expressed, values-driven, and beliefs-based” (21). Interestingly, observed behaviors give an indication of the culture’s actual values; then dissecting the actual values exposes the church’s actual beliefs. Often there is a disparity between a culture’s perceived or aspired beliefs and values in contrast to those they actually hold. In motivating a church to a specific desired behavior, a leader most likely must first work toward establishing a belief among the culture. Once that belief is actually held, the leader must demonstrate why that belief should become a value. “When a church culture acts on its beliefs,” argues Malphurs, “they become its actual values” (21). Once the actual values are acted upon, the new behaviors should reflect the leader’s desired behaviors. While Malphurs does not address this in his book, is seems reasonable to think that if a leader unknowingly teaches or develops a belief within the culture without thinking of the intended value, there is a chance that an undesired behavior may result. All the more reason a leader must understand the culture and think like a cultural architect.

While Malphurs does not provide much discussion on the importance the preaching of the Word of God as the most significant influence of beliefs, I hold this as a theological truth. The preaching pastor or pastors must understand church culture if preaching and teaching is to be conducted in such a way that biblically centered beliefs become actual values followed by those values shaping behavior. The spiritual health of a church depends upon this truth. If Malphurs also holds this conviction, than I agree with his statement that the pastor must be a cultural architect. Most pastors serving in the context of planting a new church, planting a church out of an existing church, or adopting a church will likely find Malphurs’ theoretical arguments directly relevant and compelling.

The audience for Look Before You Lead is a little smaller than many other books on the topic, but a pastor or leader of a local church could greatly benefit from the information Malphurs provides in Look Before You Lead.

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* This post comes from portions of a paper written for the partial fulfillment of a DMin at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.  It has been redacted and modified for this website.  ** Purchases from the links on this website help support the ministry of SaltyBeliever.com.