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Cultural transformation is about penetration of–not competition–with the surrounding culture.

It was a Sunday night in 1983, and my heart was leaping as I listened to the dynamic music of a young team delivering songs that cut across the conventional and pierced to the soul of the entire congregation. Their arrangements were at the front edge of anything I’d heard, and their style was zinging their own generation without spitting in the face of the many 40 and 50 somethings present.

The whole scene was on the order of a breakthrough at least to my own perspective. I think I “got it,” realizing, this is a taste of a new era of the church a new cutting edge effectiveness in penetrating a pagan culture. At that moment it was the music that I saw as advancing to a new culturally sensitive edge of penetration. It was a time when “praise and worship teams” as we know them today were relatively uncommon. It was a moment for me in a continuum as I watch the unfolding of ways and means for world-reaching today–ways well beyond “the way we’ve always done it.”

My deepest impression was not with the style of the group. It was their spirit–a combination of vibrancy joined to manifest spiritual substance. It was obvious to me; each one of the team knew who they were. They weren’t pop-star “wannabes,” but each evidenced a depth of maturity that clearly knew the difference between their music and their Master–between their performance and their mission.

I knew something of the environment of their discipling and the depth of their group leadership. I knew that they had been formed within a Word- and Spirit-filled lifestyle that had framed this team for world-penetration. They were shaped unto a full-hearted submission of themselves and their gifts, discipled in those basics of understanding and surrender that produce people who have addressed “the pivot point.” That’s how I refer to the mental/emotional/spiritual transition that moves any believer beyond being merely a sensitive “communicator” with a culture and becoming a dynamic “transformer” of one.

Today there is no question about it: We need to constantly seek to be culturally sensitive-indeed, “savvy,” in our approach to any culture we would seek to win. Today’s world is shrinking, fast-changing and stunningly diverse, and it calls for sensitive and skilled leadership who can deliver God’s Word in ways that “fit the world” they’re reaching to. Further, this call goes well beyond music styles, to summon our relevance at every point, in language, technology, dress, media, communications, architecture and so on. In short, 1 Corinthians 9:22 says it: We have a cultural mandate. It’s that apostolic directive that commissions us to use “all possible means,” a phrase meaning, “If you would ‘reach the world,’ communicate in ways in can understand.”

Cultural sensitivity stands at the core of biblical model, but we need to first answer a question too seldom asked. Unless it is, zealous, would-be world-changers are too easily sucked into the notion that their zeal to be relevant is the key to penetrating their culture. Our zeal must be tempered by the purifying fire of this axiom: I may adopt a style to reach my culture, but it will be the Spirit, not my style, that will penetrate it.

This wisdom is the fundamental “inner-man cost” of pursuing any ministry that would shatter the darkness and shake souls awake. It’s this wisdom that discerns our vulnerability in attempting to employ styles in an effort to compete with the world, when we have never been called to compete with the world.

Still, we are called to reach the world better yet, to confront it, not in a religiously feisty, “in your face” spirit and more than in an “I’m as cool as you are” competitive one. Instead, ours is an “at your heart” spirit, which will utilize means that relate in culturally sensitive ways, not to gain an approval of my style, but to win a hearing and reception of my message.

That value must shape our quest for relevant means. When that perspective is kept, we’ll become dominated by one overarching fact: There is only one Spirit that can penetrate the world-spirit, and dissolve the darkness in human minds and souls. Our ultimate sensitivity is due Him, so that beyond all style, our essential focus will be on becoming finely tuned to, fully shaped by and fully dependent upon the Holy Spirit.

Caleb is a case study of a person who overthrew giants and advanced the boundaries of divine dominion because “he had a different spirit.” Nothing has changed. To touch our world today calls for the same, an army of world-winners who know the difference between waltzing with the world and marching to heaven’s drumbeat. With such discerning between style and substance, we’ll be no less wise to employ timely tools to assist our outreach. But we’ll never fall prey to supposing any “arm of flesh” can ever reach far enough to penetrate the darkness.

(1934-2023) was the former president of The Foursquare Church and founding pastor of The Church On The Way.