The Well, the Watercooler, and the Web

Staying Connected in a Changing Culture

By Jeffrey D. Burr. Republished with permission from Baptist Bulletin.

Last year Sears Holdings Corporation announced the closure of at least 226 stores. Sears had been a fixture in American culture throughout the 20th century. It was where my family went to buy nearly everything—including household supplies, toys, clothing, and appliances. My dad would often cite Craftsman tools’ lifetime guarantee as he would grab the socket set out of his toolbox. Yet despite this long-term stability and solid product line, Sears is now in steep decline and on the verge of bankruptcy.

A Cautionary Tale

Unpacking the demise of Sears is a complicated matter, but it is safe to say that the primary problem wasn’t the quality of its products. The shelves were filled with trusted brands like Craftsman, Kenmore, and Diehard. But over time, Sears lost touch with the American consumer. Richard W. Sears had been a leader in innovation when he and Alvah C. Roebuck launched the Sears catalog in 1888. It was a perfect fit for rural America during this time, before the advent of the automobile. Most consumers couldn’t travel to a big city, so the catalog allowed them to peruse and order a wide range of products from the comfort of their own homes. With the onset of a more mobile America, the Sears department store began replacing the catalog. The close of the 20th century would signal another major shift—the growth of the internet. But Sears was locked into the department store model and struggled to engage customers in the new online marketplace. A brick-and-mortar store could not compete with the endless virtual shelves of Amazon.     

While it is not a favorable comparison, I can’t help but consider the similarities between Sears and our own historic fellowship of churches, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Like Sears, our fellowship experienced rapid growth during the early part of the 20th century. Like Sears, our fellowship has a solid product line with a strong and unwavering commitment to Biblical teaching. But like Sears, our fellowship has struggled to stay culturally connected.   

We are a mature fellowship, with most of the churches over 60 years of age. Many of those churches have run a life cycle of rapid growth, plateau, and some measure of decline. Many are culturally outdated. Many are inward focused. Most are notably white, even in communities that are diverse. We have not capitulated to the culture. But we run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the culture. We are Sears—solid, but a bit out of touch. That might not be a fair assessment of the church where you attend or serve (I hope it is not). But as it relates to our collective identity as a fellowship, this is the word on the street.

I realize that the church is not a business. The church is propelled by a divine mandate, not a profit margin. Yet our mission calls for cultural competency. It is true that we are called to guard the gospel. But we are also called to effectively communicate the gospel to every culture of the world. That means we must learn the language and the thought processes of the people we are seeking to reach. I am not calling for a trendy approach to ministry. I am calling us back to the missional work of the church.

Developing Our Cultural IQ

No one engaged the culture more effectively than Jesus. He never presented the message of the gospel in the same way twice. The message was timeless, but the approach was always tailored to the unique world of the hearer. Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well (John 4) challenges us with some basic principles that will help us stay engaged with our culture. 

First, we must put ourselves in contact with hurting people. Jesus purposely and intentionally put Himself in this woman’s path, and He worked to span the cultural and emotional divide.  This woman was wary and skeptical. She was on guard. Why was this Jewish man talking to her? But by acknowledging His thirst, Jesus entered into her plight. He was speaking to her not from a position of power but from a position of weakness. His humble posture broke down the initial barriers. And by asking her for a drink, He affirmed her personhood and disarmed her hostility.

I have six teenagers living in my home. Needless to say, I am aware of the latest social media trends and texting abbreviations simply because of my kids. If you want to understand youth culture, you need to spend time with young people. And if you want to understand unbelievers, you need to spend time with unbelievers. Unfortunately, many of us have become isolated from the surrounding culture. We expect our missionaries to learn a foreign language, but we have lost the ability to talk to our neighbors.   

Second, we must present the gospel in a way that resonates with the longing of the soul. Jesus was going to bring this woman to an understanding of her sin. But He didn’t start there. He talked to her about the gift of God. As Jesus and the woman stood under the blistering heat of the noon sun, He offered her “living water.” His words were veiled and she didn’t fully understand. But she was intrigued. Jesus stirred her heart and captured her imagination. She didn’t grasp what this living water was. But at the end of this exchange, she wanted it. She was weary of coming to the well day after day.   

