The Fad-Driven Church
by Todd Wilken
LAKE FOREST - Rick Warren, author of the best
selling, "The Purpose-Driven Life," has written his last book. Warren announced
Saturday that he is leaving publishing, "I'm just feeling led in a new direction
now. My books will still be out there, it's just that I won't be writing any
more new ones." Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.
The mood is somber as several dozen clergy gather
outside Warren's Saddleback church. Many wear Hawaiian shirts, a look Warren
made popular among pastors a decade ago. Some take turns reading aloud from
their Purpose-Driven Life Journals.
Warren's withdrawal from publishing follows a
similar move this year by Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community church
Warren has dominated Christian publishing for a
decade. "The Purpose-Driven Life" has sold 24 million copies since 2002.
Warren's other books include "Practical Purpose: How to Do Life Purposefully,"
and "A Purpose-Driven Retirement." Hybels' books, "Becoming a Contagious
Christian," "Beyond Contagious: Six Signs of an Infectious Christian," and "The
Epidemic Christian" were also best sellers. In March Hybels also announced the
end of his Willow Creek Leadership Summits.
Mark Jones has been pastor at Metropolitan Family
Fellowship in Ventura since 2004. "I feel a little betrayed. I mean, I've
pretty much based my entire ministry on Warren and Hybels' stuff. I don't know
what I'm going to do now. And I can't imagine what I'm going to tell my
Jones is looking for something to fill the expected
void in his ministry. "It's not like my congregation is going to put up with
just interpreting Scripture every Sunday. That'll hold their interest for about
A representative of Zondervan, Warren and Hybels'
publisher, responded to Saturday's announcement, "Rick's decision is obviously
going to impact our bottom line. If worse comes to worst, we can always go back
to selling Bibles.
The dictionary defines a fad as "a practice or interest followed for a time with
exaggerated zeal." This could just as well be a description of congregational
life of many Christian churches today.
a new book, a new program or a new emphasis every year or so. It's all anyone
can talk about; it's all the preacher preaches about —
for a while. Then, as quickly as it came, it's gone. As eagerly as it was
received, it's abandoned and forgotten.
Welcome to the Fad-Driven church.
At first this might not sound like a problem. Some Christians can remember when
the Church didn't jump from bandwagon to bandwagon every year or two. But for
others, this is all they have ever known. For them, it is hard to imagine what
the Church would be like without the constant ebb and flow of church fads. For
them, the long list of church fads represents their personal history as a
Christian: Spiritual Gift inventories, Spiritual Warfare, Promise Keepers, Weigh
Down Workshop, The Prayer of Jabez, the Left Behind series,
Becoming a Contagious Christian, a long succession of evangelism and
stewardship programs, and most recently, The Purpose-Driven Life and
40 Days of Purpose. There are many Christians for whom this list (give or
take one or two) is Christianity.
Some church fads come and go, some come and stay. A few are genuinely harmless;
most contain serious theological errors. All are popular —
while they last. In the fad-driven church,
"exaggerated zeal" has replaced "the
faith once for all delivered to the saints."[i]
In the course of hosting Issues, Etc. I've examined most, if not all of the
recent church fads. I am always surprised — not by
the fads themselves, but by something else. I am always surprised by how
uncritically churches accept a fad, how enthusiastically churches embrace a fad
and how carelessly churches abandon a fad. That is why this article isn't about
the fads themselves, but about the kind of churches that accept, embrace and
then abandon fads.
The Life Cycle of a Church Fad
Every fad has a life cycle. The fad is first accepted, then embraced and
finally abandoned. For the fad-driven church, this life cycle is a way of
The cycle begins with acceptance. The fad-driven church is practiced at this.
Too close an examination of the fad at the outset might raise too many
questions. "After all, this book is a best-seller!" "Thousands of churches are
doing it, how can we go wrong?" Accept first, examine later, if at all. This
acceptance may come through the pastor's active promotion or through grassroots
popularity. Either way, the fad spreads like wildfire in the congregation.
The cycle continues with enthusiastic embrace. By "enthusiastic" I don't mean
excitement or emotion, although those things may be involved. What I mean is
that the fad-driven church embraces its latest fad with creedal intensity.
While the fad has currency, it is an article of faith. Belief in the fad
becomes a mark of loyalty to the church. During this phase of the fad's life
cycle, critics of the fad may be dismissed as unloving, judgmental or
unconcerned for saving souls. At the very least, they are viewed as
troublemakers and obstacles to the church's mission. During this phase, in some
cases, the fad may dictate what is preached, the content of Bible study or even
the focus of congregation life.
