Martin W. Bender
How should a Christian congregation respond to trends within the religious world? As the preacher of a congregation in transition, I carefully look at church trends to help guide the ministry process where I serve. In doing so, I have noticed three stereotypical responses to church trends: ignoring them, bucking them, or following them.
Ignoring trends in the church is perhaps best illustrated by the Mennonites. These are people who hold to a very specific manner of both congregational life and interaction with secular society. As such, they have had very little influence on the societies in which they live and, with the possible exception of pacifism, have added little to modern expressions of Christianity (of course this is part of their point).
For congregations that choose to ignore societal trends and changes in culture one has to wonder if their particular expression of the Christian faith is worth maintaining. Today, we look at the lifestyle of the Mennonite and find it ever so quaint, but generally choose to lead lives that embrace the wonders of our age. Congregations ignoring contemporary religious trends do so at the risk of becoming like the Mennonites: faithful to their particular theological paradigm, but little more than a footnote in history.
Bucking trends within the religious world is equally dangerous. The Westboro Baptist Church has made a name for themselves by actively bucking just about every popular trend in American Evangelicalism. As they have done this, they have become a caricature of the church in the US bringing shame not only upon themselves, but on all Christians. This congregation is an extreme example, but there are numerous fellowships bucking any new trend with the discernment of a teenager, never even considering how a new approach might further the gospel.
Some trends need to be bucked. There is a trend among Christians to redefine marriage, ignore biblical gender roles, and deny the existence of Hell. All of these are clearly counter to scripture and need to be rejected on individual and congregational levels, but cultural questions like the use of information technology, various musical styles (remember that nonsense?), and communication techniques are not inherently counter to revelation and should be carefully considered prior to rejection.
Trend followers are those that follow the methodologies of other congregation perceived to be successful. Conferences, books, blogs, and programs are created to market to trend following organizations. After the success of Saddleback Church congregations copying their methods were everywhere attempting to achieve the same results. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does present some challenges in maintaining a congregation’s distinct identity.
Each congregation is different. This is a simple truth, but is often overlooked. Not all of the strategies that are successful with one group will work in another. It would be unreasonable to assume a program that worked well in California would be equally successful in rural Georgia. So when following trends, a congregation must be very intentional in applying ideas that are culturally appropriate to have the best opportunity for success.
There is of course one last option for congregations: establish trends. The establishment of trends is predicated on success. As a congregation is successful in developing an area of ministry they can then share how they achieved that success.
A local example of this is Savannah Christian Church. SCC has been very successful in both growing their congregation and in developing a very specific culture. They share how they are accomplishing this through a conference as well as being intentional in mentoring leaders of other congregations. In doing this, they have been able to have greater influence than would have been possible otherwise.
The likelihood of a small rural congregation establishing a large scale trend in congregational ministry is low, but there has never been a time in history where it was more feasible. As communications technologies continue to improve and become less expensive the possibilities for small congregations has never been greater. Those who are able to leverage the tools of the age to communicate the gospel will be the next generation’s trend setters. It could come from anywhere, why not here?