August 2, 2017

The Enticement of Cultural Relevance: Serious Thoughts for Preachers and Other Christians

Recently an insightful evangelist I know published a blog based on an informal survey of his friends

Dr. Rick Flanders
regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the independent Baptist churches over the years. Those responding to his survey named several strong points exhibited by the independent Baptists, and also criticized them for a number of serious weaknesses. The evangelist said that the survey responses influenced his own thinking, and led him to make his own evaluation of the people and the churches with which he has spent his life serving Jesus Christ. His conclusion is that the principal strength of the independent Baptists has been their allegiance to the authority of the Bible. He thinks that their primary weakness has been neglecting the ministry of the Holy Spirit. They have done well by emphasizing the Word, and have faltered by de-emphasizing the Spirit. As I indicated, this writer is intelligent and insightful. He goes on to identify four problems that have been produced among Baptist fundamentalists because of their unnecessary and wrongful neglect of the Holy Spirit:

1.      “Emperor-ism”—neglecting of the role of the Spirit in the churches often led them into an exaggerated dependence on human authority. Although this was not true in all of the independent Baptist churches, a number of them have suffered under authoritarian pastors, and my friend sees the source of this problem in the neglect of the Holy Spirit in the churches.

2.      “Traditionalism”—not walking in the Spirit is blamed for leading some independent Baptists into living by traditions without biblical warrant. Although this accusation is used by some to criticize the commendable practice of following and preaching high standards of living, there is some truth in the charge that some believers live strictly and exclusively by the rules handed down to them, and seek to keep them in the strength of their own character and determination. The Holy Spirit is the secret to holy living, and not rule-keeping, although guidelines for life that rise out of Bible teaching and do not contradict Spirit-led living can help. But ignorance of the Spirit’s ministry has left many in many floundering in defeat within the confines of a fleshly legalism. They maintain the standards handed down to them, but fail to experience the reality of the Spirit-filled life.

3.      “Lack of Love”—the fruit of the Spirit, of course, is first “love.” Therefore carnal Christians (who live according to the lusts of their flesh), even if they profess to be committed to Christian living, will lack love. And this lack of real love for people will readily be detected in churches. Unfortunately, many independent Baptist churches have been plagued with a cold, harsh, and uncaring atmosphere, due undoubtedly to their neglect of the Spirit.

4.      “Pride”—Since Christians who strive to live the Christian life and to serve the Lord Jesus without depending on the Holy Spirit sometimes see a measure of outward “success,” their tendency is to take credit for it. This is the reason for the pride in carnal preachers. And independent Baptists have had a number of them. The Lord Jesus warned His followers to beware of pride (as in Matthew 18:1-4), and thus we can expect it to be a problem in every group of Christians. And so it is. But it cannot be denied that neglect of the ministry of the Spirit has left independent Baptists especially open to the sin of pride.

My evangelist friend concludes correctly that while emphasizing the Holy Spirit without emphasizing the Word of God leads to delusion, emphasizing the Word without emphasizing the Spirit produces deadness. Deadness has been a problem for many independent Baptist churches in recent years, and it is because so many of us have neglected the Holy Spirit. It is as if Pentecostalism made us afraid of Him. Of course, such an observation is a generalization with many exceptions, as are all four of my friend’s observations about the effects de-emphasizing the Spirit. Every group of Christians has trouble with all four of these problems, and certainly independent Baptists have experienced them in recent decades. But let us, as we discern that these problems come from our neglect of the Spirit, let us also recognize a fifth significant problem experienced by independent Baptists which has also been created by neglecting the ministry of the Spirit. That fifth problem plaguing us today is the attraction in Baptist churches to making unwise changes based on what is called “cultural relevance.”

Because they learned over the years to depend on the flesh rather than upon the Spirit, pastors who want their churches to grow are particularly susceptible to the enticement of cultural relevance. Anyone who has paid attention to the conversation among pastors in the past ten to fifteen years is aware of the emphasis that has been given to “cultural relevance.” It has been a subject of real importance in many minds ever since students of church growth began to adopt business methods to build churches. “Cultural relevance” is seen as essential to the business of growing churches, especially since Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren began producing his “purpose-driven” books. A church that is serious about growing in our time must make sure that their approach to growth and to church itself is culturally relevant, we are constantly told.

What iscultural relevance?Actually it is a pedagogic term emphasizing the importance of a teacher’s “cultural competence” in his efforts to educate effectively students with different backgrounds. In the context of reaching people for Christ, the term indicates that Christians must make themselves aware of the demands and prejudices of the culture in which the people live they are seeking to evangelize. What the culture dictates will also dictate how the churches must evangelize, is the basis of the theory. Because they are fundamentalists, with a conservative point of view, we would expect independent Baptists to take offense at appeals to cultural relevance, but these appeals are having a remarkable influence on them. Maybe our problem in reaching people, they reason, has been that our lifestyle and church-style have ceased having cultural relevance to those we invite to church. Who we are, how we live, and what we do at church tend to give them a negative impression, the experts on church growth are telling us, and they present an obstacle to those we are commissioned to evangelize. So if we change our ways to be more culturally relevant, we can win more souls and build bigger churches.

