Cultural engagement is a critical aspect of church planting. The cities, towns, and villages in which we establish new churches have unique attitudes, values, and practices. These shared beliefs and habits define their culture.
As men and women committed to drawing people away from worldliness and toward godliness, knowing how to wisely engage others about their attitudes and actions is essential. How do we equip Christians to think and speak about culture in a way that plugs into a bigger and better reality—the story of King Jesus and his redemptive plans for the world?
Dan Strange joins me today on the podcast to discuss church planting and cultural engagement. Dan is the college director at Oak Hill College in London, where he lectures on culture, religion, and public theology. Dan is married to Elly, and they have seven children. He also serves as an elder at East Finchley Baptist Church.
Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.
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Tony Merida: Welcome to “Churches Planting Churches,” a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host Tony Merida.
Cultural engagement is a critical aspect of church planting. The cities, towns, and villages we establish new churches in, each have their own unique attitudes, values, and practices. These shared beliefs and habits are what define their culture. As men and women committed to drawing people away from worldliness and toward godliness, knowing how to wisely engage with others about their attitudes and actions is essential.
How do we equip Christians to think and speak about culture in a way that plugs into a bigger and better reality, the story of King Jesus and his redemptive plans for the world?
Dan Strange joins me today on the podcast to discuss church planting and cultural engagement. Dan is the College Director at Oak Hill Theological College in London where he lectures on culture, religion, and public theology. He’s a trustee and faculty member of Crosslands. Dan is married to Ellie, and they have seven children. He also serves as an elder at East Finchley Baptist Church. Dan, welcome to the podcast.
Dan Strange: Hi, Tony. Great to be with you.
Tony: Did I get all that right, Dan?
Dan: That is all correct, and all true.
Tony: You do a lot of stuff, Dan, and you have seven kids. How do you do that?
Dan: Yeah. Well, they’re spread out. So they range from 23 down to 7. So my oldest is a policeman now in central London, and my seven-year-old is not a policeman. We’ve got a kind of a range of boys and girls in between. So it’s a noisy life but a good life, and we’re very thankful to God.
Tony: I’m so grateful to have Dan on the podcast. I can honestly say, hopefully, I’m always honestly saying things, but Dan is one of the most delightful human beings you could ever be around. And add it to that, whenever Dan enters the room, the smartest man in the room has just entered the room. And so to have the combination of intellect and grace and warmth and gentleness is a beautiful combination and a testimony to God’s amazing grace in Dr. Strange’s life.
And we’ve had opportunity to connect a couple of times at various meetings, and each time I’ve just went away edified and mentally stimulated as we’ve talked through training and equipping and education. And so we’re going to talk about his new book today, “Plugged In,” which I have a copy in my hands. Before we dive into that, just real quick, Dan, let the listeners know a bit about your story.
Dan: Yeah, so I come from a mixed-race background. My dad was from South America, Guyana, which is the only English-speaking country in South America, a little country at the top. And he was one of 10 kids and left the country in the 60s. And Guyana was still a British owned colony then so he ended up in the UK and married my mom, so it was a kind of a mixed-race wedding. And then they moved to London. My dad comes from a kind of a Hindu background, so kind of would have been third-generation indentured slaves coming over from India to Guyana.
And that’s my dad’s background. So my grand was Hindu. Everyone’s left Guyana now. They’re either in Toronto or New York. My dad was the only one who came to London and then married my mom. And then my mum’s a believer, so she went to a very high kind of Anglican Church. But there wasn’t any kids work there, so we ended up going to the Baptist Church. And there’s a uniformed organization in the UK called the Boys Brigade, which was very good for me and did loads of sport, and I love the social occasion. And then it was through that ministry that I got converted.
And yeah, and then I suppose after I was converted, and, you know, it was a kind of on my knees recognizing the need for Jesus in the minister study, pouring my heart out. I’ve always been pretty quite inquisitive, because of my dad’s background been interested in other religions. So I went to Bristol University, which is a city in the UK, and did an undergraduate degree in theology and religious studies, which was terrible, as in very, very liberal. But then I’d become kind of evangelical, and then I suppose I became much more reformed, stayed on to do a Ph.D. there looking at the question of the unevangelized, what happens to people who never hear the gospel, and looking at particular Canadian theologian, some of you may have heard of him called Clark Pinnock. So I did that for three years.
