Chris Rivers on Cultivating Your Church’s Culture


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chris_riversFor nearly 10 years whether it be financial, leadership, or even ministry help, God has allowed Chris to work with ministry leaders to help them maximize the challenges that come from effectively transferring vision to their team. In this interview Chris talks about the importance of cultivating your church’s culture and provides some practical help for doing so! Listen in as Chris talks about his experience in a variety of ministry contexts and how CultureBus can help you!

Chris Rivers [website] [twitter]

Interview Highlights //

00:38 // Rich introduces Chris Rivers.

01:24 // Chris talks SecureGive.

01:53 // Chris talks about Arena.

02:12 // Chris talks about starting work with NewSpring Church.

03:44 // Chris talks about moving from the Central Ops to the IT team.

04:58 // Chris talks about the staff development program that was launched in 2010.

05:36 // Chris talks about the importance of the transition process in the ministry, culture development and how CultureBus started.

06:39 // Rich explains that he has never worked for NewSpring.

07:00 // Rich talks about how critical transition points are.

08:25 // Chris talks about leading staff development and the leaders’ vision.

09:42 // Chris talks about adapting to change and gives Blockbuster as an example.

11:33 // Rich talks about the importance of church leaders staying focused.

13:55 // Chris talks about how CultureBus creates vision to a team.

14:25 // Chris talks about creating a foundation that stand the test of time.

15:35 // Chris defines excellence.

Lightning Round Highlights

Helpful Tech Tools // Squarespace Note

Ministries Following // Carey Nieuwhof and Dave Willis, Stevens Creek Church

Influential Book // “Creativity, Inc.” By Ed Catmull

Inspiring Leader // Shane Duffey and Carey Nieuwhof

What does he do for fun? // Family and running


Interview Transcript //

Rich – Alright, well happy Thursday everybody, it’s Rich Birch from the un-seminary podcast. Thanks so much for listening in, I’m so glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us today. I know you’re a busy church leader and so I just really value the fact that you take some time to listen in today as we head into the weekend. Today we’ve got a real treat, we’ve got my friend Chris Rivers on the line, super excited to have him. He’s with an organization that he’s just started called CultureBus and I want to make sure that you know about Chris and know about what he’s up to. So Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris – Thanks Rich, super cool to be here man, love what you’re doing and love what’s happening at Liquid Church. Man come one, let’s do it.

Rich – Well why don’t you give us a bit of the Chris Rivers’ story? Try to compress your entire life down into a few punchy sentences.

Chris – Yes I will do that. First of all, I’m really just grateful to hang out with you, it’s always a privilege to learn from leaders and you’re doing some great stuff and I want to thank you.

Justin – Alright, alright, okay.

Chris – So anyway, this is my story, quick nutshell okay? Seven years ago I got into this whole ministry world. I was in the banking industry and I had the opportunity to kind of help start a company called SecureGive. You might have heard of that. They do these donation kiosks, pay with your debit card, let’s make more money and do more ministry, right? So that was really in its infancy. The technology was wild to some people, “I don’t know if I can handle this,” so six months into that, move fast forward, I had the opportunity to work with a company called Arena which was a church management software company. They helped get church management in the doors at Willow Creek and North Point and these churches that had developers to change code and whatnot.

So I was the sales guy, I went in, showed them the product, hang out, yeah Jesus, let’s do it. Through that process I had the opportunity to meet the guys at NewSpring Church at Anderson South Carolina and the next thing I know, they coned me in to coming on staff and I’m doing this thing. It’s funny, I came on staff April 1st 2010. I didn’t know if it was a joke, it was really something quite unique. At the time we were running about ten thousand on a Sunday, five campuses. I mean, you’re seeing some things that are just amazing right?

So I came on staff, ready to go. Suit up, show up, my first day I think I ran nine miles that morning and just super excited about this call to ministry, I didn’t know what the expectation

was, but I was ready to go. For the first year, I worked my tail feathers off, changing everything. We were using the Fellowship One, Arena, all the stuff, changing it and you know how change is at the church right?

Rich – Yeah it’s tough.

Chris – So about a year and a half into this change of software, we launched it, it was a rocky start and I remember Shane Duffey, one of our directional leadership team guys brought me into his office, he said, “Hey man, I love you Chris, but I need you to convert us back to Fellowship One.” This was like the craziest thing in the world. I was a laughing stock to the Fellowship One guys. They had a heyday with me and it hurt my heart and my pride was broken. So at the time I was working on a team that Tony Morgan had started called The Central Ops, it was kind of like the (inaudible 00:03:42) of ministry. I moved from there to the IT team which I refereed to, that room, as the IT closet. It grew so rapidly we literally worked out of a closet and I’m really struggling with my call act, you know, I’m not doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, everything that I had worked for had been stripped and it was in that moment that I almost quit. I really learned the difference between abiding and striving and ministry and letting God do his thing through you and trusting in that process.