The life cycle ends with the abandonment of the fad. Some fads have a built-in
expiration date (40 Days of Purpose), most simply linger until something
better comes along. The fad-driven church may cling with a martyr's fervor to
the fad while it lasts, but everyone knows that its days are numbered. Sooner
or later it will have to be abandoned.
Accept the fad, embrace the fad and abandon the fad. This is the life of
There are exceptions to this life cycle. In a few cases, a fad doesn't die; it
grows into something bigger than a fad. It grows into a movement. The Church
Growth movement, the Charismatic movement and the Word-Faith movement all
started as fads. Now they are something more. Advocates point to their
movement's longevity as a sign of its truth. They forget that the Church's
history is littered with many fads-turned-movements —
Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism to name only a few — we call them heresies.
I have often been critical of church fads at the height of their popularity.
After several encounters with fad defenders, I noticed something. The seasoned
member of the fad-driven church will defend his fad today. But he will happily
abandon the same fad six months from now. I realized that the fad itself is
inconsequential; everyone knows that it will be forgotten sooner or later.
Christians caught in the cycle of church fads must defend a particular fad,
because by doing so, they are defending their willingness to accept, embrace and
abandon fads in general. They are defending their fad-driven-ness
A Lack of Discernment
The need for discernment in the Church is one the most
frequent admonitions of Scripture.[ii]
Paul's warning to the Ephesians is typical:
no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by
every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful
scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into
Him, who is the head, even Christ.[iii]
Church is supposed to stand immovable against "every wind of doctrine." By
contrast, the fad-driven church is a windsock. If you want to know which way
the wind is blowing, the latest teachings, the newest programs or the most
current methods, just look at the fad-driven church. If you want to know what
the fad-driven church will be doing next, just walk through your local Christian
bookstore or page through a Christian publisher's catalogue.
In the fad-driven church, books, programs and seminars are evaluated primarily
by their sales, popularity and attendance records, rather than on their
theological merits. "False teaching? Why would so many churches be reading
this book if it contained false teaching?" "Why would so many attend this event
if there is anything wrong with it?" Can millions of Christians be wrong? Yes,
Ironically, the fad-driven church often excuses its lack of discernment in the
name of saving souls. It justifies its appetite for fads in the name of
evangelism. "Whatever it takes" is the creed of the fad-driven church.
"Whatever it takes to reach the lost" is supposed to be a courageous new
strategy for evangelism. But "Whatever it takes" isn't a strategy. "Whatever it
takes" is an admission that you have no strategy. Sinners aren't saved by
"whatever," sinners are saved by what Jesus did at the Cross. "Whatever it
takes" is just another way of saying, "Whatever people want," or "Whatever
everyone else is doing." Rather than seeking the lost, the fad-driven church is
just seeking its next fix.
Some advocates of church fads take the "Eat the meat, spit out the bones"
approach to false teaching. They claim that practicing discernment means
spitting the "bones" of error while eating the "meat" of truth. There are
several problems with this approach. First, this assumes that a church fad
contains only isolated false teachings, like so many bones in a fish. But many
church fads don't just contain false teaching; they are based on
false teaching. Promise Keepers is based on the idea that sinners can keep
promises and ultimately keep God's law. Weigh Down Workshop is based on the
idea that man is saved by his works. The Prayer of Jabez is based on the
idea that God answers prayer because of the character of the one who prays.
The Left Behind series is based on the idea that national Israel is the
key to Bible prophesy. Becoming a Contagious Christian is based on the
idea that conversion is an act of the human will. The Purpose-Driven Life
is based on the idea that you can earn God's favor and heavenly rewards by your
works. These fads don't just contain false teaching; they are based
on false teaching.
Second, the "bone-spitting" approach assumes that the errors of the latest
church fad will be obvious to everyone. Often they are not. In the 2nd
century, Irenaeus battled the fad of Gnosticism. He observed:
indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it
should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive
dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced
(ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.
"inexperienced" are still infants in the faith. Would you give an infant a fish
to eat knowing that there were bones in it?
Finally, the "bone-spitting" approach fails to recognize that a continuous steam
of fads will erode the church's ability to discern truth from error. With every
new fad, the fad-driven church grows less sensitive to error. With every new
fad, the fad-driven church grows less able to recognize the truth. In time, the
fad-driven church is unable to discern the true Gospel from a false gospel.
Paul found this to be the case among the Corinthians:
comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a
different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you
have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.
