Sometimes we find ourselves between two opposing camps of believers. Let’s call them Gospelites and Culturites. Gospelites emphasize the crucial importance of bold gospel proclamation. They maintain that urgent and bold evangelism is far more important than studying the culture. Culturites, on the other hand, emphasize the necessity of cultural fluency in order to communicate the gospel faithfully. They insist it is crucial to know the culture in order to do gospel work well.
Gospelites might believe Culturites are slow, timid, and compromising. Culturites might believe Gospelites are naïve, brash, and unwise. I’ve had brothers tell me that I need to learn the culture and thereby “earn the right to speak,” while others balk, “Why study the culture? We’ve got Romans one!”
Gospelite or Culturite: which side better fits you?
Do we have to choose? What if we were raising up an army of laborers who are both gospel-bold and culture-wise? A right understanding of the relationship between gospel trust and cultural savvy frees us from this false choice and sets us on a powerful path for ministry.
Let Us Be Gospel-Bold
First, all our trust must be in the sufficiency of the gospel. It alone is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). The gospel proclaims a holy God who saves sinful yet repentant men and women who believe in the perfect life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This message is true for all people of all neighborhoods, colors, and nations. Therefore, it must be the foundation, the cornerstone, the rope we grasp for dear life in all our ministry efforts.
But if the gospel is true, we can have steadfast confidence to do the work of the ministry regardless of cultural context, from day one. We have no fear; there is nothing to keep us from speaking gospel truth to the souls of mankind. This reliance and trust in the gospel releases us to share boldly and urgently. It frees us to be creative risk takers because we don’t trust our cultural expertise – we trust the gospel, and in that there is freedom to struggle forward in ministry.
Let Us Also Be Culture-Wise
This is where some stop. But it’s our trust in the gospel alone that compels us into a diligent engagement with the culture around us. We should work harder than any in becoming culture experts because we are utterly free. Through Christ, we have been made sons and daughters of God–waiting to inherit the whole world! Sons work harder than the slaves, for they work from love, gratitude, and hope for a glorious future. It’s our freedom under the grace of Christ that enables us to enter this world not to be conformed but as those who are being transformed (Romans 12:2). Let us then strive in our cultural context in the following ways.
1. Make the Gospel Clear
The deeper our understanding of a culture and a language, the greater our ability to make the gospel clear. Do not assume that your hearers clearly understand your gospel sharing just because it is clear in your mind. What if their backgrounds have infused important words like sin and repentance with wrong definitions? What if their educational, societal, or worldview background is significantly different than yours? Gospel clarity in our proclamation calls for the study of the culture of our hearers.
2. Make the Gospel Compelling
The gospel is the most compelling message in the universe, yet for many it is initially foolish and shameful. However, every broken culture has providentially held onto certain gospel categories, analogies, and values. Studying culture helps us to discover these divinely-implanted areas which we can use to connect and illustrate gospel truth. Perhaps there is a famous myth in the culture, a sound proverb, or a traditional custom that will provide the key to a listener hearing the gospel story as beautiful and compelling, even if they are not yet ready to say it is true. Studying culture helps us to aim for the heart.
3. Show Honor and Equality
We are called to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom 12:10). Cultures differ wildly in how honor is given and received. Should we use titles or first names? What seats are considered more honorable? What kind of clothing and body language communicate respect? Whatever your posture toward culture, we want to communicate respect toward our hearers as those who are made in the image of God. We, like they, are equally under the curse of Adam and equally invited to partake in the salvation of Jesus. By studying the culture of our hearers, we communicate honor and equality, helping us to avoid a colonizing mentality. All cultures are equal at the foot of the cross where all men are called to repent and believe.
4. Break the Rules of the Culture on Purpose
We must know the culture in order to make intentional choices about what rules we will keep and what rules we will break in order to preach the gospel faithfully. Cultural ignorance will lead to lots of broken cultural rules on accident. But we, like Jesus in John 4 with the Samaritan woman, need to know when we are breaking the cultural rules so that we may do so with intentionality and powerful effect. My family serves in an Islamic context, and we eat pork—not significant in the United States, but transgressive in our parts. Somehow, pork always leads to a conversation about scripture and the gospel! Knowing the culture means we can leverage its rules to strengthen our gospel proclamation.
5. Do Not Be Captives of Any Culture
Having a culture always comes with blind-spots. If we are not careful, these blind spots can enslave our hearers in other cultures to an unbiblical cultural system in need of exposure and transformation. We cannot break free from a prison we cannot see. Studying foreign cultures makes us more aware of our own background. Particularly for those of us from dominant majority cultures, let us be very careful not to allow any culture to hold our minds captive.
