As I was deciding what I should write about in this blog entry, I noticed a book on my desk that I had just recently bought. My wife had finished reading it and had left it on my desk for me to find a spot for it on my bookshelves. I decided some years ago that I wouldn’t put a new book on the shelves without removing an old one.
I was deciding which would be the book that would have to go, when something caught my attention. I have my books arranged by topic and what struck me was the number of topics that were once popular and today no longer attract attention.
Evangelical Christians love fads and my bookshelves perfectly reflected the different fads that grabbed attention throughout my life time. I have a section on Church Growth all acquired when that was the “in” approach to growing a church. I have a section on spiritual warfare from when that was a popular subject. I have a large section on the gender issue from the period when that was a popular subject. I have sections on the missional church, biblical inerrancy, and worship.
People are still writing on these subjects and they are still important topics to be considered but they went through periods in which they were each the popular subject of the day. Everybody seemed to be writing on them. Seminaries were teaching courses on them. Key speakers on each subject were in demand everywhere. They were the fad topic of their era.
Our “fad” culture in the church
When I was a student in Bible College, the latest fad was the church growth movement. In my last semester I took a course on the subject and was introduced to the writings of Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner. The course wasn’t very good but I loved the material.
I jumped on board with both feet. I read not only those two authors but everything that I could get my hands on. I attended conferences taught by Peter Wagner. Most importantly I tried to introduce his methods into the church in which I was serving.
It didn’t work. My church didn’t grow. In fact a large church opened up just a short distance down the road and I began to lose people. The church wasn’t growing. It was shrinking and according to church growth, that was not what was supposed to take place.
The end result of this experiment was that the church didn’t grow and I got fired. It was a difficult period in my life but it was the beginning of an insight that has served me well ever since. Unfortunately it took me a long time to really learn the lesson and I had a few more tough days ahead but I am thankful that the lesson was eventually learned.
Evangelical Christians love to get on the band wagon of the latest fad but fads come and go. They don’t stay around forever. The secret is to learn the lesson that they have to teach while holding the actual method or topic loosely. Today’s best seller is tomorrow’s bargain-bin book.
Fads don’t last but within the ideas behind the fads can be important lessons for us to learn.
The purpose of “fads”
There has never been a period in the history of the church in which the church has been perfect. I am not a church historian but I do believe that down through the centuries God has brought people and their ideas to the forefront because there have been truths that the church needed to recapture.
Some of those truths have been monumental and God has used them to radically change his church. From a Protestant perspective Martin Luther and the Reformation would be one of those times. The truth of salvation by faith alone was a truth that needed to be recaptured and God used Luther to do that. The result was the European world was turned upside down.
Usually the truths aren’t quite that impactful but they are still important. In the 1970’s God used the body life movement to remind the church that every individual was called by God and equipped to serve. Spiritual gifts became the topic of discussion.
In the 1980’s the Church Growth Movement reminded people that evangelism was an important part of church life, a reminder that we need to have again.
In the 1990’s Rick Warren published the Purpose Driven Church and reminded the evangelical world that there needed to be a purpose to what the church did.
In the 2000’s the Missional Church reminded us that mission wasn’t just what happened in another part of the world but was something that should shape everything the church did.
Each of these and a long list of other “fads” recaptured important truths but always along with the good comes the potential for bad.
The problem comes when the people who introduce these “fads” and the people who get caught up in them start to believe that the truth that they have emphasized is God’s answer to the whole church. Instead of seeing it as an important truth, they begin to see it as the answer to what the church should be.
When we begin to think that God has kept the answer to the church hidden for thousands of years and now in the 21st century has revealed it to us so that we can solve all the problems that the church faces simply by putting our ideas into action, then we have distorted the truth that God has revealed to us.
These “fads” are not God’s long hidden answer to what the church should be. They are lost truths that the church in this period needs to recover.
What to do with “fads”
For those who develop new approaches to church life, I would advocate a large dose of humility. Your ideas are not God’s answer to everything that ails the church but they could be truths that he wants his church to rediscover. If he uses you to introduce those truths then praise him for the privilege of being used in this way. It is his church and his truth. You are just means by which he make his truth known.
For those churches that are challenged by the new ideas, look for the truth that you need to discover and realize that it is that truth, not the methods, that is important and that needs to bring change to your church in line with the unique setting in which God has placed you. There has been a lot of harm done when churches have tried to introduce something that worked in an urban setting in Southern California into a rural setting in Northern Ontario. It is the truth behind the methods that needs to change your church.