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What fad would Jesus follow?
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
June 04, 2009
6 MIN READ TIME

What fad would Jesus follow?

What fad would Jesus follow?
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
June 04, 2009

HOLLAND, Mich. — Looking for a way to help members of her

youth group use moral discernment when making life choices, a Lutheran youth

minister in Holland, Mich., re-read a copy of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, a

classic story from the 1890s in which the central character frames right and

wrong with the question, “What would Jesus do?”

Friendship bracelets were becoming popular in 1989. So,

Janie Tinklenberg asked a friend who worked for a local company about producing

some woven wristbands with the acronym WWJD — because there wasn’t enough room

to spell it out — both to remind young people of their commitment to Christ and

as a tool to witness to friends.

The rest, of course, is history. Tinklenberg, now on staff

at Peace Lutheran Church in Gahanna, Ohio, belatedly obtained trademark for the

phrase, but since it was considered public domain, she did not receive any

royalties.

That didn’t stop others from cashing in, however. By 1997,

Lesco Corporation, the company that produced the first bracelets, had sold

about 300,000. Then Paul Harvey mentioned them on his syndicated radio show,

and dozens of corporations rushed in to capitalize on a market craze spilling

over into WWJD shirts, hats, key chains and coffee mugs.

Now WWJD is remembered as the quintessential Christian fad.

A fad, according to the dictionary, is a practice or interest followed for a

time with exaggerated zeal, and then abandoned when something else comes along

to take its place. Sociologists classify fads as a form of “collective preoccupations,”

where many people over a relatively broad social spectrum engage in a similar

behavior and interpret it in similar ways in order to identify their place in

society.

As such, they have a role to play in building group

identity. Fads appeal particularly to youth, because they provide both a way to

win peer approval and to distance young people from their parents.

In religion, where group identity becomes a lens for

evaluating every aspect of life, fads can be especially potent.

In a 2006 book, Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall

for Fads, University of Delaware professor Joel Best says the appeal of fads is

understood in context of American values of improvement and progress. Eager to

remedy problems, Americans quickly invent new solutions to address a perceived

shortcoming.

Many fads are harmless, Best asserts, but when they become

institutionalized as conventional wisdom in a discipline or field and then fall

short of expectations, they can be counterproductive. Some conservative

Christians see elements of that in widely popular movements like Rick Warren’s

The Purpose Driven Life and the Emergent Church movement.

Todd Wilken, a Lutheran minister and host of a Christian

radio program, wrote an article describing the “Fad-Driven Church.”

“There is a new book, a new program or a new emphasis every

year or so,” he said. “It’s all anyone can talk about; it’s all the preacher

preaches about — for awhile. Then, as quickly as it came, it’s gone. As eagerly

as it was received, it’s abandoned and forgotten.”

That may not sound like a problem, but it is the only kind

of Christianity that many churches know, Wilken said. Many fads are harmless,

he says, but most contain theological error.

Following a progression from Promise Keepers to Weigh Down

Workshop to The Prayer of Jabez to Left Behind, Wilken complained, “In the

fad-driven church, ‘exaggerated zeal’ has replaced ‘the faith once for all

delivered to the saints.’”

Fascination with Christian fads indicates lack of

discernment and desperation about becoming relevant, Wilken asserted.

Os Guinness, author of Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge

to the Idol of Relevance, argues that in their uncritical pursuit of relevance,

Christians have actually become less relevant.

Guinness embraces the concept of “resistance thinking.” In a

1945 essay, C.S. Lewis argued that if Christians adapt the gospel to what fits

their times, they will have a comfortable and convenient faith, but it will be

irrelevant to the next generation. Lewis instead called for looking in the

gospel for what is difficult or obscure as a way to be true to the whole gospel

and stay relevant to any generation.

Outsiders often perceive fads as frivolous or silly, but

they can be serious and start with the best of intentions. What distinguishes

them from real social movements is whether they last.

When either introduced or popularized by Charles Finney

during the Second Great Awakening, many criticized the “altar call,” urging

penitent sinners to come forward and pray at the close of a service, as a

heretical fad. Today, it is standard fare in most Baptist churches.

Some find parallels in hip young ministers like Rob Bell,

pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., and a leader in the

Emergent Church movement.

“He’s figured out how to convey basic Christian doctrine in

a highly skeptical culture,” Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication at

Calvin College, said in a 2006 story profiling Bell in the New York Times.

Schultze, author of books including High Tech Worship? Using

Presentation Technology Wisely, says the key to discerning if an innovation

glorifies God or is a distraction is whether it adds quality to the worship

experience or is simply added because it seems cool.

Others insist the problem is not the fad itself, but the

effect. If it appeals only to Christians, they say, it tends to separate the

church from culture instead of engage it.

Five years ago, church groups filled theaters in an outreach

program calling Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie “perhaps the best

outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.” After the hubbub was over, the film

earned $611 million, and worship attendance remained unchanged.

Tinklenberg says she always knew the WWJD fad would fade,

because only a spiritually mature Christian would seriously ask that question.

She didn’t mind people making money off her idea, but she regretted seeing it

cheapened with products like a WWJD board game, with 400 questions asking what

Jesus would do in different situations and the first player getting W, W, J and

D wins.

“WWJD isn’t about pat answers,” Tinklenberg told Salon.

“It’s about struggling with faith, trying to figure it out. The meaning is in

the struggle.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated

Baptist Press.)