And then I did student ministry for the UK, the U.S. equivalent of intervarsity, so the UCCF. So I only work with theological students up and down the country trying to encourage them to stay faithful, keep the pattern of sound teaching doing their studies. And then I got called to Oak Hill, and I’ve been on the faculty there for 15 years. The last five or six years, I’ve had various roles. I was the academic vice-principal, then the acting principal. Now I’m the director.
So I’ve been much involved with leadership. But it’s been great to be involved with Crosslands right from the beginning when that got started, and that’s a very exciting project that I’m increasingly being involved with. So that’s the story really, so to say by grace, but always really, really been interested in culture and other religions. I suppose there’s an inquisitive part of me that wants to ask those kinds of questions and say, “How do we apply the Lordship of Christ to everything that we do?”
Tony: You know, I want to talk about that some more. I think it’s wonderful that you have all of these interest in the academy and in research, but you’re also an elder at your church, and you have been for some time, right?
Dan: Yeah. So East Finchley Baptist Church is a church that’s about 125 years old. We’re a very small church, a very multicultural church in East London, which is kind of a part of North London. So I’m one elder, the other elder is also the pastor. So really, it’s just the two of us. We’re trying to get some more men on board, but we’re, yeah, a very small congregation, very multicultural, a lot of generations, reflective of kind of where we are in North London.
But that’s a real joy because, you know, it’s like teaching at theological college, being very involved in a local church, regular ministry, teaching, preaching. It does keep you grounded, and yeah, keeps your feet on the ground. And it’s been a joy serving there really since we landed in London. So I’ve been involved with that church for 15, 16 years now.
Tony: How often do you preach and teach there, Dan?
Dan: Yeah, so probably I’m teaching, preaching probably once every five or six weeks. I’m leading a lot of the time during the services, leading home groups, and just, yeah, with just the two of us pastoral responsibilities as well. It’s kind of…because I still teach and work and lead in a residential theological college, we are a Christian community there. So there’s a kind of pastoral responsibilities that I’ve got there as well. So, again, a kind of a busy life between church, family, and college keeps me out of trouble.
Tony: And you’re trying to educate some of your own kids right now during COVID online, correct?
Dan: Yeah, I was just saying to you beforehand. I mean, we’ve got two of our teenage girls who have got a lot of work from school and, you know, they’ve been really diligent and just getting on with it. Our seven-year-old does his schoolwork in about five minutes at 9:00 in the morning, and then you’re working out, what do you do with him? Yeah, we’ve got various kids of various ages. So, yeah, it’s been hard. It’s been hard, but it’s been a great family time. And, yeah, you know, I think the kids at the moment the schools are opening, but, again, they’re a little bit vague at the moment. We’ve been getting some emails about what quite it’s going to be like in the next few weeks, as it is for everyone.
Tony: Right now you’re currently on study leave, right?
Dan: Yeah. So I’m just about to start study leave. I haven’t had a study leave for a few years. So, yeah, I’m teaching one course at Oak Hill, but I’ll be on study leave for the rest of the time planning two project, so this book, “Plugged In,” which we’re going to talk about. I’m planning a sequel to that, which will be some more tools for cultural engagement, taking it to another level of kind of practical, how do you do this? And I’ve got some particular thoughts on that. And then continuing my work, my academic work in looking at Christian responses to other religions.
And I’m going to be doing just… I’ve got a contract with IVP UK to do a bigger academic work on religious studies, and how do we properly study other religions? My argument will be that we can only do that from a theological, a Christian point of view. So it’s trying to get at the idea that you can study any religion neutrally. And that even the term religion is a kind of a Western construct that needs to be kind of dealt with. So that’s continuing that academic work. So a popular book and the more academic book, hopefully get both of those drafted by this time next year.
Tony: It sounds excellent. So “Plugged In,” Tim Keller says there really is nothing else like this book, high praise from Tim Keller, as you talk about how we engage our culture wisely in the small little book, excellent book, published by our friends at the Good Book Company. I think my personal favorite part of this book, Dan, is when you quoted the show, “The A-Team.” I love it when a plan comes together. Did you watch that show?
