Some years ago, a close friend of mine was the Assistant Minister of a large Baptist Church in the UK. Although he initially thought it both a privilege and an honour to be called to serve God in such a church, he soon found it to be a very frustrating experience. The Senior Minister – who was a very charismatic preacher, well known throughout the Baptist world and beyond – was essentially an ‘ideas man’. Now, in many ways, his ideas were very good ideas. They were designed to grow the church both numerically and spiritually. The problem was that these ‘ideas’ simply poured out of him. No sooner had he promulgated one ‘visionary idea’ – that would without question ‘transform the church and the community’ – than he moved on to yet another idea. The problem for my friend was that the Senior Minister never saw any of these ideas through into something workable – he left all that to his Assistant Minister?! And there were so many ideas – every few weeks or months, yet another ‘God-given, concept’ that the church needed to respond to immediately if the church was to be ‘faithful to God’s vision for the church’ – that it was impossible for my friend, and the church, to see hardly any of these things through to something significant or even workable?!
Now, of course, there is a big difference between ‘good ideas and God-ideas’! Having known the Senior Minister in question, personally, for a number of years – he has since died and gone to Glory (where no doubt he is suggesting to God more effective ways of doing things?!) – I guess that he was not always capable of making this distinction between ‘good ideas and God-ideas’? I don’t mean to be judgmental in saying this, although I do believe we need to distinguish between ‘being judgmental’ and ‘making judgments’ – especially when it comes down to doctrine and direction promoted by influential people in the church. As an ‘ideas man’ myself it has taken me a long time to learn the difference between ‘good ideas’ and ‘God-ideas’, and even now I recognise the need to be prayerfully careful … after all, the first rule of theology is to always bear in mind the fact that ‘We could be wrong?’
There is a big difference between indulging in ‘fads and fancies’, in following the ‘latest evangelical or charismatic trend’, in ‘copying what the church down the road is successfully doing’ … and correctly discerning and fulfilling the genuine plan and purpose of God! I recall another prominent Baptist Minister confessing to me, some years ago, that he was pulled up short by one of his church members when the said church member said to him, ‘Well, Pastor, I have been Wagnered, Wimbered and Willow Creeked … what’s next?’ For those not familiar with these names – as an illustration of how quickly fads and fancies come and go in church life – Peter Wagner was one of the leading lights in the Church Growth Movement prominent from the 1970s onwards, John Wimber was the charismatic personality behind the Power Evangelism movement of the 1980s onwards, and Willow Creek was the American Church that advocated a multi-sensory approach to Seeker Services in the 1980s and 90s. Today, these ‘movements’ have, to a lesser or greater extent, declined in both prominence and influence … but they have been replaced by other popular churchy ‘trends’ such as the Alpha Course, Church Planting, Purpose Driven Church, and various ‘revival’ movements such as Revival Fires, and so on. Once again, I don’t want to be critical of either these older or newer movements. The Church Growth Movement, Power Evangelism, and Willow Creek inspired some people and churches to both ‘think outside the box’ and to attempt to move forward in new directions. For some individuals and churches this resulted in spiritual and (in the case of local churches) numerical growth, although I suspect that in the majority of cases the result was frustration and failure!? Equally, there is a lot to be said for the current movements. The Alpha Course, in particular, has proved to be very successful – although I suspect that the number of churches using it is now on the wane – as an ‘evangelistic tool’. The Church Planting trend has produced as many failures as successes, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church approach probably works better in the USA than in the UK, and the various ‘revival movements’ tend to be very introspective and come and go with regularity and with little sign of producing any genuine nationwide Revival! For me, however, the bigger problem is not primarily the various ‘movements’ themselves – this trend will probably continue to happen until the day Jesus Christ returns again – but the way in which individual Christians and local churches ‘buy into’ such movements, without seemingly much thought and prayer, as some kind of ‘quick fix’ for their current dilemma, whatever that particular dilemma of the moment may be. All too often the reality is that we are simply indulging in ‘fads and fancies’, or following the ‘latest evangelical or charismatic trend’, or just ‘copying what the church down the road is successfully doing’?!
