Do you know what is trendy at the moment? I couldn’t tell you what the autumn’s fashionable clothing colours have been but even I can’t help noticing that it’s been very fashionable in 2015 to have a beard. There are plenty of men who have always chosen to be bearded but this year they have been joined by many others, including lots of men who have never previously grown a beard, simply because beards are the latest fashion. Doubtless next year many of those beards will be shaved off as trends change.
Even more noticeable is that large numbers of people are having tattoos inked onto themselves – often covering large areas of their bodies. Watching Wimbledon or gymnastics competitions or the Rugby World Cup you realise how ubiquitous tattoos seem to have become.
Human beings are highly prone to following fashions and trends
Human beings are highly prone to following fashions and trends; wanting to be ‘in’ or ‘with it’ or whatever the current phrase might be. Why is that? Why does fashion have such a grip on our psyches? It seems to me that there are two main reasons, which at first glance might seem mutually incompatible, but which actually go together:
The first is that people like to be the same. They like to fit, to be part of a group, to belong. And one way of doing that is to adopt the same clothes, or slang, or attitudes as the people you want to fit in with. People like to be part of a crowd – whether cheering for the same rugby team or discussing knitting patterns or hitting a team sales target. It gives us a sense of security to belong to a group and to feel accepted.
The second reason is that people want to be different. They want to express that they are not the same, they aren’t clones, that they have a separate identity from the prevailing one. Sometimes they want to be seen as different from their parents – that they belong to a new generation. Or they want to be anti-cultural: they don’t want to support nuclear weapons or fracking or to be part of the rat-race. They may wish to be part of a community which is different from other communities – to preserve their Jewish or Bangledeshi identity whilst living in Britain. Or to wear traditional clothes and refuse to use modern machinery, as do the Amish in the US.
How can these two reasons go together? Because almost always the people who want to be different aren’t going it alone – they want to be different together with others. Whether it’s as ‘young people’ or ‘goths’ or ‘eco-warriors’ or as a community of monks; they want to be different but they still value that sense of belonging – in fact it is often more important to them than to people in the ‘mainstream’ from whom they are trying to differ.
Realising how strong this desire is for us human beings should make us very careful as Christians because we are prone to the same desires as other people. And at the heart of these desires is something good. We are made in God’s image to be part of communities, of families, of God’s family – to live in unity and love belonging to each other. God himself said: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” God himself is Trinity – three Persons existing in perfect unity, sharing the same emotions, desires and interests. Then also as God’s people we want to be different – we feel ourselves to be strangers in a world which hates God, which doesn’t understand us, which holds different values to us. So we cling to one another, value each other, enjoy being with and part of a family which is different from the world around us. So we cannot simply sneer at fashion and the desire to be ‘in’ with other people – it is part of the God-given humanity we all share.
The Dangers of trends
1. Trends can easily replace right reasons and motivations. Some trends and fashions are for good things. So for instance in recent years that has been a resurgence of Calvinistic theology within some evangelical churches, especially in the US. So much so that it has been identified as a new movement: ‘New Calvinism’. There’s no doubt that plenty of the people involved have genuinely been newly convinced as to what the Bible teaches about God’s Sovereignty through the work of the Holy Spirit. But others, one suspects, have been carried away by the latest new fad and may quickly change their minds when the next ‘new’ thing arrives on the scene. So often in revivals or crusades people appear to have been converted or deeply affected by preaching but later on the effects wear off and you realise that they were simply carried away with the excitement. It is exciting to be part of something new and changing – those first days of the church being born in Jerusalem must have been thrilling – but it is vital that we don’t allow the thrill to replace reality, or excitement to substitute for the Holy Spirit.
2. The desire to be the same as other people can lead to bizarre or wicked behaviour or attitudes. We see that all too horribly at the moment in the Muslim world – in the end radicalization, Jihadism and terrorism are the result of a horribly twisted kind of fashion. People wanting to be different from the world around them but the same as each other – a collective ideology that binds them together into brutality and murder. But equally the trends for silly dares or for playing ‘Chicken’ or for driving cars too fast have led to injuries and deaths among children and young people. And we see the same dangers in churches – false teaching often gets a hold by presenting itself as new or intellectual. Liberalism, acceptance of homosexual practice, ‘healing rallies’, the Toronto Blessing have all taken hold in churches largely through trendiness – presented as cool or modern or exciting.
