A couple of months ago, I had a flashback while shopping for Christmas gifts for my wife. Among the pull-overs and running pants on display was a set of 1980s-style leg warmers. I had no idea that they were back in style again. I didn’t buy them, but I thought about how funny it is when old trends re-emerge as fresh, new ideas.
Trends Can Become Traditions
Trends and fads occur in every area of life, even in missions. Not all trends are bad. Trends are simply the current direction being taken. When a trend endures long enough, though, it can become an accepted tradition. Therefore, trends in ministry must be examined and evaluated with God’s Word. If they contradict Scripture and become embedded in a church, they can limit the flow of the gospel among a people group.
The Lord gives leaders to the church for the equipping of the saints “. . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”
The Standard for Evaluating Trends
As a missionary on the field, I voiced concerns about the danger of adopting ministry trends and fads without evaluating them according to Scripture. I was once asked to speak at a leadership conference in Southeast Asia on that topic. The president of the Baptist convention there explained that many of their leaders were continually bombarded by competing trends in evangelism, discipleship, and church planting.
As he shared his concern with me, I thought about Ephesians 4:11–16 where the Apostle Paul wrote that the Lord gives leaders to the church for the encouraging and equipping of the saints “. . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine (teaching)” (Eph. 4:14 ESV). My allotted time at the conference would not permit me to address every current trend or attempt to forecast the trends to come. Instead, I wanted to ingrain in my hearers the strong conviction that God’s Word must be the sole authority for both faith and practice.
Mixing Religion with the Gospel
A dangerous combination can occur when a people group hears the gospel but has a long history practicing their old religion. They tend to mix the old with the new. This all-too-common practice known as syncretism taints the purity of God’s truth. If unbiblical trends—whether in the form of teachings or practices—solidify into traditions, they often become the filter for truth. Statements like, “we’ve always done it like this” become obstacles to the spread of the gospel.
Most Christians and churches think that their beliefs and practices are biblical. Things “feel right” because their beliefs and practices align with a shared set of experiences and with teachers who are recognized authorities. This subjective sense of normality is deceptive, however. Beliefs and practices cannot be objectively biblical unless they are derived from the diligent study of God’s Word.
Beliefs and practices cannot be objectively biblical unless they are derived from the diligent study of God’s Word.
Most of the leaders at the conference in Southeast Asia readily agreed that Scripture is the rightful authority for faith. They confessed that they had not taken the time to thoroughly consider how they applied teachings from some of their sources of authority. They needed help to build a missiology from Scripture.
A Great Example from Scripture
Scripture itself provides a great example of the way to evaluate contemporary trends in missions. In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul ventured down to Berea after he was forced out of Thessalonica. As he proclaimed the gospel in the synagogue, the local people evaluated what Paul said, comparing it with Scripture. Luke described them as people of discernment who “received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV).
The Bereans are a great example of people who evaluate everyone and everything against Scripture. Far from being viewed as arrogant for questioning a recognized apostle, the Bereans were commended for examining the Apostle Paul’s teaching according to the Word of God. They did not simply consent to everything Paul said because of his identity. Rather, they faithfully carried out their responsibility to test his teaching against what God had revealed.
Far from being viewed as arrogant for questioning a recognized apostle, the Bereans were commended for examining the Apostle Paul’s teaching.
Scripture is Our Authority for Faith and Practice
Most churches would say that Scripture is their authority but, quite often, they impose their own thinking upon Scripture. We must submit our theological systems and our thinking to the final authority of God’s Word. This is the very heart of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther called for a corrupt, contemporary system to repent and submit itself to Scripture only. In the same way, we must humbly submit our systems and the saints that we respect to the authority of God’s Word for what we believe (faith) and how we obey (practice).
The greatest mission trends are those that lead us to Scripture.
John Charping, PhD, and his family served in Asia training church planters. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he serves as an associate director of Field Personnel Orientation for IMB.