One day one of the guys in IT said, “Hey man, there’s this guy coming on staff, Rich Birch, go and give him his laptop,” and I was like, “Okay sure what do you want me to say to him?” “Don’t worry about it just give him his laptop.” So I thought about all the things that I wish someone had told me when I transitioned into ministry. I had come to a new place, there were new faces. I didn’t even know what ministry was about, I’m like here I am. They just wanted me to come on staff, well who am I you know? That thirty minute conversation turned into a ninety day staff development program that I kind of helped put together and launched in 2010. So around 2010 we had about a hundred and thirty eight staff, we were blowing up man, it was just crazy, crazy stuff and within a year and a half, okay, we hired a hundred and forty seven people.

Rich – Wow.

Chris – We literally doubled our staff in a year and a half. I’m telling you, every Monday there were people coming on staff. Sometimes five, one day fifteen, another day three and I’m like, holy cow, how do you help transition people into preaching. So you start doing something, you start learning after your mistakes, right? About a year into this I realized that the transition process is one of the most critical things that we did and as ministry leaders the way that we transition people into something, either makes them or breaks them right? So I really start to question and really get them before the Lord to say, “What

do you want that to look like?” Because culture has so much to do with that right?

Rich – Right.

Chris – So one of the things I learned through that process is that culture is what your environments, they say you value. So I’m all about this culture development thing. Culture development to me is saturating your environments with your vision and so it doesn’t matter if you’re a new staff person or you’re a new volunteer or you’re new on day one. That environment that you walk into, it sets the tone for your transition. So that’s really kind of how CultureBus started. I started getting pastors asking me to help them, “Hey will you help me build something similar?” and the next thing I know, here I am talking.

Rich – Alright and just for people that are listening, I never have worked at NewSpring, although that would be a privilege, I didn’t actually get to get the new laptop from you Chris, although that would have been great.

Now you and I were talking last week, there’s a lot we could talk about, there’s a lot we could jump into, a part of what I appreciate you there, your focus on those transition points, I think you’re really onto something there. I think, particularly at those transition points, like you said from first time staff to joining staff to first time guests, people that are new to the church, people that are just volunteering. I think you’ve hit on something super critical there to wrestle through.

I’m so excited that you’re out helping churches on that but you said something last week that really grabbed my attention. You talked about Simon Sinek, he wrote a great book that really I would recommend everyone that’s listening, really should read, it’s a great book, ‘Start with Why’. But you said something about that book, or about him, that was like, that’s an interesting thought, kind of a leveraging off of his idea, particularly for us as we’re trying to build culture, what was that?

Chris – Yeah that’s so good. One of the things that I realized when people would come into ministry on day one, most people are more focused on what to do and how they’re supposed to do their job, than why they are doing it in the first place, right? So the fact of the matter is, is that we all want to be part of something great. There’s something inside of us that longs for purpose and meaning and so as a follower of Christ we’re really called to do more, to live within (inaudible 00:08:20) with all these passions that we have.

So during this season when I was leading Staff Development, I would always share the Simon Sinek’s golden circle decision because he defines the leaders’ vision as the ‘why’, emphasizing that people don’t buy into what you do or how you do it but why you do it right?
So Simon makes this point that the ‘why’ must be the central focus that will compel people to be part of what you’re doing and not the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ right? So as a leader, if you want your vision to be the focus, you need to set up clear expectations to your team, so they know what their target looks like. So there’s this constant sight to keep the vision central. So one of the things that stood out to me as I would help people transition in the ministry, is that they were so focused on what was expected of them. So on day one, they were more interested in their job, in the details of their role required of them, rather than why they were doing it in first place. So to effective in ministry we have to be willing to change, and if your team members are zeroed in on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of their roles, they will struggle to embrace the challenges that inevitably will come. But if the vision is central, so your team will adapt as changes arise, because they will be ready to sacrifice the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ for the ‘why’, which will lead to a vibrant culture.

So think about this. A great example of this in the business world is Blockbuster Video. They were so focused on their movie rental stores, then when companies like Netflix started offering movies online, they didn’t adapt to a change in consumer and it became more about how they did business and what they offered that they lost sight of why they were doing it in the first place. As the industry changed, they didn’t and as a result they’re no longer in business today.

So overtime, as your team is saturated with your vision, it produces ministry environments set in spite and when people encounter this kind of culture, not only do they know why it exists but they become wowed with how it’s presented. So when new people, when they step foot in your church or your ministry and they experience the wow, they see something bigger than themselves and it leaves them ecstatic for more. So like, wow moments create impact and this is the way Jesus led. He’s always leaving people amazed and filled with awe, so the goal at that time, the goal of talking about the Simon Sinek.

You know another great book is The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni, that’s an (inaudible 00:10:54) ministry leaders can check out but that really challenged me because it was all about a shift. So as you master your vision and in my role, it allowed our teams’ focus to shift from what was expected of them, to a place where they can be expected for God to do what only he can do through them. So where there was once a desire to know what to do, there is now a willingness to do whatever it takes to see the vision alive in the culture. Your ‘why’ becomes their wow. That’s kind of what we were talking about the other day. Does that help?