Encouragingly – because it shows that we are not just ‘bonkers’ – even powerful, prominent, gifted, charismatic, influential Apostles such as Paul, got it badly wrong on at least one occasion, and probably on several other occasions if we read through the Acts of the Apostles, and the Pauline Epistles, carefully? Writing to the Corinthian Church, Paul confesses that on one particular occasion he went to Troas to preach the Gospel believing that ‘the Lord had opened a door for me’ (2 Corinthians 2:12) only to discover when he got there that he ‘had no peace of mind’ (v.13) after all … so he left Troas and moved on to Macedonia. Paul was probably also wrong to dismiss John Mark so harshly prior to commencing his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 15:36-41) – a fact that Barnabas clearly saw at the time, and which Paul himself came to acknowledge later (2 Timothy 4:11). Perhaps the success of Paul’s First Missionary Journey had ‘gone to his head’ somewhat because quite early in his Second Missionary Journey it needed supernatural divine intervention to persuade Paul to head for Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10) rather than follow his own natural inclination to go in the opposite direction?! We must never forget that although Paul was a ‘super-Apostle’ he was not perfect and sometimes he just ‘got it wrong’. It is not without significance that he began his ministry exhorting his hearers to be ‘followers of me’ (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1, etc) but ended it by acknowledging that he was the ‘chief of sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). It is important that we ‘correctly handle’ Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15), that is, learn to see negatives as well as the positives that are clearly there – not least in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul.
What then are the ‘safeguards’ that we should employ to save ourselves from getting dragged in to simply indulging in ‘fads and fancies’, or following the ‘latest evangelical or charismatic trend’, or ‘copying what the church down the road is successfully doing … rather then being fruitful’?
Firstly, be aware of the danger – the subtlety of the temptation to get drawn into something simply because it is ‘on trend’ in Christian circles, or because we are ‘pressurised’ by others, albeit the Pastor, or our Church Leaders, or an influential person or group within the church. The Apostle John exhorts us to ‘not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit’ but rather ‘test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God’ (1 John 4:1). Just because someone claims to have some relevant ‘word’ or ‘vision’ or ‘idea’ from God doesn’t mean that they really do? A man or woman (even a Christian man or woman) may be motivated by any one of three ‘spirits’ in what they advocate. What they suggest may indeed come from the Holy Spirit, but it may also come from either a demonic spirit or, in more cases than we are often prepared to admit, simply the human spirit? We may mean well, but nonetheless be motivated by fleshly ambition, pride, the wrong sort of kingdom building, or the quest for power, and the like?!
Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask ‘the hard questions’? By all means explore ‘fresh expressions’ of sharing the Faith or growing the church, etc. but always do so in a spirit of prayer and openness to God. Writing to the Philippian Church, Paul exhorts us to ‘do everything with prayer’ (Philippians 4:6) which, amongst other things, means every new venture or step should be born of prayerful waiting on God, carried along with prayerful reliance on God, and even (where necessary) concluded with prayer by which I mean calling a halt to the experiment or venture should God reveal to us (as we prayerfully seek him) that this is no longer right for us. Particularly, we need to ask ourselves the hard question – after we have been running with something for a while – is this ‘fruitful’? Jesus taught us that ‘fruitfulness’ is the true test of someone’s or something’s true value or effectiveness (Matthew 7:15-20). If what we are doing is not producing the anticipated spiritual or numerical fruit, if it is not fulfilling our expectations in a God-glorifying way … then it is probably past it’s ‘sell-by date’ or we have got it wrong, and all we are doing is indulging in ‘fads and fancies’, or following the ‘latest evangelical or charismatic trend’, or ‘copying what the church down the road is successfully doing’?
Thirdly, we need to ‘look for the holes’ before we commit ourselves to some new step or venture. When I have prepared a sermon, or written an academic paper, or put together a ‘draft idea’ for the church, I always prayerfully, carefully, and thoughtfully re-read what I have written – usually over a couple of days – and look for any holes in the argument. I try to anticipate any questions that might be raised, and answer them in the sermon or paper before they are asked. It is not a negative thing for us as individuals, or for the Pastor, or the Church Leaders, or the Church Meeting, to do the same before taking what may be a radical new step. Indeed, I believe that it is wisdom. According to James (the brother of Jesus), faith and wisdom go hand in hand (James 1:2-8). Looking for the holes in an argument does not preclude us from taking a particular step of faith – it simply means that we avoid falling down the holes! The Apostle Peter exhorts us to be able to ‘give a good reason’ for what we believe (1 Peter 3:15) – in other words God gave us brains and expects us to use them! He doesn’t expect us to simply ‘catch the next wave’ of what God is allegedly doing, whilst on an ’emotional high’, at the behest of some charismatic personality who claims to have had some ‘special revelation’ from God?!
