Monday, January 28, 2019

What It Offers That We Do Not Need: Cultural Relevance

Neo-independent Baptists 4

Note: Today's post is Part Four in a series addressing the neo-independent Baptist movement. Parts One through Three can be found posted on this blog over the last three weeks. Today's post is by Chris Birkholz, 34, a 2005 graduate of Pensacola Christian College. He runs an orphanage and plants churches in Honduras.

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I love the kind tone taken in this series and I believe it is a discussion that needs to be heard. Proverbs 18:13 tells us, “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.”

I am friends with many that would follow the philosophy of Josh Teis and I have some great supporting churches that are similar in philosophy. I think one of the blessings of a public format is that we as fellow servants of Christ can help each other and can provide a level of accountability. We are on the same team and serving the same God and will share the same heaven! May God use this to strengthen us and help us as we ALL serve HIM!


What It Offers That We Do Not Need: 

It Offers Cultural Relevance

We cheapen the power of the Gospel when we place more emphasis on our catchy salesmanship, slick marketing, hipster coolness, and cultural relevance than we do on simply preaching and proclaiming the Word of God. The dichotomy of the Gospel is that it surrounds but also ignores the culture in which it resides. The Gospel stands alone. It does not need to be adapted, marketed, or sold. It simply needs to be preached. It simply needs to be lived.

I feel for my generation. There is a pressure to be modern, a push to be more sensitive to the culture, and, yes, an insistence on lower standards. We are often fed the idea that if we would just be a little more cool, a little more hipster, and a little more progressive in our thinking that would open wide the door for influence. This is a big temptation. My generation of millennials are hungry to have an impact for Christ and are often ready to jump into new ideas quickly.

I would suggest that the power to influence has little to do with cultural relativity and instead has everything to do with clearly presenting the Word of God. I think many would be surprised to see how many churches are not looking to change their “church” culture and are still having a tremendous impact on their communities.

One of the privileges I have had in my life is deputation. I loved it. It is an incredible thing for many reasons. One of the benefits for me was that I was able to observe well over 100 different independent Baptist churches. We are blessed to have supporting churches that have all sorts of different “cultures.” Sometimes we think that if we do not adapt to be more “culturally relative” we will not grow. Allow me to give an illustration.

I remember one night we were going to drop into a church to which we had been invited. I knew very little about it except that it was Baptist. There was no web page, no Facebook page, and very little signage to find the building. I was starting to get grumpy. In my mind I was thinking, “If this church cared about people they would do a better job at getting their name out there.” I was forming in my mind what I would see when we finally did arrive. In my mind it would be a poorly maintained building full of older people hanging on to their antiquated ways. I just knew that it would be unimpressive.

After driving through country roads and asking for directions twice, which I abhor, we pulled up to the church’s brand new building. We walked in as they were already singing. The auditorium was full with more than 200 people. They had the youth choir singing. The pastor preached, God moved, and people responded. There was no doubt in my mind that God was in this place.

Why had I been so wrong in my presumptions about this church? I directly related this
church’s ability to reach people to their ability to play the cultural game. This church had ignored those rules. God showed me that while this church did not have much cultural relativity and did not seem to be trying to “sell” their brand, they had something more powerful. They had the Bible, the preaching of the Gospel, and the testimony of transformed lives. People going out to proclaim Christ and inviting others to experience the power of the Gospel for themselves was what caused that church to grow. They had the Word of God and it was all they needed.

Over the two years we were on deputation and since arriving here on the mission field, I have learned that it is not the flashy marketing but rather the Gospel that works. Here is a fact that I have learned and that is observed by those who choose to see it: God blesses the Gospel going out not because of its flavor, style or culture. The Gospel does not need your culture. Stop preaching cultural relativity and preach the Gospel. If you are so small to think that God only works in churches with your “culture” you have a small view of God.
We do not have to copy a style to see God’s power. We need to learn to have a closer walk with God more than we will ever need to walk more closely with culture. I am frustrated every time I see a church mimic every trend that comes en vogue. The power will never be in your program, but rather in the preaching of the cross.