This approach is especially appealing because so many independent Baptist churches have been evangelizing and building churches based on fleshly methods and appeals for years. In the hey-day, the thinking implies, we reached a lot of people without much help from the Holy Spirit. Our congregations became very large because of our effective methods, hard work, smart plans, and appealing events. But the times and the culture have changed. This has made our old methods ineffective. What we did in the ‘70s doesn’t work anymore. The Baptists never say it this way, but they do think this way. So when the old flesh-based methods quit working, it is asserted that we need simply to adopt new methods based on the changes in our culture. What appeals to people these days? What turns them off? Why don’t they like our churches anymore? What can we do to make church more appealing to the unchurched? You can’t expect to succeed if you are not willing to change, it is said. And our flesh-dependence has opened our minds to this approach.

However, the preachers and the people who have kept their noses in the Bible are much less often seduced by appeals to cultural relevance. They are instead persuaded by scripture that the way the world is to be reached is through the power of God, and not the energy of the flesh.

“Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things. And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.”

(Luke 24:47-49)

“Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”

(Acts 1:8)

Let Christians in the twenty-first century see how insignificant cultural relevance is in God’s plan for evangelizing our cities, our country, and our world. The secret to spreading the gospel effectively in any generation is partnering with God the Holy Spirit. In comparison with the supernatural biblical means, every natural means for evangelism based on human methodology must appear weak and ineffective. Consider four biblical facts about cultural relevance:

1. The first Christians did not consider cultural relevance when they set out to evangelize their world. The book of Acts begins with the command of Jesus that His followers spread the gospel in Jerusalem, to the surrounding area, to the next country, and then finally to the “uttermost part of the earth” (1:8). Then, as we continue reading, we follow them as they do it. What did they do, and how did they do it? They prayed and were filled with the Spirit (1:12-2:4). Then they simply worked at telling people in the city that Jesus had risen from the dead. He ascended to the right hand of the Father, sent the Holy Spirit, and is both Lord and Christ (2:5-47). They were bold and aggressive as they preached the gospel to everyone, but really they just preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. There wasn’t really any method to their work; they just worked at it, depending on the Lord for power, boldness, and wisdom. We have no hint that the leaders of the Jerusalem church held strategy meetings before Pentecost to determine the most appealing approach to telling the news that the One they had crucified at Passover arose from the dead and is the Savior of the world! It would be hard to take the sting out of this message, and they never tried to do it. Peter rose and made his announcement and then told the multitudes who listened in rapt attention that they must repent. Was the cultural relevance of the message or the delivering of it even considered? Apparently not. Was the preaching of the gospel effective? Apparently so. The first-century world was turned upside down through the simple obedience of Christians to the Great Commission.

One influential writer in the evangelical world of our day, who has expressed concern about this focus on cultural relevance, is Karl Vaters. He is the pastor of an Assemblies-of-God church in California who is gaining a hearing by opposing the emphasis on cultural relevance in building churches. In the magazine Christianity Today, he said, “Forget being culturally relevant; the church needs to be contextually real!” The church of Jesus Christ needs to be true to its Lord and to its mission if it is to have an effect on the world. Conformity to the world does not go with winning the world to Christ. “Chasing cultural relevance makes our churches look the same in ways we should be different…from the world,” he said. “I don’t care if the church is culturally relevant…cultural relevance is not the answer…I want the church to be better than relevant. I want us to lead…Trying to be culturally relevant is turning the church into followers instead of leaders.” On this issue, Mr. Vaters is dead right. When we try to fit the culture, we cease trying to persuade sinners. It’s as simple as that.

2. The Holy Spirit does not seem concerned about cultural relevance in His work to convert the lost. Of His work through Christians, Jesus said (read His words in John 16:7-14), “He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” Reproof doesn’t take into account cultural relevance, and the reproof of the Spirit is absolutely essential to the conversion of a sinner. They were “pricked in their hearts” on the day of Pentecost before three thousand Jews were converted to Christ (Acts 2:37). You cannot be saved until you know you are lost, justly condemned before the law of God. The Holy Spirit is not approaching sinners based on the principles of public relations or cultural relevance. He is reproving them based on the Word of God we are sharing with them. He shows them that they are in trouble, and that their only hope is in Jesus Christ. His work through us as witnesses brings people from death unto life. And cultural relevance has absolutely nothing to do with it.