Posture is crucial when it comes to effective gospel ministry. I cringe at many Facebook interactions. I am talking about harsh character assassinations and Republican rants and snarky comments about the latest transgender legislation. We might win the argument, but at what cost? How many people do we turn off to the gospel before they even hear it? We are called to live peaceful and quiet lives so there will be no unnecessary obstacles to the gospel (1 Tim. 2:1–4). 

Have we forgotten that the gospel is good news? Jesus came offering living water. The insecure woman with tattoos from head to toe and a multitude of piercings needs to know of the greatest marking of all. The high school boy who loses himself every night in his video game world needs to know there is a greater alternative reality. Thirsty people will put down their water pitchers only when they find something more satisfying than water.

Third, we need to keep the focus on the gospel. The woman at the well recognized Jesus as a prophet. So she asked Him to weigh in on the major dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans: Where should we worship God? The Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim, while the Jews worshiped at Jerusalem. What did this dispute have to do with the conversation at hand? Nothing. It was a diversion. This woman was under conviction and she tried to redirect the conversation. Jesus answered her question but remained focused on the real issue. The issue is not where you approach God but how you approach God.

The apostle Paul urged Timothy to “flee . . . youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). We assume this is a warning about sexual temptation. But if you read the context, Paul clearly has something else in mind. Immature people are argumentative and engage in foolish controversies. When mistreated, they try to get even. They are harsh and inflammatory in their interactions. These are the juvenile behaviors that get in the way of gospel communication.

Unbelievers will employ any number of red herrings. It might be scientific theories on the origin of the Earth. It might be the bloodshed of the Crusades. It might be the hypocrites in the church. It might be the church’s stereotypical stance toward individuals who identify as LGBT. These issues are generally smokescreens. When talking with unbelievers, we need to avoid the tendency to get sidetracked with secondary issues.   

The Devil’s Bait

In his book Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness calls the church back to effective cultural engagement. He urges us to recover the art of winsome and skillful Christian persuasion. And he warns us regarding the modern lust for technique and efficiency. We tend to gravitate toward familiar and repeatable methods. But if we are not careful, that once-helpful technique can become a serious obstacle to effective gospel engagement. For this reason, Guinness calls technique “the Devil’s bait.” Sears fell in love with the department store model and lost sight of the consumer. And if we are not careful, we too can fall in love with our version of the department store model and lose touch with the people we are seeking to reach.

Jeffrey D. Burr is lead pastor of Forest Hills Baptist Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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There are 16 Comments

Larry Nelson's picture

That's all I'll say for the moment.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Appreciated this point, among others:

Third, we need to keep the focus on the gospel. The woman at the well recognized Jesus as a prophet. So she asked Him to weigh in on the major dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans: Where should we worship God? The Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim, while the Jews worshiped at Jerusalem. What did this dispute have to do with the conversation at hand? Nothing. It was a diversion.

So many disputes are distractions. (Not all of them, though)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Jim's picture

A dispute about a battery warranty ... didn't win ... found better places to buy batteries.

------- related ------------

My niece told her mom that she wouldn't go to a baptist church again because she was "traumatized" by her experience.

Wow that hurt ... she was in my church!

[Mom told me is was by the church she went to next after a move]

--------- lesson -------

  • People have choices
  • They can go to a different church
  • And sometimes they won't go back
G. N. Barkman's picture

It seems to me that this article assumes that the church worship service is the primary vehicle to reach the lost.  Although that premise is widely assumed, I believe it is wrong.  The assembly of the saints is the assembly of the SAINTS.  Being culturally knowledgeable and sensitive in outreach is one thing.  Introducing secular cultural trends into our church meeting is something else.  Yes, people have choices, and people saturated with contemporary culture are more likely to choose churches that reflect their tastes.  But when the Spirit of God creates soul thirst for the living God and an appetite for His Word, cultural comfort takes a back seat to serious word-centered worship.  "Unless the Lord build the city, they labor in vain who build it."

