When Tradition Obscures Mission

Are you holding onto tradition because it’s familiar or because it's the most effective way to reach new generations for Jesus?

I remember sitting in a local church leadership meeting of mainly older Christians as, for almost an hour, they discussed whether to move the coffee pot and the area where they served cookies from one part of their fellowship hall to another. Changing the location was breaking a tradition.

At first, I thought I was going insane listening to this, but as my emotions calmed, my heart was moved to see they were dear followers of Jesus who were just used to a certain way of doing things, and to think of doing them any other way was difficult.

That may be an extreme example, but what about the not-so-extreme examples in the church today, where we resist change, even at the expense of mission? It’s funny how church traditions once may have been very effective, but now may go against the reason they even started in the first place.

From Mission to Tradition

Almost all church traditions seem to stem from mission. Pulpits were once built to better enable communication before microphones, video screens or printed Bibles for every person became commonplace. John Calvin wore a robe because, in his day, having academic credentials was important, and the robe manifested them to the people to whom he ministered. The organ was a pagan instrument used to usher in kings; the church fought using it, but ultimately concluded that organ music was appropriate for the culture of that time. A missional decision.

So much of what we do in our churches arose from a missional heart. But when it becomes tradition, the sense of mission fades. For instance, as time passed and culture changed, the organ lost its impact for many. A more contemporary cultural expression? Guitars and drums. So why did we fight about music when churches began removing the organ?

From Tradition to Mission

Mission should drive our traditions. If something of tradition is helpful to mission, then I am all for using it, whether in 1500 or 2012. But if we cling to tradition over mission, then I believe it is a sin, because then we are valuing human tradition over human lives. We regularly need to ask ourselves.

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Is this traditional practice (whether from 1595, 1895 or 2005) connecting and enabling the Gospel of Jesus to move forward in today’s world with emerging generations? If so, then no need to change.

Am I holding onto tradition because it’s what’s familiar to me, or because what we do is most effective for the mission of seeing new generations know Jesus?

I am not suggesting that a church mainly made up of seniors should start doing hip-hop in worship gatherings. For some groups, staying with tradition is a good thing. But then the question is: How is this group helping finance or mentor or launch ministries to future generations that may not worship like they do? Everything keeps coming back to mission and seeing people put faith in Jesus and grow as a disciple of His. And woe to us if we put tradition and personal preference over that mission.

I would personally love to have old school gospel hymns and hillbilly gospel music every Sunday. But that is not what is most effective for mission, so we don’t do that.

And when I am 80, if the new form of worship is whisper singing and the room décor is all white like a sterile room (which sounds horrible to me), may I cheer on new traditions being made as long as Truth is taught and the Gospel is not compromised. May we be ever open to change if change is needed for the sake of the Gospel.