3. Concern about cultural relevance seems to contradict the passion for holiness. Ephesians 5 is one of many chapters in the New Testament that calls on Christians to live holy lives (See also John 8, First Thessalonians 4, and First Peter 1). It tells us not to live like unbelievers (verses 1-7). It tells us not to endorse what they do (read verses 8-11). It even says that as children of light, we should not talk about the way wicked people live (verse 12). We are to be separate from the world. The Hebrew and Greek words for “holy” imply separation. Those who have an obligation to separate from the sins of the world around them cannot afford to be draw into an attraction to cultural relevance. Can we? Shall those who have left the world behind to follow Jesus keep looking back in the interest of maintaining some kind of cultural relevance?

4. Culture is based on religion. Acts 17 says that in one generation the first Christians “turned the world upside down.” It is a fact of history that the spread of Christianity changed the Roman Empire into “Christian civilization,” which is the foundation of Western culture today. Culture is not morally or religiously neutral. It is based on certain beliefs and standards. The paganism of the Greek and Roman worlds gave the Roman Empire its culture, and the people their way of life. The gospel of Christ changed all that. Great numbers of the people “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God” (First Thessalonians 1:5-10) in just a few decades, and the culture changed. So it has been with every great awakening. Thus conforming to the culture as a strategy for evangelism is in reality a form of betrayal. When the churches fail to recognize the false ideas and moral perversions behind the culture in which we live, they adopt ways of doing things that betray the truth they claim to represent and fail to win the people to the true God. When we preach the gospel without apology we are actually laying the groundwork for a new culture as a by-product of our mission. To adopt pagan culture as a way of winning pagans is counter-productive and a form of denying Jesus. Of course, some misinterpret and misapply the words of Paul in First Corinthians 9 about becoming as a Jew in order to win Jews and becoming as weak in order to win the weak and becoming all things to all men, to justify conforming to the culture for the cause of evangelism. But if you study the whole chapter, you will find that just the opposite is taught. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 argue that Christians ought to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to false gods in the temples of the idols for several good reasons, although to eat something dedicated in a ritual to an imaginary deity cannot be proven to be inherently sinful. The idea is that through the self-denial of the Christian life, a believer will be stricter in his life on himself than technically he might be required to be. He will do this out of love for others (Chapter 8), for the cause of evangelism (Chapter 9), and out of loyalty to the true God. Study it. Paul was not justifying dropping his standards in order to please the pagans, but rather he was advocating the raising of our standards so as to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy in order to give credibility to our evangelism. Read it.

Making reasonable changes in the way we do things to improve our effectiveness can make sense, but becoming enamored with cultural relevance is dangerous. Let independent Baptists keep their noses in the Bible, their eyes upon Jesus, and their dependence on His Holy Spirit, as we move forward to reach our world with the truth about the love of God and the salvation that is in His Son!

Dr. Rick Flanders
Revival Ministries


  1. As usual, Dr. Flanders has made some thoughtful and direct points. His obvious desire for the gospel message to be clear and practical reminds me to apply this to sacred music as well. I don't think that using a microphone during preaching singing or some other technologies (such as the internet) is what he means by questioning the term "culturally relevant" (though some may THINK he opposes such things, and yes, there are some issues that DO inevitably come up as various fads bubble up into any culture), but rather depending on merely commercial means that oppose correct Biblical principles of ministry to reach people for the Lord. Certainly, an ongoing self-assessment of one's ministry is required in order to be a faithful steward, and foolish or wasteful practices need to be identified and replaced not only to protect the local church and its testimony (just as good personal health includes daily cleanliness and other good health habits) but also because the Lord requires it.
    One difficulty in music and worship is the problem of keeping the music fresh, creative, doctrinally correct,appropriate for the setting, and undistracting; Godly musicians want all of these qualities. Our culture is mostly 180 degrees in the other direction. THIS is where musicians must keep their nose in the Bible (as Dr. Flanders says) and plead that the Holy Spirit will guide them in choices of music, performance practices, and the total message of congregational, offertory,instrumental,choral, and special music. I always urge church musicians to sing or play for the ears of God with the same sense of ministry, passion, and appropriateness that they would expect from their pastor, or missionary, or Sunday School teacher. Our current culture sees music mostly as a form of ENTERTAINMENT (Look up the meaning of "entertainment". Certainly we should present our church music with a mind toward EDUCATION and appropriate ENJOYMENT in the Spirit, but EDIFICATION/MINISTRY/WORSHIP is the goal.
    If we would diligently search and and live by Godly principles from the Scriptures, then the details of all areas of life and ministry (if not specifically stated in Scriptures)will be given to us by the Spirit and keep us far more safe and spiritually productive on the narrow path. I agree with Flanders: The true ministry of the Holy Spirit and prayer are perhaps two of the most neglected sources of power lacking in many local church ministries today.
    Thank you Pastor Flanders for your encouraging insights. I always respect your thoughts and challenges.

    1. Dr. Everson:

      Thanks for the helpful and informative comments.