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What’s trending?

It was months prior to entering the Twitter world when I was asked that question for the first time; understandably it was a confusing question to the unenlightened pre-Twitter soul. Since then, my life’s been flooded with a new vernacular of at symbols (@) and hashtags (#).

Trends are the new trend in the Northwest.

Trends are the new trend in the Northwest. The great Northwest urban environment is inebriated with a deep-seated thirst for attaining its piece of what’s happening, what’s new, and what’s trending in the world. This trend toward trends has its benefits be it an Amber Alert or the attention drawn to a pressing local issue. Twitter hashtags, aside from spreading ideas, can accomplish great feats in short periods of time. Of course, the social benefits of Twitter haven’t been lost on cultural observers. Many remain increasingly convinced that massive people-led movements (such as the Arab Spring) owe much more to Twitter than just about anything else because of its powerful ability to virtually connect disparate, like-minded individuals into groups of big people for big purposes. Trends, if utilized properly, can bring about immense good.

Trends, if utilized improperly, can also bring about unspeakable bad. For one, trending makes some people lots of money drawing attention to unquestionably malevolent things. If one can create a trend, that person can reap the financial rewards. In a trend world, what is popular—good or bad—is what spreads. For another, a trend can evolve vital justice issues into passing fads—knowing the difference between the two is becoming increasingly hard to discern. On a recent local radio interview, an African-American schoolteacher in the Portland Public School District commented quite prophetically about Portland’s views on justice, equality, and multiculturalism. He asserted that despite our city’s commitment to an ethos of equality, he remains concerned that multiculturalism and racial justice in our city are trends, not actual justice—“we’re more trendy,” he said, “than we are just.” Imagine his fear that our city’s commitment to racial inequality would fade away once the hashtag had. True justice, the kind God desires, must transcend what our Twitter feeds are telling us.

He asserted that despite our city’s commitment to an ethos of equality, he remains concerned that multiculturalism and racial justice in our city are trends, not actual justice—“we’re more trendy,” he said, “than we are just.”

I wish it weren’t as true as it is, but contemporary Evangelical Christianity —in an effort to be “in the world”—has become increasingly susceptible to bouts of spiritual and theological trendiness. New ideas, new practices, new theologies pop up like dandelions, lasting for a few years only to fall again into the dark annals of poor Christian memory. But man alive, when a pastor, a speaker, an idea is hot, it…is…hot, and publishers capitalize on them with industrial precision. Christian publishing, a business like any other, survives on these trends and must, out of sheer survival, go to great pains to “print what sells.”

But that has led to a culture where the popular, the trend, the hot thing, has crowded out the important thing. That means we must exert great caution and learn that what’s on the front shelf at the Christian bookstore isn’t always what we need, even if it’s what we most want. It’s concerning to me how quickly the average Christian will change their theological minds on a given topic based solely on the hot books on the front shelf at the local bookstore. We’re too easily moved by the new stuff and almost never get into the old stuff.

Church history is full of the ebbs and flows of theological trends.

Imagine someone’s surprise when they discover that many seminaries require their students to take a class entitled “Contemporary Theological Trends.” How can theology trend? Isn’t God beyond trend? Certainly, in some sense, theology will always trend. By that, however, we don’t intend to communicate that God trends, but that our ideas about God trend. Any paradigm about God will be under construction until the end. Whatever cultural moment we find ourselves in, we find the church emphasizing this or that doctrine for awhile: for ten years we’ll emphasize Jesus’ divinity and then ten years His humanity. Church history is full of the ebbs and flows of theological trends. In fact, the very point that theology trends speaks to the fact that theology isn’t infallible even if God is. Our theology will constantly need updating because our theology will always be just a little behind God.

So what is a missionary in a trendy Northwest city to do? I suggest two ideas.

First, we must embrace our call to prophetically critique any trend—even trends in theology. Karl Barth is my hero in this regard. In a variety of ways, Barth veraciously criticized the very notion of a theological trend. For instance, Barth used humor to undermine the theological trends of his day. In one exchange, Barth critiques the theologian Schleiermacher’s incessant use of femininity throughout his theology, a common trend among theologians in 19th century theology. Barth prodded, writing that he was “left to wonder among other things whether he [Schleiermacher] was sufficiently aware of his male existence,” insisting that, “this is not an irrelevant question, even biographically.”  He used such humor to undercut theologians that he perceived to be trendy.

Yet when it came to the contemporary declarations of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany—which asserted that they had the ethical and moral grounds for violence (and even genocide) because nature itself was violent—Barth was anything but humorous. He spent a good deal of his theological output arguing against the evils of German Nazi’s.

Barth questioned trends in theology because he remained convinced God would not change, so why should our ideas about Him? God was, is, and always will be the same no matter what we believe about God.

There is s certain degree of skepticism that we need to have regarding the new, the faddish, and the trendy. But our task remains to, in a sea of endless newness proclaim a peaceful truth from antiquity: the gospel. The gospel, remember, isn’t trendy. How it’s presented certainly might be trendy. But the gospel isn’t. The gospel is old, good stuff that gets lived in new, good ways.

Secondly, while we remain called to critique any form of trend, we are nonetheless called to simultaneously be aware of them and enter into dialogue with them. We must be wildly willing to enter the trends of our world for the sake of sharing a message. Missiologists Alan Roxburgh and Scot Boren speak of the challenges of missional life:

“One of the first things a missionary to our own culture does is stop to listen to and enter into the stories of the people in order to understand how the culture actually functions. He or she reads books, listens to and watches the local media, as well as looks at trends, priorities, and so forth. But to be perfectly honest, the real work involves sitting with the people, listening to their stories, and entering their world with an open mind and heart—not bringing predetermined decisions and goals to the table. If we come to sit with them in this way, we replicate what John describes in his Gospel: Jesus came to pitch his tent beside ours (John 1:14). When we do this, we will be able to hear what is happening and discern what the Spirit is up to; we will read people through God’s lenses and see what he wants to turn these people into.”

Roxburgh and Boren frame the beautiful task of living in a big progressive trendy city in a brand new light. Being a missionary must actually involve spending time on the streets and paying attention to the trends. We immerse ourselves in the trends in order that we might preach that which isn’t trendy: the good news of Jesus Christ. Therein lies the essential task of a prophetic life within the context of the city: awareness of the trends without becoming one of them.