Ed Stetzer recently published this article Three Things Churches Love that Kill Outreach. No surprise, he takes a swing at tradition citing #3 – Too many churches love their traditions more than their children.
Here’s what he wrote;
How can you tell? They persist in using methods that are not relevant to their own children and grandchildren. Far too often, church leaders, in an effort to protect the traditions of their congregations, draw lines in the sand on nonessential issues.
This is not to say that “tradition” is wrong. It depends on how you define it, but I think most will know what I mean. Christian scholar Jaroslav Pelikan said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Churches that love tradition that way will choose their traditions over their children every time.
Too often, churches allow traditions to hinder their ability to humbly assess their missional effectiveness. Moreover, they allow traditions to trump the future trajectory of their demographic. I know of several young pastors who have been exiled from their local congregations because they didn’t fit the mold of what had always been the ethos of the leadership. Sometimes this is because impatient pastors try and force change too quickly. Other times it’s because settled churches resist change so forcefully.
Undoubtedly, there are always times to defend the traditional stances of essential doctrines in the local church. But we should not have a cultural elitism that hinders passing the torch to a new generation of leaders. If your church loves the way you do church more than your children, it loves the wrong thing.
On one hand, he raises a good point about sensitivity to cultural contexts. What good is having a good message if people don’t understand it? Thinking about Christianity globally, some church tradition must change according to that context. I also appreciate his thoughts that we should not be wedded to a way of doing things simply because that’s the way it has always been done. But this can go too far such that anything deemed not successful to the surrounding culture can be tossed out as antiquated or irrelevant tradition.
As I wrote here, tradition is important because it grounds God’s people in the Christian faith, which does have an extensive history. We should not be so quick to eliminate a liturgical element simply because it is counter-cultural, especially if it serves the purpose of grounding people in the faith and being faithful to task of the church. Yes, some might seem counter-cultural but then so is Christianity.
So how to decide which tradition needs to go? Interestingly, Stetzer brought up the Pelikan quote about tradition vs. traditionalism. I think this is an important distinction that good for starters. Tradition is timeless and should remain. Tradition accomplishes the purpose of the church as the body grows up together in the Lord (cf Eph. 2:21-22; 4:16). Tradition roots people in the Christian faith.
Traditionalism is more in the lines of sub-cultural preferences. When traditionalism is substituted for tradition, we either hold on to something for the sake of comfort OR throw out necessary elements. Neither is good.
For instance, one of the comments from Stetzer’s post said this
Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Sunday Evening Services, Hymns, wearing suits and ties to Sunday services- these are all things that help us accomplish the task that God has appointed to the church
I contend this is traditionalism masquerading as tradition. Of course Sunday School and VBS have been quite helpful in discipleship, but I highly doubt that wearing eliminating the wearing of ties will break down the church. Music is often tricky because the old hymns are generally rich in doctrine. But that doesn’t mean contemporary songs can’t be equally as substantive though they should provoke congregational singing as opposed to a performance.
But on the other hand, we can substitute crucial elements for the sake of relevancy such as eliminating the exhortation of God’s people through preaching, gathering people together as a local body, substituting partaking of the elements with pizza and soda or worse excluding them altogether, having conversations instead of instruction and eliminating governance of a local church body.
Since Stetzer put this in the context of outreach, I think here too we can get wedded to traditionalism and become static in methods, e.g. presenting the gospel in a certain way.
Honoring tradition means honoring the church. If we are too quick to get rid of it, we might lose something vital. I love this quote from Craig Allert;
Defense of these essentials (of Christianty) has been emphasized at the expense of understanding their place in theological history and therefore at the expense of understanding their importance in the contemporary church. Thus, not only have certain nonessentials been given essential status, but also some foundational aspects of theology have been underemphasized or even ignored and therefore, undervalued, and this to the detriment of the body of Christ. The rich liturgical tradition of the church becomes confined to musically induced emotionalism. The importance of the community of faith for the life of the believer is reduced to crass marketing strategies and the newest ‘get spiritual quick’ scheme. The living voice of the Bible in theological history becomes lost in individual interpretation and defense of rather static propositionalism.
The bottom line is that there are no easy answers but we must be careful with the impulse to toss out tradition simply because it seems outdated.
What do you think? How do we decide if something needs to go? Would love to get your input.
 Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 34