Dan: Of course. Yeah. I’m a child of the 80s. Yeah. And as you get older, you realize people of your generation. You know, we were brought up on those American shows, so we love them all. And “The A-Team” was a personal favorite. I mean, Sartuday tea time sitting down to watch “The A-Team.” And great fun.
Tony: When I was in recess in grade school, we played “The A-Team,” and I was always Hannibal. And I devised the plan, and my imaginary cigar, and I love it when a plan comes together
Dan: Yeah, exactly. And you had to kind of like, you know, washing up, brushing the toilet, well, when you made a tank out of it. I mean, it was just kind of…those amazing inventions that they did. It was just brilliant. So, yeah.
Tony: They were they were brilliant. I’m impressed by that. So talk to us about, what is cultural engagement, you know, why is it important, and some of the key principles in this book.
Dan: Yeah. So the book came out of really 10 years of doing a course at Oak Hill. So Oak Hill was a seminary that was training pastors, how a pastor has to be culturally engaged to then train the people in their churches. And that course is developed. And one of the things that we try and do is look at a theological basis for cultural engagement and then get them to do it themselves.
So in “Plugged In,” at the end of the book as you know, it’s a great section where it’s not me, it’s my students, some of the best essays that they’ve written, ones on adult coloring books, one’s on zombies, one’s on Japanese toilets, one’s on bird watching. And the idea there is that everything that we do as human beings has religious significance. It’s always pointing towards a way of viewing the world. We look at it through a worldview.
We are either forming creation or being formed by it. 1 John at the end doesn’t…it says, “Keep yourselves from idols.” That’s the last thing John wants us to know. We need to know what idolatry is, how it works, and are we creating culture for God’s glory or not? You know, God gives Adam and Eve a mandate, “Fill the earth, subdue it, have dominion.”
If we don’t do it for God’s glory, we’re doing it for some other god or for some other goal. And so we need to be savvy about that and “Plugged In” really gives some, at a very accessible level I hope, some biblical rationale as to why we need to engage with culture, but then some practical tools as to how we engage with culture, of course, looking at some classic passages like Acts 17 and 1 Corinthians. But it’s meant to be a very practical book, and my goal is, my aim is that people in churches would get together having read the book and every couple of months coming together and saying, “Okay, let’s apply the kind of stages of cultural engagement that we use in the book.” And people in their own discipleship, but also in their evangelism and engagement, there’d be real growth in both of those areas. So that was the purpose of the book.
Tony: Now, give the listeners a little feel for, you mentioned “adult coloring books.” How is this particular example…how does it reflect to your principles?
Dan: Yeah. Well, this was a student… I mean, I don’t know whether you have this phenomena in the states, but a few years ago… I mean, it’s very much linked to mindfulness of that kind of movement and the philosophy and the psychological kind of what’s going on with the whole idea of mindfulness. Also, it’s interesting, not just the kind of the stuff about the mindfulness in terms of focusing on the coloring, but also a lot of the pictures in the UK you buy are a kind of Edenic kind of idyllic scenes, which have all kinds of significance about where they wanted those pictures want to take you to, a kind of a picture of Eden.
And, you know, it’s part of that bigger, not simply escapism or distraction, but I think the way that we’re built with eternity in our hearts and that longing for home, which I do think the gospel, of course, plugs into obviously. So that was a very good essay getting really deep into what was behind those books and the content of them.
And then the other one you mentioned, I mean, one of my favorites, as I said it was a long time ago now, was this one on Japanese toilets. So this was a British missionary who’s been working in Japan. And Japanese toilets are amazing because they’re technologically incredibly sophisticated. They’ve got buttons for absolutely everything. But at the same time, there’s a real Shinto kind of feng shui kind of philosophy behind them and it’s all to do with cleanliness and dirt.
When a house is torn down in Japan, the first thing that the priest will do will go to where the bathroom was because of the cleanliness issue. So you’ve got this real mix of religion and Shinto and technology. And, you know, what I want to say to students is, “Look, it’s just a toilet, but it has so much significance.” And if that’s the case in a cross-cultural situation, maybe that’s not the same for us, we probably have a more utilitarian view, but there’s all kinds of things that we do that we think are just normal and mundane but actually, they have a lot of significance to them.
Tony: It’s just fascinating. So you’re looking at things people do ordinarily and asking some theological, I guess, worldview kind of questions, right?