I like sales. I can sell ideas and concepts with the best of them. I love to convince people to think a certain way or to buy into a certain concept. Unfortunately, some have cheapened the Gospel and relied more on sales techniques and presentation styles than with the power of the Gospel itself. Some have traded the power of the Gospel for the “art of the deal” and have bought into the idea that if we market the Gospel with great programs and new ideas it will somehow become more powerful. The power does not lie in a tricky presentation. It lies in the thing being presented.

Every time we try to emulate the culture to reach the culture we are forgetting the power of the Gospel. The Gospel ALONE is what is necessary to reach the world. When we overemphasize the culture we de-emphasize the Gospel and the power it possesses.

Allow me to share two Biblical thoughts.

First, the Word of God timeless. Psalm 119:90 reminds us that, God’s “faithfulness is unto all generations:” and 1 Peter 1:25 reminds us that, “the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”

God’s Word has been what has made the difference in every generation and in every culture. In every period of history, every culture, and every place the timeless word of God has been able to pierce the darkness. Some have said the truth is never out of style. If someone diligently proclaiming the written Word has witnessed the transformation of the Holy Ghost in every previous generation, then friend, let me assure you that this timeless book will work in our generation without us trying to make it hipster and cool.

Secondly, the Word of God is powerful.

Hebrews 4:12 reminds us “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

When I think of the power of the Bible I think about the power of the sun. It shines every day here in Honduras as well as in Las Vegas and Alaska. Everywhere. It looks the same. It has not changed in thousands of years. The sun brings life in every city, every country, and every small town. It does not need to be advertised and it does not need to be modernized. Everywhere it goes it brings life. This is the power of the sun in every place and to every generation.

Likewise the preaching of the cross, the Gospel, the Words of a Holy God bring light to a dark world. They set the captive free. They heal, help, and hold the hurting. Just stand in the sunlight. The sun does not adapt; it pierces.


The Word of God is more powerful than any cultural adaptation or marketing campaign.

I minister here in Honduras. Most national pastors have no access to computers, internet, printing services or anything modern. You know what they do have? The Bible. A godly man and his Bible have more power and ability than every tech guy in all of the states combined. Why? It is not because of the different culture. It is because of the power of the Gospel. When the Gospel is preached clearly and passionately it changes lives. Cultural relevance is not the hero; the Word of God is. The Word of God IS powerful. It blows cultural relevance out of the water.

In an effort to be effective some have placed such a huge emphasis on being culturally relative. The Word of God never becomes powerful because of its marketing style. The Word of God itself is where the power lies.

I don’t need to get into a debate about where we draw the lines on standards, separation and the like. This is not a debate on methodology. It is instead about philosophy. I am not out to get everyone to be just like me or like anyone else. When our emphasis is on the necessity of being like the people we are trying to reach we are minimizing the timeless and powerful Word of God. Remember that God blesses His Word.

Psalms 138:2 “For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.”

If you have gotten this far, thank you! My only goal is to remind us all that God is not bound by any rules of cultural relevance. There does not need to be any pressure to “get with the times,” or “modernize” worship. The Gospel and the power of God are not broken and in need of repair. God blesses the faithful labor of Godly men. Cultural relativity doesn’t unlock some secret door to God’s blessing; sometimes it just makes us into worldly Christians.


























33 comments:

  1. Good article and I suppose that most would agree. I wonder how the author would see 1 Corinthians 9:20-22? How does Paul’s cultural sensitivities differ from what this author is talking about?

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  2. Mike thank you so much for reading and commenting on my post. You bring up a great point in that we need to have a healthy balance. The emphasis on Paul's writing in Corinthians seems to be that I would limit my liberty for the sake the Gospel. This is NOT a legalistic mindset whatsoever, but an act of humility and submission to the Power of the Gospel. I tend to see a division in a business style promotion of a local church where the Bible is "made" attractive by marketing it to a specific genre vs. Paul being cautious not to have anything that could be a stumbling block in someone accepting Christ. I am NOT saying that we don't have to be wise about our culture. We do! My point is that sometimes we tip the balance to be more preoccupied with presentation than with the very thing we are presenting. Ultimately it is the WORDS of God that will be blessed. They don't need any help, but I need to be careful that I don't hinder the message as well. Does that make sense?

