Avoiding the Tradition Trap

Ed Stetzer: “We must not value our cultural expressions of the past more than the people God has sent us to in the present.”

Traditions can be wonderful things.

They can create shared memories that remind those who participate in them about important events or truths.

Family Traditions

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen I have a standing appointment on the Saturday mornings I am home. In the summer, my daughters and I typically visit the yard sale with food, a.k.a. Cracker Barrel, and make the rounds of the garage sales nearby to see if anyone else’s junk should be our junk.

We don’t go to Cracker Barrel because we necessarily need pancakes (I don’t, I assure you), and we don’t go to yard sales because we need more stuff.

Saturday mornings aren’t about the particular traditions, per se; they are about making sure my daughters understand how much I love them.

Our dates express to my children their importance to me. They affirm our relationship.

Someday (and I hope it’s not too soon), pancakes and garage sales may no longer be a useful method of communicating this message. When that time comes, I will need to let go of the tradition—even though it will be difficult for me—and develop new ways to communicate that same message to my daughters.

When Tradition Loses Meaning

The message is far too important to let the method of delivery affect its impact.
Continuing the tradition when my children think it is silly or it has lost meaning could actually have a negative impact. It could either become simply rote action or begin to taint the fond memories we have of our Saturday morning adventures.

The message is far too important to let the method of delivery detract from that intended meaning.

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The same is certainly true of our churches and the message of the gospel entrusted to us. This can affect every type of church.

Defining Tradition

For sake of clarity, I am not speaking Tradition with a capital “T.”

Many denominations would say their liturgy is Tradition. And, that’s not what I am talking about. You can be liturgical and not get trapped in a negative expression of tradition.

Anglicans would say part of their Tradition is included in “the faith delivered to the saints.” I’m not unaware or opposed to the idea that there is certain Tradition that is so entwined with the gospel and the way we should do church that it should be passed on and propagated. I understand liturgy and I understand why it is a valued big “T” tradition.

The problem comes in when the traditions are built, not on gospel foundations or on liturgical and theological Traditions, but on cultural milieu and are then held to as if they are gospel truth.

Liturgical churches that value Tradition can and must ask questions about traditionalism as well—and you can walk into some liturgical churches and see they have, and walked into others and see they have not. You can almost always tell those who have confused Tradition with cultural tradition.

Why? Ehen a church is either birthed or flourishes in a certain era, it tends to get trapped in that era and continues to express its culture.

Or, put another way, if your Lutheran church in Kenya insists that European structures of music are required to be truly Lutheran, that’s a bad application of tradition. If they apply their understanding of the sacraments, law and gospel, and liturgy in a Kenyan setting, that’s the right application of Tradition.

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And, that’s true in suburban Seattle, as well.

Some might refer to this inappropriate application as traditionalism.

The Problem With Traditionalism

Take my denomination and denominations like it, for example.

Several low-church, traditional denominations thrived in the 1950s, and I like to joke that if the ‘50s came back we are ready to go.

The ‘50s were a heyday. Because some denominations thrived in that time, they hold it tightly and continue to propagate ‘50s culture in many of their churches.

So, some Wesleyans, Baptists, and Pentecostals can get stuck in that era.

On the other hand, some Presbyterians, Anglicans and Lutherans thrived many years earlier; therefore, their cultural expressions often seem ancient in comparison.

Traditions Have Meanings

When we fall in love with a particular era that holds special meaning to us, we always struggle to engage the current culture, because it is different than the one we hold dear.

If we cling to the era we love, it exposes the fact that we value our cultural expressions of the past more than the people God sent us to in the present.

But, It’s Not Just the ’50s and the 1800s

This practice is obvious in some of our older, more traditional expressions of the church. But I see the same thing in newer churches, as well.

I’ve worked with a number of boomer churches that are locked into the ‘80s where they thrived or were birthed. You’ve seen these churches.