What I learned about your church’s DNA from the set builders of Jurassic World

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2 years ago, I was working with a church in downtown Honolulu (I know, rough gig). After doing a Base Camp with their staff and leaders for a couple days, my wife and I were hungry. We couldn’t find a good place to eat that wasn’t crowded on Waikiki Beach where we were staying so we walked to a Marriott hotel with a rooftop bar on the 3rd floor to see if we could at least order some appetizers or form some semblance of a meal from their happy hour menu. When we got up there, there was no place to sit. I walked around everywhere when it happened: a couple we didn’t know at all waived us over to sit in the 2 empty seats left at their table for 4.

This is where I make my first of two confessions in this post. I know I am a pastor. I know I love people. But I was tired. I had been getting to know new people, great people, for a few days in a church. My confession-I didn’t want to get to know anyone else. I wanted to decompress and eat some food by ourselves.

Not to happen. I swallowed hard and sat down with 2 strangers, bracing for where this conversation would take me. “Where are you staying?”, I asked. “Here at the Marriott”, they said. “How long have you been here?” Their reply was unexpected. “Four months”. I was startled. I asked them why they would stay in a hotel for several months when they told me their employer had set it all up. I asked them what they did for a living that their boss would put them on a beach front hotel for four months. “We are building the sets for a movie being filmed here on the island." That’s when I guessed and gasped, “You are working on Jurassic World, aren’t you!”

They were. Over the next hour we got to hear about what it was like to build sets for a movie about how scientists use DNA found in a dinosaur biting mosquito stuck in amber to replicate an entire amusement park filled with dinosaurs (watch this fun 2 minute video on how DNA could produce such a resort like Jurassic Park). We got to hear about the craft of these 2nd generation set builders, the challenges of building sets like these on an island, and even hear about what a great guy Chris Pratt is.

But I haven’t even got to the crazy part yet.

When they were sharing about how much they thought of Chris Pratt, they surprised us by turning the conversation into spiritual topics. Evidently, Chris Pratt was challenging them to pursue Jesus and he said the best way to do that was to try a church he knew of. So they did….the church i was working with! They literally attended church for the first time at the service my wife and I attended the previous Sunday. That’s when I dropped the bomb on who I was, why I was there, and that I was helping the church they just visited for the first time to develop their guest connection strategy.

Give this 2-minute a watch to remember how DNA works and how Jurassic Park was created. It speaks to how DNA creates anything, including the culture of your church.

Give this 2-minute a watch to remember how DNA works and how Jurassic Park was created. It speaks to how DNA creates anything, including the culture of your church.

I couldn’t believe it: I was actually sitting with a 2 person focus group regarding guest connection at the church I was coaching. Unbelievable. The good news was that they loved their first church experience. They loved the people, the pastor, and the overall culture of the church. My wife and I got to encourage them spiritually and we were blown away by their stories. We exchanged contact info as the sun went down and I marveled at what God did as I dreaded sitting down with two people I didn’t know.

As we flew home, I pondered the comments of these 2 set-builders on a movie about dinosaur DNA creating a theme park. I processed even more their comments about their experience at One Love Church in Honolulu. They described how the DNA of this church made them feel a sense of connection there.

It made me think of the power of DNA.  One strand of your DNA contains enough information about you that if printed on stacked paper, those stacks would fill a 100,000 square foot building, floor to ceiling. That’s just the code on one strand: a strand that contains the information that makes you, you. Likewise, the DNA of your church is encoded on small things that are unseen but become visible everywhere your church makes its presence known.

So let me pose a question. Like Jurassic Park, is it possible to engineer a living environment that could change the lives of those who enter it (while not eating them alive)? My answer is YES. Because the New Testament describes the church as a Body and as a Family, the DNA of your church culture is as determinable as the DNA of your own body and of your own family. This also means it is actually possible to alter the DNA of your church and change its future. Here’s how.

Because the New Testament describes the church as a Body and as a Family, the DNA of your church culture is as determinable as the DNA of your own body and of your own family.

Can your church’s culture be changed? Here are 5 factors that determine the unique DNA of your church That you can Influence.

This is our Lead Pastor Gene Appel, leading a portion of Step 01 in Next Steps at my church. I can think of no other person I would rather be leading with, especially when it comes to engaging guests.

This is our Lead Pastor Gene Appel, leading a portion of Step 01 in Next Steps at my church. I can think of no other person I would rather be leading with, especially when it comes to engaging guests.