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  3. Excellent article. God's word is the important part not the packaging. There are small churches without huge budgets that are getting the word out. The glitz and glamour aren't there but the word of God is. I loved your illustration using the sun.Keep preaching. God bless you and your ministry.

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  4. To be honest I have little argument with what this article actually says. I absolutely agree that the Gospel and its power is more important than the presentation. I also agree that if the focus becomes the presentation rather than the gospel, there is an issue.

    I do have a problem if the argument is that we should NOT be culturally relevent. I have said repeatedly that I have little issue with the "old fashioned" church and ways, my problem is being told that we are wrong for doing things differently. I ask, when the focus is still the gospel would you say there is still something wrong? Or do you believe that when a church is modern that automatically means they are focused on presentation?

    I think it is a false concept that christians are trying to "emulate" the culture. Christians still live in and are part of the same culture as everyone else, and some changes are simply coming to the church as the overall culture changes. When the IFB grew large it was normal for folks to dress up for work and church and many other events, thats just what people wore. Now even business atire is much more casual, people across the board prefer to be comfortable and the perception of what is dressing "nice" has changed. So naturally more modern clothing is taking over churches because thats just what people wear. Thats not the church changing focus to be more relevent, its just a natural progression with time. We don't expect our people to wear Roman era atire because "thats what the apostles wore." Silly example I know, but just an example. The point is simple, christians are just regular folks who get saved. They're still a part of the culture they live in. A christian in Africa looks and acts radically different than a christian in an IFB church, or a christian in a hip modern church, because his culture is different. The church isn't changing to emulate the culture, its simply being made up of younger people who are already part of a different culture.

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    1. this ^ 100%. Also, what does this article have to do with Josh Teis or this "neo-ifb" at all? If you have evidence to the fact that he or some are all brand and no substance, then please give evidence of that. But if not, this is just another blog of things we have heard over and over again with little to no actual substance.

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    2. My goal wasn't to attack anyone or go after anyone's church specifically. It is to show to different philosophies. I have no desire to pick apart the problems I see with specific examples. That doesn't lead anywhere productive. This is a discussion about why more than about what...

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    3. I’m not trying to be combative, but you said that your article was not towards any person or church in particular, but that’s exactly what this whole 8 part blog is supposed to be about: the “dangers” of Josh Teis and “new-ifb” lol. Again, I’m not against the article itself, but the placement in this “blog series” and the premise of the series itself.

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    4. Durandalski, that's a fair point. Yes, societal shifts en toto will obviously be reflected in the church b/c the church is composed of members of society.

      But that is a far cry from what the neo-independent Baptist movement is calling for. They are pushing us in the direction of chasing the world, of aping the world. This isn't a matter of we used to dress in suits in the 60s and now we wear jeans. It is specifically using the tastes/entertainment of the godless world in order to grow a church.

      This series is not aimed at Josh Teis, but I am not afraid of using him as an example since he is the/a leader of it. Do yourself a favor and watch his recent kickoff service for his new Monday night venue, Hillside. It is aimed at twentysomethings, and formulated to reach them. That service in no way reflects a shifting societal culture. It apes it, swallowing it whole cloth without apparent discernment.

      Do you see the difference?

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    5. No, we really don’t see the difference... if you want to be Judge, Jury, and Exexutioner of other Christians without any biblical basis and just because they don’t fit into your preferences, then go ahead. There’s a huge difference between, “I wouldn’t do it that way” and “they are 100% sinful if they do it that way”
      We as men can give our opinions (having personal standards for ourselves), but only God can define sin. When we try to define sin beyond Gods definition, then that is truly scary.

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    6. At your suggestion I did indeed watch that Hillside video, and honestly I liked it. Not because of the casual modern dress, or the comfy chairs and table, or any of the other elements I'm sure you see as aping society; but because he's recognized something that my millenial generation, and to an even greater extent the ones after it, are crying out for. To be recognized and heard. He showed openness and vulnerability, and a willingness to listen to our thoughts. He's teaching without preaching, opening both sides of the conversation instead of a one sided rant from a pulpit. Don't get me wrong, nothing wrong with preaching, my Pastor is an old school preacher. But I note that Josh didn't replace the preaching service, he's offering an alternative, trying a new route to share the same truth. I thought it was awesome and I would love to see more of that all around America.