3. There is the danger of silliness. There are plenty of trends and fashions which seem perfectly harmless – morally neutral. For most men it really doesn’t matter one way or another whether we walk round bearded or clean-shaven. But some people can’t seem to help taking fashions to extremes and end up with very long beards or strangely shaped beards which simply make them look silly. I remember a few years back, when huge flares were back in fashion, seeing a young man on a wet day with his ultra-wide and over-long trousers soaked with muddy water to his knees. That kind of foolishness may be harmless in some circumstances but in the church silliness can cause terrible damage. Unbelievers watching people barking like dogs or laughing hysterically or singing banal choruses over and over again have rightly wanted nothing to do with such foolishness – but have been driven away from Christ as a result. Christians are often enough accused of foolishness for following Christ – let us never give unbelievers just cause for that accusation.
4. There is the danger of trends leading to mistakes or actions which cannot be reversed. Growing a beard or moustache has no permanent consequences – if you change your mind or it’s no longer trendy it can simply be shaved off. But the thing which most worries me about the current fad for tattoos is that they are permanent. There are lots of things that personally I don’t like about tattoos: I think they look ugly, that the colours are dull, that they fade and look worse with time, but I can’t say that it is morally wrong to have a tattoo applied. But how many of the people currently having tattoos in order to be trendy have thought properly about their permanence? We’ve all read the stories of men having names of wives or girlfriends tattooed on their arms only for them to split up two years later. But how many people think about the impression that the tattoo that seems funny today will make on their potential employer at that job interview 10 years from now? Or how it will look when they are lying on the beach as an elderly woman?
It isn’t just tattoos – so many people have been damaged by drug or alcohol addiction, started because it was trendy. People have bought flats in trendy areas which have later fallen in value and plunged them into debt. And Christians have made similar mistakes – called ministers to churches because they seemed popular and persuasive and been left picking up the pieces for years afterwards when that man’s character failings started to show. Or married unwisely because their friends of the same age were all in relationships and they felt left out. Or accepted false teaching which has then divided or destroyed a church. So often followers of fashions and trends don’t think through the consequences in advance because they are caught up in the headiness and excitement. And that has caused so much misery and heartache.
5. Finally, and overlapping with some of the previous points, fashions can be addictive and expensive. Most people who get addicted to drugs or alcohol or gambling start because other people are involved with them and they are offered as something cool and attractive. But once started it’s so difficult to escape the cravings. Christians are not meant to be addicts – whether to excitement, to fashion, to sport, to music, to particular preachers – one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is self-control. So we must avoid the dangers of addiction like the plague.
So how should Christians react to fashions – both secular and ‘Christian’?
First, let’s be cautious about new fashions. We don’t need to be the first to have the latest technological gadget, or to see the latest film or to sing the newest Christian songs. Take some time – judge the value of what’s being offered us. Don’t get carried away with excitement. Don’t let your self-worth depend on being cool and trendy. But if you’ve thought about it and considered the consequences properly then don’t be embarrassed to embrace something new or trendy if there’s a real value to it. If the current clothes fashions are practical, affordable, attractive and you need that piece of clothing then go ahead and buy it. But if there’s no value or little value then don’t bother with it and don’t be embarrassed about not being trendy.
Secondly, sometimes we need to choose to avoid involvement in particular trends if we think that our involvement will cause problems for other people – even if it won’t harm us. If you know someone in the church would love to have the newest trendy boots but can’t really afford them you might choose to buy a duller pair so as not to cause them temptation. If all your friends are wasting their study time on the latest social media app then don’t load it on your phone – for their sake. Paul tells us to decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother (Rom 14:13) – that includes fashions and trends.
Thirdly, don’t give up on or throw out the ‘old’, supposedly less exciting things too quickly. New isn’t always better, especially when it comes to churches. People have been too quick to move away from what they think of as ‘traditions’, ‘doing what we’ve always done’ – of course those not good reasons continuing as we are. But very often church doctrines, practices, music, etc have been carefully hammered out in the light of the scriptures over many years and for very good reasons. We need to understand why they are being used before deciding to replace them with something new. And of course the most important things of all – the truths of the gospel and the words of the Bible -cannot be changed. Anything new here will only be disastrous: in Paul’s words to the Galatian churches who had listened to a new teaching: ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ’. (Gal 1:6-7)
Most of all we need to watch our motivations – remember the great reasons we are given for the choices we make:
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Mt 6:33
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Mt 22:37-39
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure….” 2 Peter 1:10
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2
If we are motivated by pleasing God, loving our fellow-believers, building up God’s church, caring for other people, teaching our families, working hard, pursuing holiness then we won’t have time for keeping up with fashions, staying cool, worrying about what other people think of us. We’ll be protected from foolish decisions and unwise behaviour. And we’ll be happier people – people who truly belong together and are different from the world around us.