1. It’s who you marry

There is only one way to create a community with a different DNA: reproduce new people by uniting with someone who’s DNA you want to see reproduced. That’s how God made it in the biological world and that’s how it works in Christ’s Body. Your Lead Pastor, plus the involvement of God’s Spirit, produce a certain kind of church, a certain kind of Christ Follower. These followers have unique characteristics to represent Christ in the community in which they have been placed (See Acts 17:25-27) and these characteristics come from God’s work in your church combined with the personality, ethos, and gifting (S.H.A.P.E.) of your lead guy. That’s where that DNA comes from.

It is also where most things that are currently a part of your church’s culture came from. Anything happening in your church from a culture and attitude stand point can be traced to the leader and the sub leaders he or she attracted during a given era in your church. That can be good news or bad news. The good news is, you can predict the culture and attitude about things in your church based on God’s work + the Lead Pastor’s SHAPE because that is where the DNA came from. Bottom line: for new cultures, you need new leaders because leaders beget culture.

I saw this in Paso Robles and had to have it for my office. It reminds me of what Rick Warren says. Your vibe comes from your DNA and it determines much of what happens in assimilating people into your faith community.

I saw this in Paso Robles and had to have it for my office. It reminds me of what Rick Warren says. Your vibe comes from your DNA and it determines much of what happens in assimilating people into your faith community.

2. It’s who’s on stage

One of the most practical axioms of ministry in my life came from something Rick Warren said:

“You don’t attract who you want, you attract who you are.” -Rick Warren.

This speaks to the DNA issue very powerfully.

Let me illustrate: Let’s say a missional forward-thinking church of 100 people who are largely empty nesters and retirees want to reach young families. Wonderful goal. They develop a prayer strategy and nice invitations to a great message series that their middle aged pastor is going to give addressing real issues young families face. They launch it and this is what happens: Week one has 4 or 5 young families come and everyone’s excited. Week two, 1 or 2 of those families show up. After that the series fails to add young families to this aging congregation, despite the fact the middle-aged worship team learned some cool new songs. Why? Because you don’t attract who you want, you attract who you are.

The number one question of anyone who get’s out of a car in your parking lot this weekend is not a question about your church per se. It’s this: “Is there anybody here like me?” If they see all gray hair and their’s is not, your church will not feel like home to them. If they have gray hair, and everybody is under 30, they will not feel like they have found their tribe. If they have brown skin and everyone in the parking light has white skin, same.

You get the picture.

My church (Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim CA) was a very “white” church 10 years ago. When Eastside began in 1962, that demographic was a reflection of our community in North Orange County. Why didn’t it change much as our community slowly changed? Because you attract who you are, not who you want. 10 years ago when Gene Appel returned to Eastside, a decision was made to diversify the platform greatly. Those on stage needed to become younger and more ethnically diverse. We even began hiring staff born in other countries. Guess what happened? About 6 to 7 years later, I would say that our church is now 51% white, 25% Asian, 20% Latino, and 4% Indian/African/other. Gene didn’t have to change his ethnicity. The stage had to become a more diverse preview of what heaven will be like. In Next Steps last month, I accessed the demographic in the room: 40% Asian, 30% Latino, 15% African and 15% white! On earth as it is in heaven….

What this means for us as Sherpas who are leading people on the climb towards full connection is simply this: if who want to know why certain people connect at your church and certain people don’t, the first place to look is your stage. The Lead Pastor is not the only person occupying it. Your worship team and announcement givers are there as well. When guests look at your stage, they have to see themselves following Jesus at your church. Your stage tells them if that is possible or not.

Here is another factor that determines the DNA of your church.

3. It’s who’s in charge

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Do you ever wonder why some teams at your church are more sticky than others? Do you sometimes scratch your head that some ministries multiply and add new volunteers very well while others even repel people? That is because of the DNA of those in charge. We all bear the strengths and weaknesses of our own DNA. So do our churches. So do our teams. It makes me think of one of my favorite moments in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when Tula’s mother responds to her daughter’s tears that her father as head of the house will never let her go to college. She says, “Let me tell you something Tula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck and she can turn the head any way she wants.” That is the power of your ministry heads, volunteer or staff. Their influence shapes the experience and capacity of the teams they serve.

So, if who want to know why guests connect better with some teams and not so much with others, the first place to look is it’s leadership. Many times it’s not a ball drop. It’s a culture fortified by DNA strengths and deficiencies. If you want to change the DNA and culture of a certain ministry, change its leader. If something is toxic on the team, than a change in leadership may be as necessary as an organ transplant is to a patient or an amputation is on the battlefield. It simply cannot spread.