      I honestly can't imagine holding that type of meeting in a suit and tie from behind a pulpit. The modern presentation is there yes, but to me it merely serves as a vehicle for the important bible truths he is trying to present. Remember, we agree that focusing on the presentation is a problem, but where I think we disagree is that modern presentation always is a focus when it is present. That felt quite natural to me, and in no wise distracted me from the fascinating bible discussion. The gospel absolutely came across as the focus to me. Perhaps there's a difference between us there. Perhaps you are distracted by those modern elements because all you know is something different, but I think it is a fallacy to assume that it is the same for everyone.

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    7. Tom Brennan, Just because Josh Teis or any other pastor does something for their church doesn’t mean they are “pushing others” to do it. Your premise seems to be that the “New IFB” is pushing their thoughts down others throats, but I just don’t see that anywhere, at all.

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    8. Zion,

      Perhaps pushing was not the right word. Seeking to influence, beyond any doubt. That's the thought I was trying to convey. He blogs, he does conferences, he engages on social media, and in all of it he has a purpose. He's trying to modernize us, from his view, to help us.

      That's what I meant by pushing. Seeking to influence.

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  5. I tried to find a quote I saw recently that said something like this, Never let ministry represent the culture around us more the than the Christ within us... It's all about the emphasis. The philosophy. Do I make my decisions because of culture or because of the Bible? To often the culture leads us more than God. I never suggested not taking culture into account. I just am pointing out that God's Word isn't "fixed" by using sales techniques to get it out...

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  6. As pointed out above, I imagine that very few believers could disagree with the content of this blog "within the 4 corners" of the article. The problem is that the article is written as if its content calls out or contradicts a certain category of church approaches ... when the reality is it could just as easily be interpreted to contradict non "neo-independent Baptists".

    *"The Gospel stands alone. It does not need to be adapted, marketed, or sold. It simply needs to be preached. It simply needs to be lived." -a great basis to avoid many IFB practices (making much of the "show" of the service w/attire, platform format, etc.; having "Baptist" on your signage, characterizing salvation as a "decision for heaven" as opposed to following Christ, etc.)

    *Judging the rural church by its lack of web presence ... because no IFB has ever snap-judged the effectiveness and soundness of a church based on the pastor's attire, or the church sign, or the presence of a drum set on stage.

    *"I directly related this church’s ability to reach people to their ability to play the [IFB] cultural game. This church had ignored those rules." The point of this sentence has probably been spoken a thousand times by former IFB's as they came to truly learn about and understand the "contemporary" churches they had previously disdained. Once the bracketed qualifier is inserted (for whatever church's approach you disagree with), the sentence can be utilized to puff up any variation of church against another.

    *Insert ("1960's IFB) in front of each occurrence of the word "culture" in this article.

    *Love the sun illustration, since the sun is NOT any particular era of American church culture, including whatever past or current era a church is stuck in ... or is trying to move toward.

    *"When our emphasis is on the necessity of being like the people we are trying to reach we are minimizing the timeless and powerful Word of God. Remember that God blesses His Word." True, same when "our emphasis is on the necessity of being like the" churchy people we are most comfortable being around. Here is the great irony - we fight for every inch of physical, emotional, and traditional psychological space in church, from every stitch of clothing to every note of every song to every seat to every lighting effect to every out-dated voice inflection of the preacher (as we are far more concerned about an upbeat and ear-tickling delivery than expositional accuracy). Yet when someone attempts to do the same on behalf of the lost, we stand in disdain and start talking about the timelessness of the Gospel as if that's our only concern and as if someone's attempts to remove extra-biblical, artificial barriers to said gospel is "minimizing" it. IFB credibility is long since shot in that discussion.

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    1. Nathan, to the extent that the traditional IFB movement has its own troubled history with pragmatism, dictatorialism, and phariseeism I agree with you. And that is exactly why I wrote Schizophrenic.

      ...none of which makes Chris' blog post non-applicable to the neo-independent Baptist movement.

