Tradition or Change?

Rick Mattson Uncategorized 11 Comments

My friend R is more conservative than me. My good buddy P is more Catholic than me (right, since I’m Protestant).

In lengthy discussions with both this past year, a critical issue has arisen—though from different angles: the place of tradition.

Each friend in his own way is telling me that church tradition keeps us from wandering outside the boundaries of the church historic—that is, outside the boundaries of orthodoxy.

I get that part (they may dispute that☺).

My reply is that one of the best things evangelicals bring to the table is flexibility in method. We can do things differently than we did yesterday in order to meet today’s ministry needs. We’re highly adaptable.

Example: I am a supporter of changing worship styles (music, order of service, electric/acoustic, graphics, architecture, lighting, décor, readings, liturgy, etc) to put worship into the “heart” language of various segments of a congregation: old, young, ethnic, etc.

Which way do you lean:

  • Preserve tradition? Or:
  • Make changes for local contexts? Or:
  • A little of both?

p.s. My friend L lives in country music territory. He thinks his church should consider a country music styled service. OK, I happen to like that idea. . .

Comments 11

  1. Both! I've heard many people say (and this is how I feel personally as well) that my generation craves tradition. I didn't grow up on liturgy, but I LOVE it because it connects me to something larger than this particular Sunday in my local church. At the same time, maintaining tradition doesn't have to mean hymns sung like funeral dirges (which is what I thought it meant as a kid). We can sing old words to new tunes (e.g. Indelible Grace)… or we can sing new words and new tunes. But I think there's definitely a place and a need for both the traditional and the culturally current. – Jenilyn

  2. Well –Two Thoughts. CS Lewis mention in Screwtape that one of thethings that the devil plays on is our fear of the “same ol', same ol'”. We always are hunting for new and fresh, as opposed to old and stale. But the Gospel is the Gospel, and the Cross is the Cross. Why, because a song is 200 yrs old must it be considered stale, and because a song is 200 minutes old, it must be new and fresh?

    Second I think the issue may be a symptom of a lack of theological (dare I say spiritual?) substance — we are hunting around for something of depth and meaning, and because of lack of a certain type of depth (which usually is the fruit of alot of the same ol' boring disciplines like study, meditation, quiet etc) we tend to run around looking for the latest fad or trend that will make us seem relevant.

    That's why a worship team can have people come forward and sing and dance the “Holy Spirit Hokey Pokey”, dance like spastic idiots, and call it worship.

    -Greg the Sawyer

  3. My favorite kind of service blends the contemporary and the traditional. That way we don't have to offer two kinds of services and end up with two completely different congregations coming to each one. I know I don't speak for my generation (under 30) when I say I often find traditional hymns more meaningful than some contemporary music – but I also think it's great when old hymns are led by a praise band. If traditional liturgies are not resonating with a congregation, then something needs to change. But it is also important to understand the purposes of liturgical traditions and make sure those purposes are still met some other way. For example, if churches stop reading a written prayer of confession aloud, then this should be replaced with some other prayer or song that acknowledges our need to confess our sins and receive forgiveness.

  4. I echo the general sentiment that it is not one or the other. My concern re the emerging church is that it has lost a LOT of tradition, which not merely keeps you in orthodoxy but also can help prevent repeating stupid mistakes. On the OTHER HAND part of the reason the emerging church exists is because the pre-emerging church (for want of a better turn) was so tied into tradition that it estranged young up and comers.

  5. Being flexible to make changes also means honoring the people in the past. We don't have to completely throw out tradition. For many people it helps them remember important memories of their journey.

  6. My wife and I have discussed this many times. We keep coming back to the issue of authenticity. I think this has to be included. Does the church know how to worship in the style that being proposed? Is the style's tradition being honored, or co-opted?

  7. It would help to sharpen the definition of tradition.

    Broadly speaking, what we believe as Christians is embedded in tradition, often called “The Tradition.” For example, the Trinity is something that the Tradition has passed along to us, especially in the Creeds.

    Then there is all kinds of traditions. It is traditional to have turkey on Thanksgiving, or hang green in church before Christmas.

    We can't have Christianity without The Tradition, but each generation must sift traditions and keep those that continue to “work” and lay aside those that have a past “use by” date.