Dan: Yeah, yeah. And all of that’s rooted in a kind of a deep understanding of creation. I mean, in some ways, everything that I am doing in the book is just playing out. And here, I’m going to give the big plug for Acts 29 here. It’s everything about theological clarity, cultural engagement, and mission innovation. How do we apply the Lordship of Christ? And again, the thing that I’m most against is this kind of a sacred secular divide.
And how do we have a really good robust doctrine of creation, a really robust understanding of sin, and what the gospel does in terms of transformation, not just of an individual life, but of households, families, and even cultures? What does it mean to apply Christ’s Lordship to absolutely everything? You know, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. So that’s been my big passion, and it comes from a kind of a big, reformed understanding influenced by some of the Neo Calvinists, yeah, but all kinds of others as well.
Tony: Yeah. You talk about some responses that Christians often take, like, looking in on culture, lashing out about culture, or looking like culture. You want to speak to those problems?
Dan: Yeah. I think they were just three fairly memorable ways of different reactions that evangelical Christians have to engagement with culture. So the first is kind of looking in. It’s kind of, you know, holding hands in a holy huddle, praying for Jesus to come again and closing our eyes and thinking, “Please go away,” which I don’t think is a very sensible option. In fact, it’s impossible because as I point out in the book, we can’t escape culture. Even the idea of engaging culture, we’re cultural beings. The way that we hold hands and sit and the furniture we sit on in our holy huddle is making a cultural statement.
So we can’t escape it. And I don’t think that’s a very good strategy. I think the lashing out is more…we get very upset and red-faced. And we know something’s wrong, and we’re very angry about it. But the way that we conduct ourselves, you know, we can win the argument and lose the person. And then the other is just to cop-out, it’s just to look like the world. We think, “This is too hard. Why don’t we just do what everyone else is doing?”
And I think all those responses are not helpful, and they’re not biblical responses. So the idea of engagement is looking out, but also in a way that is winsome but still recognizes the confrontational nature of the gospel. And I suppose that’s the big idea of the book. The gospel of Jesus Christ always confronts culture, but it also connects to it at the same time. And so a lot of the chapters are just trying to tease out using biblical examples and some theological work as to how the gospel both confronts and connects at the same time.
Tony: I think that’s huge. Just the idea of having a point of contact with people in culture, but then bringing that point of conflict that the gospel brings. And you give some really good practical ways to think through that. I’m just thinking about the one lashing out. It’s so prevalent. I think, in my particular context right now, there’s so much hostility and so much vitriol over all things politics and otherwise. So there’s a lot of, I guess, deconstruction, but not a lot of positive construction solution, gospel solution. They just recognize the problems and throw grenades, right? But what you’re talking about is a winsomeness and a worth.
Dan: Yeah, yeah. And that’s why I think different Christian… I mean, that’s one of the great things about a global network like Acts 29. Different pastors and lead church planters need to listen to each other because I think historically in the UK in the scene where I am… I gave a paper in the states a few years ago, and my big argument was actually, Christians in the UK, they need to understand that we’re in a battle war.
An American came up to me and said, “Look, we’ve been trying to get away from these cultural ideas,” and I understand that in your context. In my context, often, I’d be wanting to say to the conservative evangelical church, “Wake up, you are in a battle. There’s spiritual realities here. You need to be fighting for this.” So I think we kind of need to learn from each other probably. But that’s one of the great things about the global church, isn’t it?
It’s about listening and knowing where our weak spots are, our blind spots. And, you know, in some of the contexts that we’ve started to be in in terms of talking about different Acts 29 cultures across the world, how we can help each other and everyone can edify each other. Because if you’re in your little cultural bubble, you don’t often see your blind spots.
Tony: Exactly, exactly. And it’s amazing how I view my culture after I step out of my culture into another one.
Dan: Yeah, yeah.
Tony: And you begin to see some problems there. So you mentioned some of this in terms of idea and theory, but some changes that we could make to better engage our culture. Any practical suggestions?
Dan: Yeah. I think sometimes we can overthink things. So it’s really important that as planters, especially going into a new area, that we are listening, and we’re kind of listening to the cultural rounders, we’re making friends with non-Christians, we’re befriending people. But I think sometimes we might be worried that we kind of have to have a sociology Ph.D. to be able to do anything. And that’s not the case.