G. N. Barkman

Ron Bean's picture

This is a thought provoking article.

Sometimes businesses like Sears manage to comfortably exist with a solid base of a life-long loyal clientele and fail to seek out and add new and younger customers. There are people who have shopped at Sears their entire lives whose children, who are now adults, have never shopped at Sears. That younger generation is still shopping, but not at Sears. This pattern is seen in many of our old, established churches. Consider this: When was the last time my church added a member who had not previously been a member of a similar church? 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Joel Shaffer's picture

It seems to me that this article assumes that the church worship service is the primary vehicle to reach the lost

Where in the article?  I've read it 3 times and I don't see it.

Joel Shaffer's picture

This article came from a series of messages at the Michigan Association of Regular Baptist Churches Annual Conference in 2017 with the Theme being "Identity Crisis."   Each message focused on a core value of the MARBC.  Here is the link to the audio for these messages, including Pastor Jeff Burr's.

G. N. Barkman's picture

"It seems to me" is my way of saying my observation is implicit rather than explicit.  Still, from several of the comments posted above, its obvious that several others drew the same conclusion.  Look at Jim's comments about people having choices.  He's talking about someone who recently attended his church's worship service.  Or Ron's observation that shopping at Sear's is like "shopping" for a church.  The article's use of news about the commercial decline of Sears implies that church's are similar to stores.  If they don't change with the times, people will choose to take their business elsewhere.

My concern in all of this is twofold.  First, that it is assumed that church's, like retail outlets, need to figure out the best way to attract customers, and second, that this kind of thinking is contrary to the Biblical purpose for the church's meetings as the assembly of the saints and entirely ignores reliance upon the Holy Spirit to give people hearts to desire serious worship and solid Biblical teaching.

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

When was the last time my church added a member who was not previously a member of a similar church?  About two months ago.  We added a single lady, age 24, who grew up in a home where she attended no church.  She rebelled and ran away from home.  Eventually, she had no place to go.  A Christian lady, member of our church, took her in.  She came under the power of the gospel and became a Christian.  Her membership testimony generated many tears.  Lord willing, we will see another young women raised by agnostic parents and unfamiliar with any church baptized into membership soon.  Her testimony is encouraging.  A student who was raised in our church witnessed to her at university.  She began attending church regularly a little more than a year ago, and, according to her testimony, the Lord changed her heart.  An older lady who aspired to become a Nun was received into membership two months ago.  She has never been in a church like ours before.  Her testimony also prompted many tears.  Shall I go on?

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

No.  I wish it were.  I pray there will be scores more.  I long to see people added by the dozens rather than one's and two's.  I know we are unable to change hearts.  Only God can do that.  I know that God is as able to change many hearts as few.  I long for God to do so.  In my church, this is not nearly as common as I wish it were.  Still, it happens often enough to keep us encouraged and persevering.

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture


It's easy to look at the topic of change and adapting in a way that creates a false dilemma. What I mean is that there is range of features of church life that aren't prescribed by Scripture and then a set of things that are. The trick is understanding what can and should change and what must not. But we don't have to choose between keeping everything the same or changing everything.

That zone of features that don't necessarily have to stay the same, is where we find all the differences between, say, a biblical NT church in China vs. a biblical NT church in London vs. one in Bangladesh, and so on. It's also where we find the difference between churches of different eras in the same geography.

In that zone of features that are not necessarily fixed by Scripture, I would argue that nothing is "neutral," but that doesn't make it unchangeable. It just means change needs to be careful, thoughtful, respectful of heritage.

Where I differ with so many of the "newfangled" churches is that they often seem to have not thought through the changes they're making. On the other hand, I have to say I've seen every bit as much thoughtlessness about things churches insist on not changing.

But going back to the more relevant point: in that range of things that are not necessarily unchangeable, churches can choose options that make them more or less attractive to new believers looking around or unbelievers who are being drawn, or to young people who naturally want things to be different from what they grew up with (and are tired of).

