So here’s something embarrassing:
As an adolescent, I desperately wanted braces.
I did not need them. I mean, my teeth aren’t perfectly straight, but my dentist was pretty clear that any orthodontics I got would only be aesthetic and that my teeth were plenty healthy on their own. I was vaguely disappointed.
Because everyone in my school – everyone who was anyone – had braces.
It sounds silly as I write about it now, but it’s strange how something like braces can become, in its own odd way, a status symbol. Girls bonded around them: sneaking gum on the sly, complaining about having to clean them at night, moaning about how much their whole mouths hurt after having them tightened. Having braces became a rite of passage experience that somehow meant something special, that I sensed would have elevated me in some way – and I was irritated at being excluded from it.
The thing is, braces are expensive. And painful. And from what I’ve heard, if you don’t clean them carefully, they can cause wicked cavities. An adult now, I have a bite guard that I have to wear at night (I’m a veteran tooth-grinder) and just that, a glorified retainer, is annoying enough that I’m relieved I only have to wear it when I’m sleeping. I can’t imagine dealing with the irritation of braces. To my (and my parents’) relief, the desire to have them passed quickly.
But that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? Sometimes you just want to belong, regardless of whether belonging is right for you.
Churches aren’t exempt from this.
Because the Christian life is full of trends, both for the individual believer and for the body as a whole. Jewelry. Logos. Mottos. Branded groups. Small groups versus Sunday School. Accountability partners. Godly courtship. Upward sports. Study programs. Books. Coffee bars. Gift baskets. Sometimes, if you look around in your area, you can actually see the cool new thing sweeping over area churches.
I want to be clear that, much like braces, these things in and of themselves aren’t bad. A book comes out with a new idea, or Lifeway presents a particular series, or a speaker or leader catches fire – and sometimes what comes of that can be amazing. During the period that it seemed like every church within a fifty-mile radius was reading Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, I saw some amazing things happen. I know some believers for whom God used godly courtship to grow wonderful marriages. And at many churches things like coffee bars and accountability groups, mentor/mentee relationships and Upward sports have stuck. That’s great.
But sometimes it’s not great. For your church. And that’s okay.
Churches have personalities, just like people do. They can be reflective or extroverted, friendly or cheerful, shy or quiet. They vary in size and in demographic makeup. Because of that, it stands to reason that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to jump on every bandwagon – and yet, all too often, that’s what happens.
When accountability was the hot new thing, a church I once attended tried desperately to pair up the congregation with accountability partners. They had a great desire to be a part of the accountability movement. A ministry was launched and much heralded; believers were encouraged weekly to participate and to sign up. Frustrations ran high when the participation level bordered on zero, and leadership wondered what was wrong with their congregation.
It’s possible that nothing was wrong. Maybe the congregation didn’t feel like jumping on board. But I’m not sure church leaders ever even considered that as a possibility.
Sometimes trends can inadvertently “same-ify” churches to the detriment of believers, too. A friend of mine once had to read Crazy Love five times in a row. When it was all the rage in local congregations and small groups, she was in the middle of moving and read it to de-stress. Imagine her surprise when her church started preaching on the book…and then, after she moved, her new church was, too. And the new church’s small group was doing it as well. When she tried another church, guess who she ran into? Francis Chan, that’s who. “I would have liked to learn something new,” she said dryly, “but instead I still have parts of Crazy Love memorized.”
Finally, jumping on the trend-wagon can be detrimental for churches when the church simply doesn’t fit the church. Christmas musicals might be all the rage, but a rural church out in the middle of nowhere might have neither the budget nor the audience to manage such a thing properly. Trunk-or-treat is fun, but for churches in areas with few children, investing a lot of money into such a project is a questionable idea. Churches with a majority of single-and-happy members or married couples aren’t going to benefit from courtship books. Despite what the ads will tell you, not every congregation is going to need Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace course.
So instead of jumping on the next thing that comes along, I think it’s wise for churches to reflect on the ministries and materials they’re taking on. When Upward sports become a popular ministry tool in our area, Upward football leagues began popping up at churches all over the area – some only ten minutes from each other! My current church, rather than jumping in, decided to watch the situation for a while – and when it became clear the world didn’t need another Upward football team, started Upward soccer instead. Now, when the time comes, their church yard fills up with kids while other churches struggle to get their leagues going. Rather than immediately do what everyone else was doing, the church tried to genuinely consider what might be good for them and what might work for their particular congregation and their particular ministry.
Some good questions churches can ask themselves about ministry trends are these: will this fulfill a need in my congregation right now? Will this fulfill a need in my community right now? Do we have enough servants willing to make this happen? Do we have the material and the money to make this happen? Does this suit the personality and identity of our congregation? What will we have to sacrifice to make this happen, and are we willing to do that?
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” Paul reminds us, “there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). To an unprecedented degree, God has given us the ability to choose how and in what ways we serve Him. In our eagerness to do so, it’s important not to fall into the same trap that I did as an adolescent and to simply want to do what everyone else is doing for fear of missing out. Like braces, most ministry trends serve a purpose and can be a great help, but not everyone needs them, and not all at the same time.
Sometimes it’s okay to let the hot new thing go by.