Shall we sell our birthright for a mess of faddage?
As I started to say last week...
(First posted 26 July 2005)
Virtually all the people on Time magazine's list of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals" share at least one glaringly significant trait:
For the most part, these are the fadmakers. They are the cheerleaders for whatever is fashionable. They are the designers of the programs that are peddled by the out-of-control Christian publishing industry and purchased and implemented with little critical thought or concern by hundreds of thousands of people in the movement that calls itself "evangelical."
- Rick Warren, who heads the list, is the chief architect of the currently-dominant fad, "Forty Days of Purpose" and all the other Purpose-Driven® spinoffs.
- Tim Lahaye is the "theological" mind behind the best-selling fad of all timethe "Left Behind" series.
- J. I. Packer and Richard John Neuhaus have been the prime movers in the ecumenical fadprobably the last bandwagon we would have expected evangelicals to jump aboard 20 years ago.
- Bill Hybels masterminded the "seeker-sensitive" fad.
- Brian McLaren basically took Hybels' strategy ("contextualizing" the message for the extant culture) to the next level. McLaren is the leading figure in the "emergent church" fad.
- James Dobson is the most powerful figure in the "culture war" fad.
Too bad for Bruce Wilkinson that Time didn't do this piece two years ago when the "Jabez" fad was still hot, or he would have almost certainly been near the top of this list. The fact that he didn't even get mentioned is a testimony to how fleeting the fads can be.
Fifteen minutes of fame
Someone will almost certainly challenge whether it's right to label all those trends and programs "fads." But that is exactly what they are. They are popular for the moment, but they have nothing to do with historic evangelicalism or the biblical principles that made evangelicalism an important idea.
Not one of those movements or programs even existed 35 years ago. Most of them would not have been dreamed of by evangelicals merely a generation ago. And, frankly, most of them will not last another generation. Some will last a few short months (like the Jabez phenomenon did); others may seem to dominate for several years but then die lingering deaths (like Bill Gothard's movement is doing). But they will all eventually fade and fall from significance. And some poor wholesale distributor will be left with warehouses full of Jabez junk, Weigh-Down Workshop paraphernalia, "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, Purpose-Driven® merchandise, and stacks and stacks of "emerging church" resources.
Yes, if the lessons of church history mean anything, even the "emerging church" phenomenon is a passing phase. In a short time (probably short enough to be measured in months rather than decades) the hype will be focused on something else entirely. Most of the stuff you are currently being told you must read and implement will soon seem as hopelessly out of date as it currently seems well-suited to the fashions of the day.
As a matter of fact, the "emerging church" is a classic example of a fad that has to pass from the scene. It is, after all, self-consciously a product of contemporary culture. Those who love it have a clear preference for that which is timely over that which is timeless. Like everything that is dated, it will soon be outdated. (And even if emergent leaders try their best to remain fluid and keep pace with cultural changes, they will fade into irrelevance. No "contemporary" movement in history has ever managed to remain contemporary for much more than a generation.)
Christians, of all peopleand evangelicals most of allought to understand these things and build their movements around timeless truth rather than passing fashions. See Colossians 3:2.
How post-evangelicalism gave birth to the Fad-Driven® Church
So why has the recent culture of American evangelicalisma movement supposedly based on a commitment to timeless truthsbeen so susceptible to fads? Why are evangelical churches so keen to jump on every bandwagon? Why do our people so eagerly rush to buy the latest book, CD, or cheap bit of knockoff merchandise concocted by the marketing geniuses who have taken over the Christian publishing industry?
To borrow and paraphrase something the enigmatic Dissidens recently blogged (see "Remonstrans"), evangelicals and fundamentalists alike "have a genuine affection for the ugly and the superficial, whether in their art, their preaching, or their devotion." A few years ago, marketing experts learned how to tap into evangelicals' infatuation with the cheap and tawdry and turn it into cash.