Free and Fluent
Should we be gospel-bold or culture-wise? Yes. Trust in the gospel alone and push hard into mastering the culture. This approach is powerful and faithful not only for overseas workers like me, but also for those doing ministry anywhere in the world. Humans always have culture. This will serve those seeking to build multiethnic congregations, those bridging rural/urban divides, those involved in racial reconciliation, those ministering to different generations, those trying to penetrate an unreached people group, and all of us struggling to grow in our own sanctification. Let us be known as a people who are radically free in the gospel and powerfully fluent in the cultures of those we strive to serve.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17
A little while ago, my family and I visited a church that was about three years old. I was struck by their intentionality. They’d obviously designed the building to be as welcoming as possible. The greeters were appropriately happy. The coffee was hot, but not too hot (and not some off-brand, either!). In the main worship center, my eyes were drawn to the center stage where lights of pleasing hues illuminated the band. The service went on as many modern services do. One remark from a kind and eager brother after the service hangs in my memory: “What did you think about the service? The music was awesome wasn’t it!?”
The music was quite good, actually. Being a worship leader myself, I was naturally curious. After further inquiry with the pastor, I found that the church hired out the worship team and leader from a big city nearby. Every week, they served the church as a paid worship band.
Finding the Heart of Your Worship Service
You can understand the predicament: a fledgling church with few members doing its best to strive for excellence. However, I cannot help but feel a twinge of sorrow at the prospect of local churches outsourcing their worship leaders. Perhaps what unsettles me most is what it reveals about the heart behind our worship services.
What are we proclaiming to our people as most precious in our times of congregational worship? Listen to the conversations afterwards. Do they revolve around the ability of the preacher? The skill of the instrumentalist? The beautiful voice of the singer? More than anything, I want our people to leave worship mesmerized by the God who not only saved them, but sustains them, and walks with them moment by moment.
Have you ever been to a wedding that was hijacked by an unruly ring bearer? Our attention is pulled away from the central purpose of the event. What is supposed to be the focus of our corporate worship? First Chronicles 16:29 exhorts us, “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His name; Bring an offering, and come before Him; Worship the LORD in holy array.” Anything that draws our eyes away from the Lord is a distraction–even musical excellence.
It sounds weird, but whenever I write an arrangement my constant internal struggle is this: “How excellent should we make this?” Regularly, I find myself simplifying some impressive worship sets midweek because I fear it may actually distract the congregation from our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am extremely thankful for excellence in preaching, in communicating the glorious truths displayed through communion and baptism, and in humble and skilled musical leadership. I also understand that not everyone who can sing or play the guitar can lead us in worship. Perhaps what I’m trying to argue is for us to define excellence differently.
For many of us, excellence means skillful. True, there is a level of skill required to lead musically, and yet mere skill does not make worship excellent. Some of the most moving times of worship in the life of our congregation happened on days our worship band made glaring mistakes! Some of the most glorious singing has happened when instrumentalists cancelled last minute. One poignant service, the power was shut off and we sang unto the Lord with gusto, flashlights, and hymnals.
Truly excellent worship has it’s existence not in the accompaniment but in the heart that’s been regenerated. It engages the Spirit that has been placed into someone who was once dead in their sin. In short, it summons believers to encounter the risen Christ.
Building Worship Leaders
Rather than outsourcing singing and music to professionals, allow me to propose a better way: the faithful, patient labor of building worship leaders in house. Indigenous musicians and worship leaders are foundational to excellent worship in a local church.
Think of it this way: worship leadership is an extension of trust. Sunday after Sunday, the congregation says, “We trust you to lead us; we are following you,” and the leader responds, “You can trust me with this role, and I will care for our worship.” When a church gathers musicians and leaders from her own pews, the hearts of brothers and sisters are being further knit together. The congregation sings with leaders who have been a faithful part of small groups, mission trips, funerals, and weddings. Members follow the voices of those who have wept with them and rejoiced with them. The church lifts its voice to the accompaniment of band members who have testified to the majesty of Christ plainly before them in their daily lives.
Won’t training musicians and leaders from my congregation take time? And won’t it be difficult?
Sure. But you’re in it for the long haul, right? An excellent worship team is an admirable goal, but don’t miss the benefits of the road getting there. What joy I’ve found in developing musicians in my local church and training them up in the worship ministry! What direction and aid I’ve found in learning from older members who have instructed me.
A worship team discipled from your own church body will minister to their brothers and sisters exponentially better than outsourced strangers. Be patient. When musicians are less skillful and growth seems slow, remember that true worship isn’t dependent on drums or guitars or amazing vocals. Mature believers can worship in any setting because the truths we sing of and the God we sing to are too glorious to remain silent.
Small churches, don’t be deceived! Excellent church growth won’t come through that bodacious sound system you pine for. God-glorifying worship–worship that directs all eyes to Christ–begins with “a broken spirit and contrite heart” (Psalm 51). Lead your churches in humility. Teach them gospel truths with zeal. Then, encourage them by placing musicians and leaders in front of them that are known by the church to be faithful Christians.
I pray that in this you would see the fruit of a covenant community whose members share each other’s burdens, admonish and rebuke each other, encourage and build one another up, and who gather together as a spiritual family to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Do this and your worship will be excellent in all the right ways.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a family about joining our church. The husband began to express some of his reservations. He put it squarely to me: “Chad, why is this church so…small?” Realizing he might have come off a bit strong, he clarified that the church had superb preaching and teaching; it didn’t make any sense why our membership hadn’t grown.