Rich – Absolutely, I just love to flush that a little bit more. Just today, literally about an hour ago, I was at one of our campuses, we were working on some facilities stuff there and I

was driving back to my home office and there’s a church in this town that the building has ended up, the church basically died. It dwindled, dwindled, dwindled, dwindled, dwindled and the building ended up becoming, now it’s owned by the town and it’s become like a parks indirect building. Just today, maybe it’s been there for a while but I never noticed it before, just today I noticed that they took the cross off the front of the church and all that’s left is like the outline of the cross. You know when you take like a..?

Chris – Yeah.

Rich – There was something really sad about that, it was like gosh, here is a church that they sacrificed to make this thing happen and they lost their witness and their community and how is that connected to what we’re talking about here today? I think, as church leaders, if we can’t stay focused on the ‘why’ and then ultimately get to the wow, we’ll end up there, we’ll end up there as church leaders. So I appreciate that. How do we create those kind of wow moments, as you talked about that reinforce the ‘why’ in our organization?

Chris – I think for me it just gets back to listen to Jesus and do what he says. I mean I know that that sounds so cliché, Jesus is the only answer but when you look, like for instance, in the book of Mark, the Gospel of Mark alone, there are eighteen references to the word ‘amazed’ and every time it was actually right after someone spent time with Jesus. So I think that even in Acts, you look at Acts 2 and the people they gathered together, they were equipping each other and it said that they were amazed, like what was happening and you go through the book of Acts and there’s so many other references of this word ‘amazed’.

So I think that for us, as ministry leaders, when we do get back to like, “Okay Jesus what do you want me to do?” It goes back to vision. Vision alone can’t get the job done, it takes a team of people to be, round about this vision, to make it a reality. So I think that this is what we’ve done with CultureBus. We’ve created six routes. Each route has lessons and test drives that help a leader create a vehicle that transfers vision to your team.

So one of the examples of our routes is called building foundations. So what I’ve learned about building foundations is that you need a foundation that stands the test of time because if you are going to grow, then there’s going to be change that happens and inevitably comes and so like here’s a great example, think of the game of Jenga. I love this game my kids and I, we play it and I love watching my little kids, they try…

Rich – Try to pull it down.

Chris – Yeah but think about that as it relates to your stats. So if you don’t have centralized processes and systems, then a lot of times your ministry is like Jenga, people they are like

a piece and you pull them out, if they move or they change roles or they leave the organization for whatever reason and then as at that happens, with their system and their process, the foundation starts to crumble. But when you have, just centralized processes and evaluating tools that are centralized, you’ll be able to create a foundation that stands the test of time. So that’s one of the routes that we help leaders do. You know, church management software, phone systems, email. What is the best process to follow up with people and standards? I think that it’s not just listen to Jesus and do what he says but I think it’s the creating an environment where excellence is involved.

The other day I was talking to somebody and we were talking about excellence and I realized in my heart that I’ve never really come up with a definition of excellence. So I came up with this definition. Excellence destroys distractions for the sake of the vision.

Rich – Let me chew on that. Excellence destroys distraction for the sake of the vision? Yeah that’s cool.

Chris – So this is what I think happens. A lot of times we walk into a culture, we walk into a church. If you go to another church right down the road for the very first time, you just walk into it, you are already a critical person in your heart, I’m not saying Rich is critical but we look for the distractions because that’s just what we do. So distractions, they destroy vision. So excellence is nothing more than Jesus. He’s the king of excellence, he was the king of the greatest transition ever. So how do we take those transitions and make them excellent in everything we do?

If somebody walks into our church, we make that the most excellent environment that they ever experience. If you have a one on one with your staff member, you make that environment so excellent that they walk away and they say, “My gosh this guy cares for me, he values me, it’s not just what he wants from me, but he wants something for me too.” So I think, maybe just even a start is just figure out what excellence looks like and destroy the distractions right?

Rich – Absolutely, this has been fantastic, there’s a lot to chew here. What I hope actually is that out of today’s podcast, people want to reach out to you and connect. We’ll get all of that contact information in a bit. Is there anything else you’d like to, on these topics, there’s a lot we’ve talked about, for people before we jump into the lightening round?

Chris – I think for me I’m just super excited for what God’s doing. I could not be more passionate about this, I’ve done a lot of things, so I’m just excited to see what God’s got in store. I’ve got my hands open, I’m ready to take whatever he’s got and it’s going to be hard, it’s not an easy road but I’m just excited to see the best days of the church are ahead of us. I believe it, I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it and I believe that if you’re a ministry that is

having a hard time there is hope for you. So I think that’s probably, if I could say anything man, just don’t give up, don’t quit, Literally just keep focused on Jesus and do what he says and the best is yet to come. That’s it.


  1. Great interview – our denomination’s director of vitality says “Culture eats strategy for lunch”.
    PS: Another great app, similar to Squarespace Note is “Drafts” which is great for on the fly notes, and very customizable.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.