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  7. I agree with the content of Chris' well written article. I disagree with the evident presumption that churches which might recognize 'cultural change' do not preach the Bible, seek to win the lost by proclaiming THE Gospel or pray for the power of the Holy Spirit on themselves or their ministries.

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    1. I did in no way say that Josh or other Neo-IFB do not preach the Gospel. They do! They do so plainly and clearly. My point was that when we emphasize the culture we often can de-emphasize the Gospel. It is the Gospel that has power.

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    2. Again most would agree, and again statement this is as applicable to IFB "culture" as it is to anything else. You are decrying someone "blending in" with a certain culture as some sort of Gospel de-emphasis. I invite you to consider the possibility (or indisputable fact) that so much of IFB was, or continues to be, culture-obsessed, gospel-minimizing, man-exalting, God-shrinking, and Bible-twisting to fit their agenda. Since I agree with the biblical principles in your article, I am no longer IFB.

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  8. I say AMEN to the article and AMEN to your final point " Cultural relativity doesn’t unlock some secret door to God’s blessing; sometimes it just makes us into worldly Christians."

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  9. Christopher BirkholzJanuary 28, 2019 at 6:44 PM

    Thanks brother!

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  10. If mimicking a prevailing culture is what cultural relevance is, then we might have a problem. Wearing a barong tagalog on Philippine Independence Day might show cultural sensitivity. Bringing a bong to church is showing sensitivity to the wrong culture. I really feel it is important to create the culture I want to elevate people to aspire to. At some point, we had to get people to ditch the leisure suits. In their culture, the youthful quickly learn to get down to business in order to survive...or they risk wallowing in a counter-cultural mentality. Mimicking that culture also runs the risk of appearing to be pandering and sending a mixed message: we are serious, but not really.

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  11. I jumped over to YouTube and watched the Hillside Talk #1. My concern, as I've previously communicated to others within this group, is that we're missing something huge in substance by focusing on style. Watch (and listen) to 48:00 through 52:00. You're going to hear that there's really no differences between the Bible versions, and you should just get a Bible - any Bible - because they're pretty much all the same with regard to accuracy and truth. This is a milk-spewing, astonishingly ignorant (or purposefully deceitful) statement. It's demonstrably not true. Without any boundaries at all, the MSG, where the Lord's Prayer includes a quote from The Emerald Tablet (as above, so below), part of the Hermetica,one of most revered magical documents in Western occultism, is given equal credence with any other translation or paraphrase. So, let's focus on the real problem, which is WHAT is being said, rather than HOW it's being presented.

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    1. The full version is found at Kickoff Service and the point there is at 1:23:30. The full version includes the 'worship' service.

      Bible versions are a line for me that I will not cross. When I see people adopting an it doesn't matter attitude I suspect it won't be long before they mess up on Bible translation...and I have never been surprised. Bible versions are a whole new topic. Any credibility that the NIF might have had is absolutely gone as far as I am concerned.

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    2. Tom - BTW, great name, - I agree about the tremendous importance of those four minutes. But the package in which those four minutes were presented cannot be separated from the four minutes themselves. I have a statement in a blog/book somewhere which says something to the effect that when change is the very air in which you breathe/live that change will not stay confined to your church service style. It will jump that gap to your doctrine.

      I've read every blog post Teis has ever written. When he began this shift, long before he became a national figure, he began it with music. And he said he wouldn't change the version they used. Then he shifted from a KJV position to a TR position (his words) making the MEV acceptable. Now, based on those four minutes, apparently there are no boundaries on his version recommendation whatsoever, including paraphrases.

      My point here is that this pursuit of change, this embrace of of a philosophy of constant change to adapt/reach the world around him has not stayed isolated to his service style. And it won't in the men he influences and the churches those men lead.

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    3. At issue is what is a causal effect. Many assume that there is a claim that modern practice causes bad doctrine. This really a straw man argument. The claim is not even that bad taste in style causes bad doctrine. The way I understand it is that a permissive attitude that appears in style also shows up in doctrine. If Josh Teis had some "Tier 2" doctrinal problem there might be some room to wriggle, but a casual treatment of Bible versions is too big. Did his style or methodology cause that? No. But a sloppy permissiveness certainly makes room for it. Knowing how inches become miles I think this series of articles is well on target.