This is the bottom line. A church willing to tolerate some false teaching will
eventually tolerate any false teaching — even a false gospel, a false spirit and
a false Jesus. For this reason, when it comes to false teaching, Scripture's
command isn't to "bone-spit," but to avoid it altogether.
The Church's fascination with fads is nothing new. The prophet Jeremiah
described a similar situation among God's people in his day:
My people have
changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens,
at this, and shudder, be very desolate," declares the LORD. For My people have
committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to
hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.
people had committed apostasy: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters.
And apostasy led to idolatry: to hew for
themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.
and most importantly, Jeremiah tells what apostasy is. Apostasy is replacing
God's fountain of living water with man-made cisterns. It is replacing the
message of God's Grace with a message of human works. In the case of many
church fads, it is shifting the focus from Christ to the Christian.
Paul encountered apostasy in Galatia. The Galatians had an "exaggerated zeal"
for circumcision. Rather than dismiss this as a harmless fad, Paul warned them
in no uncertain terms:
I testify again to
every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the
whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be
justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
This is what many church fads do. There is the subtle legalism of Promise
Keepers or the overt legalism of Weigh Down Workshop. There is the Christ-less
prayer of Jabez or the Christ-less prophecy in the Left Behind series.
There is the man-centered view of Justification in Becoming a Contagious
Christian or the man-centered view of Sanctification in The
Purpose-Driven Life. In every case, God's Grace in Jesus Christ takes
second place to human works, and the focus shifts from Christ to the Christian.
Whenever or however the Church downplays the certainty of Jesus' perfect life,
death and resurrection in favor of the uncertainty of human works, it commits
This is why the fad-driven church is so desperate. In Jeremiah's words, when
you forsake the living waters, you will drink anything to quench your thirst.
When the Church forsakes the truth of Gospel, it will try anything, it will buy
This also explains the response I often get from my fellow pastors when I
criticize the latest church fad: "Well, sure it contains false teaching, but
what's your alternative?" Notice: these are the words of someone who
doesn't believe there is an alternative. These are the words of someone who is
desperate. These are the words of someone who thinks that he has no choice but
to drink polluted water from a broken cistern.
Idolatry is the inevitable consequence of apostasy. Os Guiness' has written
recently about the "idol of relevance" and accurately described the mentality of
the fad-driven church:
Whatever is is not only right but a great deal better
than what was. And of course, whatever is next must be a great deal better
still…. The past is beside the point, outdated, reactionary, stagnant. In a
word that is today's supreme term of dismissal, the past is irrelevant.
Everything Christian from worship to evangelism must be fresh, new, up-to-date,
attuned, appealing, seeker-sensitive, audience-friendly, and relentlessly
relevant, relevant, relevant. "All-new," "must-read," "the sequel that is more
than equal" —the mentality is rampant and the effect is corrosive.
than making the church more relevant, this mentality only makes the fad-driven
church more susceptible to fads and more desperate,
Relevance without truth encourages what Nietzsche called the "herd" mentality
and Kierkegaard "the age of the crowd." Further compounded by accelerated
change, which itself is compounded by the fashion-driven dictates of
consumerism, relevance becomes overheated and vaporizes into trendiness.
final observation is an uncanny paraphrase of Jeremiah's lament:
They have forsaken
Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken
cisterns, that can hold no water.
explains the short life span of so many Church fads. It is the result of
desperation. The fad-driven church's new cisterns are broken. They
can't hold water. Even while the last drops drain from the old cistern,
the fad-driven church must desperately dig a new one. But the new cistern
is as leaky as the old one, so the digging must go on.
Feverishness is the condition of an institution that has ceased to be faithful
to its origins. It is then caught up in "a restless, cosmopolitan hunting
after new and ever newer things."
Nothing to Offer, Nothing to Say
William Inge said, "Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find
himself a widower in the next."
the fads, and what of the Church is left in the fad-driven church? In some
cases, what's left isn't the Church at all, but a collection of principles,
practices and ideas that don't add up to anything resembling the Christian
faith. Rather than "the pattern of sound words,"
there are only the remnants of past fads.
In the name of saving the lost, the fad-driven church is trading the saving
message of the Gospel for the newest gimmick. If such a church does reach the
lost, will it have anything to say that can save them?
What does the fad-driven church have to offer to its own members? Sure, the
next sermon series is new, but is it true? Sure, the next book can sell, but
can it save? Will the fad-driven church give Christians Jesus or Jabez, lasting
forgiveness or the latest fashion?