It’s a sentiment I often hear. I’m coming up on five years at our little church in smalltown, SC. Industry standards among “professional” pastors would say I should be pulling a LeBron right about now and take my talents elsewhere. I’ve achieved the necessary experience to climb the ladder to a bigger ministry. But I won’t. Instead, I’m wasting vital years in a congregation that is 45 minutes from the nearest urban center.
Last year I attended a “First Five Years” conference put on by 9 Marks of which the driving theme was this: Stay. Stick it out. The first five years are not a waste. They are only the beginning of what God can do in your little church.
Stay. By God’s grace and if he wills, that’s what I plan to do. Here is why you, whoever you are, should too.
There’s no pew-sitting.
What’s the old adage-—”20% of the members do 80% of the work”? In a church with less than 60 members, that’s just not sustainable. Pew-sitting in our church is not an option. At a recent meeting, our Sunday School director was asking members to consider volunteering in children’s discipleship classes. She said, “Look around. If not you, then who?” Her point was well taken. For a church our size to succeed, each member must be working properly, making the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16).
A teamwork mentality is absolutely vital. As a pastor, it’s exciting to watch the members of the body doing the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). I used to complain about our lack of leaders in the church. Then I realized I was expecting readymade leaders to come knocking at our church door. In a small town, if you want leaders, you have to go into the pews, grab hold of members, and pour into them. This takes time and intentionality, and it has forced me to grow as a leader.
There’s no small victories.
Larger churches may receive dozens of believers into membership on a monthly basis. A month ago, I found myself wiping away tears when one family joined. As a church, we had been praying for this particular family to join since before we even knew their names. In a small church, no victory is small potatoes.
Hitting the budgeted offering need for the week? Big victory. A member getting a new job? Big victory. Getting the church flowerbeds weeded? Big victory. Hosting an FCA Bible study with three college students? Big victory. Growing your small groups ministry from one group to two? HUGE victory. Partnering with a church planter? ASTOUNDING victory! In a small church, you learn not to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10).
I have come to appreciate the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32) In a small church, you learn to strive for and treasure the mustard seed victories, trusting that given enough time the Lord will help them grow into huge trees.
There’s no way.
Whenever pastors get together, we talk about our churches. One of the questions that I always get asked is the size of our congregation. When I tell them, the response is almost comical. The other guy’s eyes bulge as he retorts, “How on earth do they support your family full-time??” I’ll get back to you when I figure that out. The ministry God is doing at College Street Baptist Church is impossible. And yet it continues.
Staying at College Street these past five years has felt a bit like playing a game of chicken with God. Either I’m going to give up, or God will. Every year, in the face of impossible odds I am determined not to flinch. And a year later, somehow we’re still here! Finances seem impossible—until a $5,000 check shows up in the mailbox. Personalities seem impossible–until those people voluntarily move on to greener pastures. Ministries seem impossible—until God sends just the right family at just the right time to fill the void.
At large churches, it’s at least plausible to get ministry done. Children’s ministry? We can do it. New building? We can raise support. Host a block party? No problem. In our small church, sometimes my wife and I pray over finding a single volunteer to fill the nursery schedule! There’s just no way College Street should be able to reach a college of 1,000 students or sustain a full-time pastor or build the next generation of missionaries or develop elders or reach families with the gospel or bring reconciliation to our community. No matter. We continue to endeavor the impossible because we know God is guaranteed to get all the glory.
Call me crazy, but I can’t imagine a better place to be than in a church doomed to failure and public embarrassment if not for the sustaining, impossible grace of God.
What about you?
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. Paul to the Philippians 1:3-4
In a culture that idolizes independence above all things, our infinitely wise God has ordained that believers are not to live independently. Not only has He given local church bodies for us to be a part of, He has also designed that we partner with other churches and organizations for kingdom advance. Together we can more effectively carry out the Great Commission.
The Immanuel Network is a group of like-minded churches who desire to plant and cultivate healthy churches for a global harvest. We are Baptists who identify and cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention. We have been greatly shaped by God through Immanuel Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky. We aspire to be healthy, biblical churches, interconnected in a vibrant spiritual partnership.
The Apostle Paul was regularly helped by the very churches that God used him to plant. Philippians is an excellent example of this as Paul mentions how the Philippians partnered in prayer (v. 1:19), sending people and physical aid to bolster Paul’s apostolic ministry of planting and strengthening churches (v. 4:14-18). These churches then acted as partners in furthering this work in the establishment & encouragement of other churches.
Our churches form a sisterhood that seeks to sacrifice for and strengthen one another, following the pattern we see in the New Testament of churches cultivating health from within while simultaneously being strengthened from the outside by sister churches. (for more on this, see Ryan Fullerton’s sermon “Inside Leadership, Outside Help”
I am thankful that the Lord has ordained this partnering between churches, and excited to see how he will use the Immanuel Network to spread His glory to the ends of the earth!