I mean, in my lectures, I talk about the difference between… Every person is different, and they need to be engaged in a different way. Every culture is different. So we need to understand there’s a cultural variability, but there’s also what I’d call a humanity constant. As in, the next book project I’m working on, one of my big heroes is this Dutch missiologist called J. H. Balvin. He was the nephew of Herman Balvin, who you might have heard of if you come from the reformed community. Anyway J. H. was a…he served in Indonesia.
And he looked at a load of other religions, and he said, “Look, at the end of the day, all human beings have what he calls these magnetic points.” There’s kind of the same questions that people ask. And my next book is trying to fill that out, not just about other religions, but with in secular culture as well. There are certain issues and problems that all people raise. And I think, if we know that the…because our ultimate authority is the Bible, if we’re armed with those kinds of questions, but we’re listening carefully to the culture, then we can put those two things together.
So you don’t have to be…you know, we don’t all have to be Tim Keller. We don’t all have to be James Davidson Hunter, or, you know, all of these people. We do need to listen carefully, we do need to be relational, and we do need a good solid theological anthropology. That’s why the rigorous theological training is so important because it gives us the tools to know, “Okay, yeah, we’re all made in the image of God. We all ask these same questions, we all suppress the truth, we all suppress the truth in different ways. How do we confront and connect Christ?”
So really some of the best things that we can do in terms of cultural engagement is having a good solid theological anthropology and just listening to the culture around us. Where are the points that we can confront and connect, just as Paul does. Remember Paul in Athens, he said, “I’ve wandered around your objects of worship.” As you go into a new place, if you’re going to plant a church, where are the objects of worship?
Now, they might not be a big statue called the unknown God if that statue hasn’t been pulled down or something, but it might be all kinds of things, you know? So I would say you need to go around and see, what are the objects of worship in kind of even our, what we call our secular or increasingly post-Christian country? And I think, you know, as I always say to my brothers and sisters in the states, I still think that you are still living in a kind of Christianized country, but you know that things are changing.
And increasingly, you will be secularized in that way, but it’s not not religious. It’s still very religious because we are religious beings. It’s just knowing where to look. And that’s the important thing. It’s having eyes to see, the people who you’re befriending, what do they put their trust in? What are their ultimate commitments? Who do they look to? Why do they get up in the morning? These are all deep, you know, humanity questions that everyone asks, and there, how do we apply the gospel?
Tony: Yeah. So I’m thinking about church planters out there. And if they’re going to move from, say, North Carolina to Portland, Oregon, it’s a different culture, right? So what would your advice to the church planter would be? You know, get to Portland, talk, listen, read. Don’t just take particular you know, strategy of church planting that, you know, may have fit your area in one part of America but…
Dan: Yeah. I mean, you know a mutual friend of our group, Reuben Hunter, planted a church in West London. I mean, he was there a year. He was on the ground a year making relationships, checking out the area, working out how things worked. And, you know, you can’t just talk about culture. Every culture is a micro-culture, and it’s the same within cities, and then parts of cities and then little districts and then streets. Everything has its own kind of flavor.
But, again, don’t overthink it because I think you could just then become paralyzed and think, “Oh, man, I don’t know enough.” But, you know, we do have those theological basis and those key questions that people ask. And then it’s finding, “Yeah, where can we confront, just as Paul did? I see that you’re very religious, you’ve got this unknown god, and now I’m going to proclaim Christ to you.” Well, find out where the objects of worship are in that community you’re in, and then say, “From here, I’m going to get to Christ.”
Tony: So for church planters, other things that you would recommend for them in terms of cultural engagement? I’m thinking perhaps how this relates maybe to preaching, you know, maybe in the way you do application? Your thoughts on just more practical suggestions for church planters.
Dan: I mean, I still think that sometimes… I mean, in our context, we’re sometimes not very good at application, especially if you come from a very kind of strong, as I do, kind of expository ministry point of view. But I think we need to work on application as much as we do as exegesis and being very granular. And again, know your… I mean, it’s all basics, isn’t it? It’s know your congregation.