And for the member of the fad-driven church who has known nothing but fads, will
these fads leave her a Christian on her deathbed (or will she be left wondering
what that whirlwind of best sellers, seminars, video sermons and three-ring
binders was all about)?
"The church that wraps its identity and mission around the evanescent desires of
finicky consumers will run the risk of creating a church as ephemeral as those
Will the fad-driven church remain the Church? In its "exaggerated zeal" for
all things new, will it hold fast to the unchanging message of the Cross?
Fad or Faith
We live in an age of pious distractions. We live in an age of church
fads. The fad-driven church has structured its life around the trends and
innovations of the day. Christian publishers and the mega-church gurus are
ready to provide something new as often as masses demand it. But St. Paul
encourages and warns the Church:
presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and
in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the
Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and
encourage— with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come
when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own
desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what
their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth
and turn aside to myths. [xiv]
Church has something better than any fad. The time has come. Ears are
itching. Ears are turning. The Church must take up Paul's charge. Now more
than ever the Church must preach the Word and ignore the fads.
Many in the fad-driven church believe that preaching the Word is impractical:
"If just preaching the Word worked, people would be lining up at our door."
Others in the fad-driven church believe that preaching the Word is outdated:
"It may have worked 50 years ago, but not today." Others believe that preaching
the word is just too simple, Rick Warren has said as much,
all heard speakers claim, "If you'll just pray more, preach the word, and be
dedicated, then your church will grow." Well, that's just not true. I can show
you thousands of churches where pastors are doctrinally sound; they love the
Lord; they're committed and spirit-filled and yet their churches are dying on
the vine. [xv]
nonsense. How can a church that is preaching the living Word of God be "dying
on the vine?" Paul tells the Church to preach the Word not because it
is the most practical way, or the most current way, or the simplest way. Paul
tells us to preach the Word because it is the only way.
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know
God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached
to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for
wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and
to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is
wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Chesterton said, "The Church always seems to be behind the times, when it is
really beyond the times; it is waiting till the last fad shall have seen its
last summer. It keeps the key of a permanent virtue." That key is the Gospel,
the message of the forgiveness of sins purchased at the Cross, with the blood of
That key is the Gospel proclaimed to every sinner every Sunday. That key is the
Gospel poured out on every sinner in Baptism. That key is the Gospel provided
to every sinner in Jesus' body and blood in His supper. Yes, this Gospel is
popularly believed to be impractical, outdated, and simplistic. But it isn't.
Rather, this Gospel is "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who
Without this Gospel, the Church is at the mercy of every new fad. However, with
this Gospel, the Church really is beyond the times.
I write this, my 12-year-old daughter is convinced that hip-hugger bell-bottoms
are the greatest idea in fashion history. I don't have the heart to tell her
that I used to think so too. She thinks her father looks old-fashioned and
lacks all sense of style. I don't have the heart to tell her that I look back
at pictures of my bell-bottom days and laugh. I don't have the heart to tell
her that someday she will do the same. The Church is an old man who has been
wearing the same clothes in the same style his whole life. He refuses to change
with the fashions. He simply lets the fads pass him by. Yes, he seems behind
the times. But look again at what he is wearing. He is clothed in Christ.
Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 14:29; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 1:9;
Philippians 1:8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 1 Timothy
4:6,16; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 1:13; 2:15; 4:3-5; Titus 1:7-14; 2:1; 1 John 4:1;
Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, I, 2, in The Ante-Nicene
Fathers, vol. 1, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed.,
Galatians 2:4-5; 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6; Philippians 3:2; 2 Thessalonians
2:15; 1 Timothy 4:6-7; 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 1:13-14; 2:16-18; 3:1-17; 2 Peter
2:1-3; 3:17-18; Revelation 2:14-16.
Os Guiness, Prophetic Untimeliness, A Challege to the Idol of Relevance,
Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, pp. 40, 76.
Os Guiness, Dining with the Devil, The Megachurch Movement Flirts with
Modernity, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993, p. 63.
Guiness, Dining with the Devil, p. 63
Philip Kenneson, James Street, Selling Out the Church, The Dangers of
Church Marketing, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997, p. 20.
Rick Warren, "Rick Warren Interview" at http://www.pastors.com/portal/news/August/RickInterview.asp
1 Corinthians 1:21-25. Also Matthew 24:14; Luke 24:46-47;Romans 10:17;
16:25-27; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Colossians 1:25-28.
The Rev. Todd Wilken is the host of Issues, Etc.