Fourthly, don’t give too much power or place to one person – in your own life, or in the local church! As a committed user of the Social Network I have gathered together a motley collection of several hundred ‘friends’ on both Facebook and Twitter. I am fascinated by the fact that several of these ‘friends’ are committed followers of certain prominent Christian ‘personalities’ such as Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, R C Sproul, John Piper, to name but a few. Once again, I pass no judgment on these prominent ‘personalities’ – other than to suggest that what some of them have to say may be of more value than some of the others – what bothers me is the way in which some of my social media ‘friends’ put these people on a pedestal of one kind or another, and follow what they have to say as if their words are ‘holy writ’?! Equally, some Pastors or Leaders in a local church are either given, or assume, an authority over the other members of the church or congregation that is both unhealthy and unhelpful for both the congregation and the Leaders themselves. The Pastor or Leader concerned is given the unquestioning right to ‘speak into the lives’ of these church members, who are expected to ‘submit’ to them on the basis of Hebrews 13:17 … whilst at the same time such Leaders often conveniently forget that Scripture also exhorts Pastors and Leaders ‘not to Lord it over those assigned to their care’ (1 Peter 5:3)! One of the reasons why I remain a Baptist-Christian (in deference to many other denominations or groupings) is because of the Baptist Church’s commitment to Congregational Government, rather than Episcopal or Presbyterian forms practiced by other Churches. Whilst these others forms of Church Government may find equal support in Scripture – and probably all forms have their own particular ‘strengths and weaknesses’ – for me, Congregational Government is the ‘best worst option’! Essentially Congregational Government means that the power resides in the individual members of the local church and congregation, meeting together in Church Meeting, and not in any one individual. We believe that God is capable of speaking to the whole Body of Christ through the newest and weakest convert just as much as through the Pastor?!
Finally, study the Scriptures together as a Body of Believers in order to discern both the truth and rightness of any doctrine or direction suggested – either by the Pastor or Leaders, or anyone else for that matter. Especially be careful of those who come back from some conference or meeting with some ‘wonderful new teaching’ that has suddenly just been discovered?! In Acts 17:11 Luke tells us that when Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Berea, during Paul’s Second Missionary Journey, the people were ‘open minded … and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message’. However, they did not take it for granted that even the Apostle Paul’s teaching was true but rather corporately they ‘searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth’! Just because someone stands up and tells us ‘The Bible says …’ or ‘What I am teaching you is Scriptural!’ doesn’t mean that it is!? Check it out for yourself … and do so with others, because in that way we are more likely to discover the truth. Our Baptist fore-fathers, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, believed that the best way to study the Scriptures was to do so corporately in a group. In this way various ‘checks and balances’ were maintained to ensure that we were not led astray by some ‘charismatic’ (in the dictionary sense of the word) personality on one hand, or wander off on some ‘half-brained idea’ of our own?!
For the gifts of heaven in the fields of earth,
My soul will sing to the Lord.
For the fruitful lands as they yield their worth,
My heart gives thanks to him.
We may plough the soil, we may plant the seed,
But God will make it grow,
And the harvest comes from the tender goodness
Of the Father’s hand.
As the trade winds blow over thirsty plains,
My soul will sing to the Lord,
And the storm clouds pour with reviving rains,
My heart gives thanks to Him.
Every season whispers the mystery,
The glorious rhythm of life,
Till the harvest comes from the boundless goodness
Of the Father’s hand.
When the crops have failed and the fields are bare,
My soul will cry to the Lord.
When the hungry know only death’s despair,
My heart will look to Him.
For the call goes out from the heart of God
To share with those in need;
As we feed the world we reflect the goodness
Of the Father’s hand.
~ Stuart Townend, Keith Getty and Matt Bronleewe