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    4. Tom Brennan - If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that Teis' stance on the Bible is a consequence, or conclusion of upstream events or decisions (apologies in advance if I'm putting words in your mouth).

      While that could be, there's also a real possibility that his practices reflect his view of the Bible. You mentioned that he said he wouldn't change versions. However, a reliable source of mine notes that he has held this "whatever Bible" view for at least seven years. So his words may not match his practices. He could have lied.

      Focusing on change as a barometer of heresy can wildly miss the mark. One need only look at Jack Hyles and Jack Schaap as examples. Immoral libertines for decades, they nevertheless were idolized because they wore the right clothes, played the right music, held the right Bible, and delivered their messages in an oratorically right way. But disturbingly, no one seemed to listen to what they were actually saying. Their theology was heretical in many places, but no one called them on it because it didn't seem to be the most important thing. I assert that their lifestyle did not lead to their heresy; rather, their heresy lead to their lifestyle.

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    5. I agree that doctrine/practice are linked. As the old statement says, orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. I also think that a man will adjust his theology to fit his morality. [And I am NOT asserting here that Teis is immoral.] IOW, that road runs both ways.

      Having said that, though, I think the larger point of mine is similar to what Paul says in Ephesians about how the lost man's mind is darkened. He does what he does because his thinking is wrong, amongst other reasons. That's why Paul wanted the saved man to change his thinking. What we think produces what we do.

      The aim of this series has been to address fallible thought processes, philosophies in our word, that have produced the wrong actions on the part of church leadership all around the country. The thought is bigger/behind the action, and the thought needs addressed.

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  13. “My point here is that this pursuit of change, this embrace of of a philosophy of constant change to adapt/reach the world around him has not stayed isolated to his service style. And it won't in the men he influences and the churches those men lead.” ~ Tom Brennan
    This is the part of many parts that I have trouble with the most. Change for the sake of change. I’ve enjoyed & been helped by the series. Thanks.

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  14. I'll preface by stating I'm a suit wearing, hymn singing, KJO fundy with an unaccredited Pastoral Theology degree from an "old paths" Bible College. That said, I wish western culture had chosen dressy clothes to be less constricting and I love GOOD music no matter WHEN it was written. I'd like to think I'm perfectly balanced, right in the happy median between the hipster neos and the hillbilly old paths. But I know I don't have it all figured out, and like the rest of you all, just trying my best to please my Lord. Unfortunately, this series is offering the same arguments based on anecdotal evidence, unmeasurable standards, and semantical confusion.

    Using examples of churches finding success in either extreme is just so tired. Praise the Lord for churches that reach people with poor signage, no website, and out-dated carpet. But don't bring that as evidence into this argument. There are scores of examples of churches reaching the lost that have harnessed the power of social media and have a cafe with a cheesy name on its campus.

    You used the word "overemphasize". Where is that line? Who gets to decide that. How cool is too cool? When does marketing/branding cross over into faithlessness?

    A commenter above mentioned cultural relevance vs. sensitivity. We obviously shouldn't take on cultural intricacies that are sin in and of themselves (tribal nakedness comes to mind). But my ministry in Southern California is gonna look, feel and sound different then a ministry in the Philippines. Or India. Or Alabama. It is culture that brings about these differences. And that's okay.

    Thank you for taking the gospel to Honduras. But here in the Los Angeles area, I can say with confidence that it would be unwise to minister without the use of computers, the internet and printing services.

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  15. As the author of this post, I want to say thank you to so many who took the time to respond. You bring up some very good points and some very good thoughts. I definitely think there is a difference with being sensitive and aware of your culture and being preoccupied with the need for relevance. We DO need to be sensitive. Also, it is true that whether we are pushing the lines of worldliness or hanging on to traditionalism, we can find ourself with the wrong balance. The purpose of this article was to but the emphasis back where the power is. God blesses His Word. He blesses the faithful preaching and obedience to His Word. If I have made any of you think about where your loyalty lies, I am happy. The truth is we ALL need to be careful of being more concerned about culture that we are about Christ. Thank you all tremendously for your input!

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