  8. To HVC: You are young at heart my friend.

    To Carefullychosen: The paradox is that many young people reject tradition while craving it. Do you think I have that right?

    To Greg: It seems to me some churches act as if their tradition was never new, radical and fresh. At one point in time, however, it most likely was. So then I conclude: if then, why not now? Why not go new, radical and fresh? What justifies maintaining a tradition that young people (especially) are not connecting with?

    Also, I would point out that King David danced before God and was ridiculed for it. And other cultural traditions such as African American churches often feature dance in their services—I have seen it often.

    To Deanna: My church offered a blended (old and new) service for several years, then moved to two differing services. I prefer the latter because the worship style is now more authentic in each genre. First hour has more traditional music and instruments and lower volume. But the “style” here is not confined to just music. The whole service feels more traditional. Second/third hours are authentically contemporary.

    Seems to me it’s tough to authenticate both styles in a blended format.

    I like your comment that when old forms no longer connect, we have to find new forms that fill the need substantively.

    To papabear: I’m not up on the latest emerging church stuff, but I thought part of the charm was its retro-reach to ancient traditions such as prayers of the early church. I guess it depends on which “emerging church” we’re talking about. I’d love to hear your further thoughts.

    To Peter: I don’t wish to play both sides from the middle—I am definitely a reformer and adapter. But people who know me well will testify to my love for hymnody and tradition. My hope is that new forms which emerge will connect somehow to the past. That’s one reason I appreciate the remaking of old hymns by CCM groups like David Crowder.

    To Micheal: Great point. Being able to pull off the chosen style ought to be a major consideration. A church I visited last year went contemporary but did’t have the horses to run the race. Not good.

    To Charlie: The Tradition should inform every “new” choice we make—I agree. And healthy traditions animate and empower a congregation. Dead “traditionalism,” on the other hand, needs overhauling in the manner you suggest. It’s a subjective call and is often the source of disagreement within a church body.

    Churches facing this conflict should consider using an outside consultant.

  9. The idea of “tradition” in the Protestant sense is a short horizon thing. In other words, what we call tradition doesn't extend very far back in time. It's very possible that some or many of the hymns we today regard as the epitome of traditional, were, when new, the form-busting innovations of their day, and got the older people complaining that they didn't follow whatever “tradition” they were used to. (In the secular world, when it was introduced the polka used to be that kind of in-your-face modernism that got the grey beards up in arms.)

    One of the coolest experiences I ever had in my Christian life was attending a Catholic marriage ceremony in a small town in Minnesota. In real-time it was pretty boring, with the priest mumbling up front, often faced away from the congregation, the congregation going through the motions, etc. But the sense of connection it gave me to the whole sweep of Christianity as practiced by some segment for a couple of thousand years was awesome.

    All this to say, no tradition is acceptable which does not connect you to God in some way, and all traditions are good which do connect you in some way. The point is not the form, but the effect.

  10. Wow, good dialogue going on here. 4 points:

    1. You have suggested–especially through the closing idea to your post and the dialogue on the comments page–that the arena that concerns you here is primarily the weekly church service. I would again appeal to the distinction between the weekly gathering of people for worship and our contemporary evangel and/or the connection of the faith with a certain demographic of the population. As far as the latter is concerned, I feel the Catholic Church has much to learn from Evangelical “flexibility.” As for the former, see #3 below.

    2. I second what Charlie says, but would add the caveat that The Tradition was informed by liturgical practice and reflection thereupon. So the distinction, while important, is not a complete dissociation.

    3. As for our Church “services,” I think our discussion is guided–at least in part–by our understanding of what goes on a service. In the idea of a Catholic mass, centered around the Eucharist, we have to deal concepts of time: our present attendance being really, mysteriously united with Calvary through a strong anamnesis and equally being really, mysteriously united with the fulfilled eschaton, gathered around the throne of the Lamb who was slain. I think these temporal considerations also contribute significantly to the Catholic adherence to liturgical tradition.

    4. As for ancient liturgical practices being at one point new, well, yes and no. For example, the 1st century Eucharist: Yes in some ways (but instituted by Christ), and no, as seen through its intricate connection to Passover.

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