Likewise, healthy high functioning teams have leaders that need to be promoted or have their influence expanded so that the culture of that teams spreads to others. This will result in more guests being added to more teams because culture is about DNA and DNA comes from the leaders. Here’s another way that the DNA of churches is changed all the time.

4. It’s who the children are.

Now that I am a man of a certain age, I am becoming aware of how much my kids changed the culture of our home. Chase made our home fun. Kendra made our home more comfortable and Carly made our home intellectually stimulating. When they come into the house today, there is a sweet combination of all this and more. When each one is absent, the colors of the environment change. Now that my nest is half empty, Michelle and I sense the shifts in the atmosphere of our home. Michelle and my contribution to the culture of our home remains. From what I hear, grandkids will add whole new elements and feelings to our home someday.

My kids, Michelle and I having fun at a wedding a while back. I love how the vibe of our home changes when all my chickens are in it.

My kids, Michelle and I having fun at a wedding a while back. I love how the vibe of our home changes when all my chickens are in it.

A spiritual family is much the same. When people leave, the vibe changes a bit. When new people are added, same. There is a sense in which you can change the culture of your church by who you are adding. For example, if you have a new Lead Pastor that represents a new DNA and culture for your church, the new people they will attract will change the atmosphere of your church. And when the number of “children of the new vision” hits a tipping point, the church culture will have naturally changed. It is the ideology of infection. Wait, that sounds negative. Let’s instead use Jesus’ example of yeast when he described how his kingdom would spread throughout the world and transform it. He said it would work its way through communities and nations like yeast works its way through dough, causing it to rise and change.

Sherpa-types know that eventually the new people attracted by the vision of a new leader will outnumber the people from previous eras. If a leader outstays his critics, eventually the children of both the new vision and past visions will produce a hybrid culture that has been influenced heavily by his DNA.


5. It’s what drives the choices and default preferences

I have a 2nd confession to make and this one might end any warm feelings you may have had towards me. I don’t like animals. I have never liked them. As a kid, I didn’t enjoy going to the zoo and the only thing in the circus that I enjoyed were the acrobats. My mother’s dogs drove me bananas and my allergies to dogs put the final nail in the coffin. As a result, my aversion to animals has created a petless upbringing for my children (except for the snake and beta fish compromise of 2002). My wife’s and my taste in music and movies has impacted what shows my kids as adults find amusing and entertaining by virtue of what we’ve exposed them to.

In the same way, the passions and choices of leaders affect the natural selection of certain choices in the church. Default choices in light of a leaders vision cause a “survival of the fittest” among competing strategies, preferences and other outcomes. Style, branding, strategic planning, decision making, and even the speed of decision making are all reflections of the surviving preferences that become normative as a new culture is created. In other words, who is driving the car many times determines the destination and speed of travel, not just the kind of vehicle one rides in. Those who want to create culture in a church would do well to understand these dynamics.


I am amazed at the idea of a prehistoric mosquito creating a dinosaur park, of people who share the same DNA creating a family, and of organisms like the Body of Christ creating environments that guests will find connectable…or not. As culture creators and environmental architects, we can actually leverage the power of a church’s DNA to transform the community it has been placed in.

Reengineering the environment guests experience each week at your church can be daunting. If you feel like you would benefit from a 1 hour online consultation with me, I am available. Click here to schedule that time

In the mean time, use the exercise below to move forward into cultural change for your church.

Journal or discuss the questions below with your executive team, department or key volunteers, They will help you analyze your current church culture, its DNA, and what you can determine about your church’s future in light of it.

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  • How has your Lead Pastor’s vision and personality impacted and formed the culture of your church family? List the most contagious and obvious characteristics.

  • How does your church’s stage/platform reveal the DNA of your church? Does it currently reflect more who you are or who you want to reach? Consider age, gender, ethnicity, and personality.

  • How would you characterize the culture of your ministry teams? Are they fun, controlled, serious, passionate? What words would you use to describe which teams? How are these descriptions a reflection of the leadership of/over these teams?

  • How are those you are reaching and assimilating into your church (the “children” of your vision) infecting and reflecting the DNA of your churches culture? What do they reveal about your church’s future? What new characteristics are they reproducing in your church? It’s OK to list both good and bad traits.

  • What are the default decisions that get made most naturally when it comes to ministry choices at your church? How healthy or preferred are those defaults in your estimation?





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