So the marketing analogy can be overworked, but it can also be too hastily dismissed. Where God has given us a choice between canned, reheated, broccoli vs. fresh, steamed broccoli, we'd be stupid to insist on the canned stuff. There's no sin in choosing something more appealing when all other factors are equal. 

But discernment is required in accurately judging when "all other factors are equal" and when they truly aren't.


Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

Actually, I'd differ with the notion that Sears still offers quality products, and I remember interacting with a head usher at 4th who gave the lowdown.  More or less, about 20 years back, Sears decided that the best way to "save money" was to cut the pay of their appliance salesmen, who not surprisingly figured that the best way to save their sanity was not to work for Sears anymore.  That Sears (and the entire mall) is closed now.

Also about that time, friends started explaining to me (around 2005) what the difference between a Sears brand product was and the real thing.  It's things like the # of piston rings, how the bearings are made, etc..  So more or less, their products got to be awful, and the outside products couldn't get traction because they had a ton more capital to pay for than did competitors.

There are some very real parallels between that and church life, really, if we will see it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

One problem with Sears was that their client base seemed targeted to people who shopped at Sears, J.C. Penney, K Mart, etc. I went walking in one of the few malls left and I honestly couldn't tell the difference between, Sears, Penneys, and Macy's. And the customers were old!

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture


Ron asked:

When was the last time my church added a member who was not previously a member of a similar church?  About two months ago.  We added a single lady, age 24, who grew up in a home where she attended no church.

This is interesting, to me. The last lady who joined our church was two months ago, and she was a new convert who'd spend her entire life in the Episcopal Church and had never heard the Gospel. She is in her early 60s. But, let me be very clear, the people who visit our church are overwhelmingly 50+. 


I have no idea. I wish I knew what the "magic formula" is to attract young families with children. I have no idea what to do. On the one hand, I know God is in charge (etc.). On the other hand, I keep wondering, "why are the only people who come to our church 50+?" 

  • We evangelize.
  • We host a community homeschool group that teaches band and vocal practice once per week.
  • We have a weekly kids bible club for which we advertise heavily ... and get nothing
  • We had a VBS this past year
  • We don't do programs for the sake of programs; we try very hard to connect with the community.

But, here's the problem:

  • The last time my church had an adult convert (before the recent one) was 2008.
  • The last VBS we did (before this year) was 2008.
  • The congregation had never done a deliberately evangelistic corporate activity before two weeks ago. They'd stuck with the free car washes, a nativity village - all the soft stuff to show folks we're nice, but no Gospel at all.
  • When we first began attending, we went two months without hearing the Gospel at all from the pulpit. 

What's the problem with our church?

  • Years of well-meaning, but bad internal focus.
  • No evangelism
  • No training about evangelism
  • No culture of expectation about evangelism

We may as well be a hole in the ground, for all the community is aware of us. It'll take years to find some vehicle with which to effectively reach this community. I suspect our story is the same as a lot of other church's stories - repeated thousands of times over throughout this country.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Bert Perry's picture

Sears is a great picture, and I remember stopping shopping there about 10 years back when I realized that they'd forgotten what they used to be.  They used to be a credible competitor to not just Kmart, but really also a lot of the higher end stores.  Remember all the cool stuff you used to see i the catalog?

(for me, most of the blame belongs with Kmart....I remember cringing when they bought Sears while in bankruptcy and thinking "this will work out just as well as when MarkAir tried the same stunt") 

Regarding a church becoming known, I've got a friend who's working with a rural church in a town of about 65 souls, and what he's finding is that as he helps his neighbors in a bunch of non-pastoral areas, he's becoming "their pastor" even though they might not have darkened the door of the meeting house for decades.  Now the dynamics are different in other, bigger cities, but there is something to be gained from being a "go to" guy in the community.  (good luck, Tyler)  Hopefully we can get some of that "mojo" going at my church, too.

(the punch line for my friend; in a town of 65, they're getting weekly attendance around 90....pulling seriously from surrounding rural areas, obviously)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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