“Language Creates Culture” …Or Does It?

Let’s just be honest here: no it doesn’t.

The maxim “language creates culture” is one of the central pillars of Building a Discipling Culture and the whole 3DM approach (and it works for them, for reasons we’ll get to below). There’s only one thing wrong with it: it’s not remotely true. At best, it’s a dramatic oversimplification.

Come on, we all know how this works:

  • “Secretary” is deemed too dismissive, so all the secretaries get an upgrade to “administrative assistant.” But since neither the pay nor the responsibilities change, pretty soon everybody knows that an administrative assistant is just a secretary.
  • The term “Social Justice Warrior” was invented by activists who applied it to themselves in a vain attempt to ennoble their whiny and meddlesome pursuits. But they didn’t change what they were doing, and so their whiny and meddlesome ways came to define what “Social Justice Warrior” means. Now, the term is so badly tainted that SJWs have (hilariously) taken to accusing their opponents of inventing it as some kind of dismissive slur. No–it became a dismissive term because the people who applied it to themselves are moral and intellectual lightweights. Developing new language didn’t change anything.
  • The CEO decides “Our mission is quality” is the new company slogan. But he doesn’t improve inspection processes or fund improvements to product lines. Relentless pressure for quarterly profits continues to drive a culture that rewards quickly producing something that’s barely adequate, releasing it, and moving on the the next product. “Our mission is quality” rapidly becomes something jaded employees hoot at one another as they discuss the flaws of yet another substandard product they’re about to ship.

The existing culture is far more likely to corrupt the new language than the new language is to change the existing culture. Those of us who’ve been around awhile have probably been part of several such failed culture changes. A young friend of mine tried to introduce “language creates culture” to his huddle of older businessmen, and it went over like a lead balloon for exactly this reason–they all knew better.

“Language creates culture” is not true; in fact it’s hopelessly naive. If only culture change were so easy! If you’re going to change culture, you have to a high-accountability change in values. (Remember that sentence!) When you are successfully incarnating, modeling, and passing on new values you often turn out to need new language that highlights the things you now value, and in that way, language can be part of a good culture shift. But just shifting the language won’t do it. (If you want a good look at the multiple drivers that change culture, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle is a good place to start.

So why does 3DM repeat the “language creates culture” slogan endlessly?

The people who are repeating this are good folks, and they honestly believe it’s true, but they’re not thinking effectively about what they’re actually doing. But they are actually doing something that–in a number of cases–is working pretty well. So let’s take a look at it.

The language they have in mind is the shapes, and what they’re actually doing with the shapes–at least in the average American church–is much more than changing the language. Remember, the average American church is very good at producing programs and sermons, and very poor at helping people become more like Jesus. Enter 3DM: what would you, as an average pew-sitting churchgoer, experience as you start to engage the first few shapes?

  • the circle: Suppose you begin to listen for what God is saying to you, test it in community with other believers, and take action on it.
  • the semicircle: Suppose you begin to prioritize rest and reflection, not just work.
  • the triangle: Suppose you begin taking regular inventory to see whether you are investing your time and attention in God, in His people, and in the world.

The point of these shapes is to get you to elevate certain priorities (hearing God’s voice, abiding over doing, and tending to your duties to God, His people, and the world), ask good questions about where you stand with those things, and act based on the answers.  Those questions challenge your existing values, and coaching and huddles provide accountability as your values begin to shift. So there it is: high-accountability change in values, which is what you actually need to shift your culture.

So in an odd way, in the total context of huddle and coaching, language really does create culture–because 3DM means something much more by “language” than what that word normally means. The “language” in question, the shapes, is not really a language but a set of teachings. 3DM is using the shapes to highlight concepts that most Christians agree on in theory but don’t actually practice very well.

That wouldn’t change things any more than a sermon does, (as some folks who taught Building a Discipling Culture as a sermon series or Sunday school curriculum found out the hard way,) except for one key factor: the concepts aren’t being introduced in the context of teaching. They’re being introduced in the context of small community discussion and accountability. That’s where change actually happens–ask any twelve-stepper. 

So to sum up: “Language creates culture” is bunk. It’s just not true. However, in the context of 3DM, the “language” of the shapes, used in the context of small-group discussion and accountability, shifts your values, which in turn begins to change your culture. Which is to say, there’s a lot more than language going on.

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