Some of the beginner-level fads have seemed harmless enoughevangelical kitsch like Kinkade paintings, Precious Moments® collectibles, singing songbooks, moralizing vegetables, bumper stickers, Naugahyde® Bible covers, and whatnot. Such fads themselves, taken individually, may not seem worth complaining about at all. But collectively, they have created an appetite for "the ugly and the superficial." They have spawned more and more fads. Somewhere along the line, evangelicals got the notion that all the fads were good, because the relentless parade of bandwagons gave the illusion that evangelicals were gaining significant influence and visibility. No bandwagon was too weird to get in the parade. And the bigger, the better.
As a result, several of the more recent fads have been downright destructive to the core distinctives of evangelical doctrine, because most of them (Promise Keepers, Willow Creek, and the various political and ecumenical movements) have taken a deliberately minimalistic approach to doctrine, discarding key evangelical distinctives or labeling them nonessential. All of them adhered to a deliberate strategy that was designed to broaden the movement and make each successive bandwagon bigger and easier to climb onto.
"Bandwagons"? Somewhere along the line, the bandwagons morphed into Trojan horses.
Some of the very latest fads (represented by groups like Emergent, Oasis, and the "open theists") are utterly hostile to virtually every evangelical doctrinal distinctive. They have already launched major frontal attacks on essential doctrines like substitutionary atonement, original sin, and justification by faith.
How tabloid-journalist moguls took control of what you are offered to read
I have been involved in publishing for most of my adult life, and I love the historic influence Christian literature has made on the church. But the Christian publishing industry has changed dramatically in recent years. Companies once run by godly Christians have been bought out by powerful secular media czars and made part of massive business empires. Marketing, not ministry, is the driving force behind most of the industry these days.
Christian publishers have eagerly and deliberately fomented evangelicalism's bizarre craving for more and more fads and programs. Trust me: no one loves the Fad-Driven® Church more than the Profit-Driven® publishing industry.
There are some blessed exceptions, of course. There are still a few good and godly men who still have influence in Christian publishing. But they are relatively rare. They are drowning entities in an industry that is out of control. If you don't believe me, visit the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers' Association, spend an afternoon on the display floor, and take inventory of the dross that dominates the evangelical marketplace. It seems almost everything currently in styleand everything that hopes to become the next great evangelical fadis tacky, trashy, and trivial. And the unscrupulous cheapjacks who manufacture and peddle this stuff hype their rubbish with marketing machines that rival anything in the secular world.
When it comes to books, have you noticed how few truly timeless and significant volumes are being published? That's because nowadays, decisions about what to publish are driven by marketeers who have little concern for the spiritual or editorial content of a book. I have sat in meetings with publishers while their marketing experts vetted concepts for new books. "That one's too biblical." (Those are the exact words one of these Christian kitsch-peddlers actually once said in my presence to a roomful of nodding experts from the Christian publishing industry. He was talking about a book proposal from a well-known Christian author. The book was later published anyway and went on to become a best-seller despite the professional marketers' almost unanimously tepid feelings about it.) Christian publishers have even been known to remove biblical content from books by Christian authors (especially books on leadership, parenting, and similar topics perceived to have "broad secular appeal"). The marketing specialists think de-Christianized books will appeal to a bigger audience.
That is precisely how all these fads are crafted. Content is deliberately dumbed downpurposely made soft, generic, and non-threatening. The message mustn't threaten anyone's comfort zone. It also doesn't rebuke anyone's sin; it won't embarrass anyone's worldliness; it and it isn't going to challenge anyone's shallowness. That's the way both the publishers and the people want it.
That is the culture the evangelical movement deliberately created when it accepted the notion that religion is something to be peddled and sold to consumers like a commodity. That was a major philosophical shift that created an environment where unspiritual and unscrupulous men could easily make merchandise of the gospel. It created a whole generation of pseudo-evangelicals, who are like "children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men" (Ephesians 4:14).
That's a perfect biblical description of the faddism that has overtaken the evangelical movement in recent years.