God’s given you these people, you know where the pressure points are, you know how they need to be built up. And so you can apply that very specifically. Now, of course, you always have to make choices. I mean, this is one of the things… You know, I’m very blessed to be in a very multicultural church. But it does mean that some cultural things…you know, we talked about “The A-Team” or whatever because we’re probably roughly of the same generation. Even though we’re from different countries, we probably watch the same TV. I’ve got people from all over the world who’ve never heard… You know, at our church essentially, I gave up giving film illustrations years ago because I’ve got so many different people from different backgrounds. Now, you have to make decisions. You can’t be all things to all people, but I think, again, it’s being wise in how you apply.
And again, you do go back to some basic ideas so, you know, things on the family or those things where you know there’s going to be a lot of buy-in from lots of people. You can’t give laser application all the time to everyone. You have to make choices. But I still think you can think that through carefully. And again, yeah, how is what you’re preaching on, how is it going to deal with the idols? Can I give a quick example?
Dan: I’ve just done my latest Themelios editorial on this. During COVID, I’ve been really struck by Psalm 92. Go and read it in your quiet time. It’s an amazing Psalm. But the middle of the Psalm says, “But you, O Lord, are exalted forever.” And the main point I’m making there is in the Psalms when you have a statement like that, it’s not simply a kind of a pretty praise verse, “You, O Lord, are exalted forever.”
It’s saying, “You, Lord alone and not any other god are exalted forever.” And so when we come together, what we’re doing is we’re praising God, but we’re also saying, as Walter Brueggemann says, you know, “Down with the other gods.” And our job as pastors and leaders, every week when people have come in and they’ve been kind of offered all kinds of gods during the week or all kinds of loyalties is to bring people back to say, “You, O Lord, are exalted forever,” and to send people out.
And part of that is a polemic against the other gods. But to do that, we need to name those other gods. There’s no point in generically saying it. We need to call out the gods in our culture, and the gods in my culture in the UK will be different from yours in the states, will be different from those in Malaysia, will be different in Australia. And we need to know what those gods are. And that’s why I think we need to be very specific. And that’s why we do cultural work.
Tony: And that kind of preaching demands courage, right?
Dan: Yeah, definitely, definitely. And it also demands recognizing that…we’re careful that we’re not going to bind people’s consciences, especially when it comes to very, very kind of political issues. But I do think we need to be saying things on key issues and key idols that exist at a cultural level and at an individual level as well, obviously, but realizing that we’re cultural beings, and again, this big idea that we’re either shaping culture or we’re being shaped by it. There is no middle ground there.
Tony: Amen. Thirty minutes flies by with Dan Strange. Final question, Dan. Some resources maybe you would suggest other than your book, “Plugged In,” for guys who want to grow in cultural engagement?
Dan: Yeah. So, you know, I find Tim Keller helpful, again, I mean, in a U.S. context, probably even more so. This guy J. H. Balvin, very helpful. His book on religious consciousness is well worth hunting down. Two other things that might be interesting. A guy called Ted Turnau, who’s an American, did his Ph.D. at Westminster with Balaguer. Now he’s a missionary in the Czech Republic. He wrote a book a few years by PNR called “Popologetics.”
He really is the pop culture guru of the reform world. He’s brilliant, a good friend of mine. He’s currently writing a book on imagination, well worth getting that book. A lot of similar themes to mine. And then one more theological book that I found really helpful is a British guy who teaches in Australia, a guy called Chris Watkin. And he’s written a book with PNR called “Thinking Through Creation.”
And he takes Genesis 1 to 11, and he just shows some key kind of fundamental themes of how we live, Christian social theory, and how we need to get deep into a culture’s text I suppose and understand how the Bible, again, this idea that I develop in “Plugged In,” subversively fulfill. How do we kind of break through some of the either-ors that we see in culture all the time? I found that a really helpful book in terms of worldview. I’d recommend that book, Christopher Watkin, “Thinking Through Creation.”
Tony: Excellent. Excellent. Dan, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your labor, your research. These guys who research and write like Dan, it’s often a lonely thankless work that they do, even though it’s also edifying, I’m sure, for your own soul. But thank you, man.
Dan: Well, yeah, as I said, I’ve got nine in my household, so it’s never lonely. In fact, I wish to be a bit more lonely sometimes.
Tony: I understand you, man. I only have five, but I understand you. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Until next time, my friend. Thank you.
Dan: Yeah. Thanks, Tony. Bye everyone.