No one plans to get his vehicle stuck in the mud.
Oh, every now and then, some good ol’ boys will go muddin’ in their truck, shift into four-wheel drive in order to make a bigger mess, and end up having to find someone with a tractor to pull them out. (Then there’s my friend who actually buried his tractor while trying to cross a shallow creek, but that’s another story.)
But most of us have a few more IQ points than that.
Except when we don’t.
Like this past Christmas when I got the bright idea of turning my Dodge minivan around in my father-in-law’s backyard after weeks of snow and ice. As long as I was moving forward I was OK, but when I stopped to put the van in reverse, the front wheels broke through the ice, spun through the snow, and sank into the mud. Up to the transaxle.
Even with a tow strap, my father-in-law couldn’t pull us out with his own minivan, and we had to call the neighbor to come over with his four-wheel drive, three-quarter ton pickup to get us out. And even that wasn’t a sure thing.
Like my van, we can find many Christians and churches today almost inextricably trapped, not by mud, but by something just as sticky and immobilizing. They are trapped by tradition.
No one means to be trapped by tradition, and tradition by itself isn’t bad. But when people cannot see tradition for what it is, when they mistake a method for the goal or a ceremony for the thing being celebrated, when they anchor themselves to the past instead of pressing on to their God-appointed destination, then tradition becomes little more than a prison to restrain Christ’s followers from experiencing all of his glorious saving grace. And when tradition becomes an obstacle to Christ’s followers, those who love him most will seek to overcome it. Or even destroy it.
I will leave that task for another time. Today my purpose is to avoid the trap altogether. And I think we can do this best by seeing how the trap works. If we can see how tradition ensnares, perhaps we will be better equipped to use tradition well without being entangled.
So, let’s trip the trap!
We’ll do it with a simple illustration:
There is perhaps no day on the Christian calendar more steeped in tradition than Christmas. There are church traditions, family traditions, and personal traditions. For example, every year our church has a Christmas cantata, our family looks goes out looking at lights on Christmas Eve, and sometime during the season, I try to read A Christmas Carol. Everyone’s got traditions.
My parents have their own Christmas traditions, and at least one of them started without their notice! But a tradition it is, and Christmas at the Carpenter house doesn’t happen without it. Which is what tradition does…
Here’s what happened (or so it was told to me). One Christmas, my parents were preparing to celebrate the holiday together, and they were discussing what to have for Christmas dinner. Being the non-conformist that she is, my mother decided to make something entirely untraditional, and so she served lasagna. Lasagna with French-cut green beans and toasted almonds.
(It should be understood here that my mother makes a serious lasagna – like, world-class. I’d never even heard of Stouffer’s until after college, and Mr. Stouffer wouldn’t last 2 rounds in the kitchen against my mom with lasagna on the menu. Got it?)
That next Christmas must have been busier than usual because my parents didn’t get around to discussing Christmas dinner until the season was quite advanced. With little time for preparation and much less for thought, my mother said something like, “Why don’t I just make lasagna again?” So, she did.
To date, I have eaten lasagna on every Christmas that I can remember celebrating in my parents’ home. Lasagna with French-cut green beans and toasted almonds. And it’s always really, really good.
That’s tradition, and that’s how it works. It’s a trap, of sorts, though most traps of tradition aren’t nearly as delicious. Note the process:
Something – anything – is done out of desperation or by accident. Mom didn’t plan on having lasagna; she simply made it. They had to eat something, she knew what she didn’t want, and she could make lasagna. This combination of desperate accident is the germ from which nearly all traditions sprout.
Then, the desperate accident is repeated out of convenience. Rather than scouring cookbooks and recipe boxes for something new-yet-untraditional, Mom simply went with what had worked before. She had done it once (probably a lot more than that), and she could do it again. Because it had worked so well the year before, she would do it again. In this way, pragmatism and convenience provide rich fuel for traditions’ early growth.
Once begun, however, a tradition is continued more out of familiarity than convenience. Sometimes the tradition itself can pose a hardship – the antithesis of convenience – but we continue it because it is familiar and provides a sense of comfort and wholeness. Indeed, I distinctly remember my mother importing several ingredients from the United States so that she could make her Christmas lasagna while we were living in Australia for a few years.
Sometimes we don’t even know why we continue it, yet we persist in spite of difficulty or opposition, telling ourselves that “this is the way we’ve always done it,” as if that explained everything.
This is where the trap springs. When something becomes familiar, we start to have trouble imagining life without it. Familiarity yields to fear, and instead of comfort or convenience, we begin to act out of self-preservation. It never happened in my parents’ house, but most of us can probably recount holiday arguments where close family members spewed venom at one another over a trivial matter that was nothing more than a tradition.
Whether it’s the placement of a special Christmas tree ornament, attendance at an extended family member’s house, or the precise schedule of all holiday festivities, we can defend our traditional practices as if it were a matter of life or death. The only explanation for this, as preposterous as it sounds, is fear.
Note the process again: desperation (or accident), convenience, familiarity, fear. This is the trap of tradition. In holiday settings, it can be sad (or even perversely amusing when septuagenarians act like kindergarteners). But in the Church, the trap of tradition can kill.
Desperation / Accident
Many church traditions began this way. A church needed more space to gather all of its people together under a roof, so they built a special building. A church with limited seating wanted to bring more unreached people to hear the Gospel, so an evening service was added. A church wanted to spend more time praying during the week, so a mid-week service was scheduled. A Christian wanted to educate orphans and street children, so he started a Sunday School. Some Christians wanted everyone to have the best translation of Scriptures available, so a new version was authorized. Others wanted to demonstrate the value of worship, so they adopted a clothing style.
Every church has its own traditions, even though it may not recognize them as such. For some it is the order of their worship service, or their weekly schedule. Some have special rooms or pieces of furniture in their building. Some have an expected dress code or style of worship. None of these things was ever specified by God in the Scriptures, yet they were all implemented for some good reason at the time.
Because they were implemented for a good reason, many of these traditions worked. They were good ideas! The contemporary music of the 1940s worked to attract a generation of young Christians to church. The dedication of memorials worked to solicit funds for much-needed church building improvements. The bus ministry worked to reach people in the inner city and swell Sunday School attendance. The altar call style of invitation worked to assist people needing spiritual counsel, motivate others to seek it, and provide preachers with an instant metric for evaluating the effectiveness of revival meetings.
At this stage, tradition begins to inspire imitation. Others notice the ease and positive outcome the tradition has produced, and they try to reproduce it. Sometimes the originator of the tradition actively encourages replication through his / her books or conferences.
So, churches swap out a collection box for ushers who pass baskets or dishes. Pastors accumulate executive powers instead of sharing authority with other elders. In other contexts, deacons become a board of directors instead of servants to the congregation. Organists and pianists learn to play soft music while the preacher pleads with people to walk an aisle. Sunday Schools develop quarterlies, leadership structures, and strategically-designed meeting spaces. Committees form to streamline tasks and affirm their members’ gifts. Churches learn to tolerate non-attendance in order to maintain their membership rolls, rather than confront apostates. The morning worship service is leveraged as the church’s primary outreach event instead of growing disciples to evangelize their communities. Churches develop these traditions because they get results.
Unfortunately, convenient traditions inspire not only imitation but amnesia. Churches too easily forget the Bible’s teaching, which means that they also forget to see their practices for the traditions that they are.
We maintain the traditions that work precisely because they work, but such is the nature of tradition that we often continue them long after they’ve stopped working. This happens because we’ve formed a habit, a habit that gives a sense of comfort, security, or even predictability. We like to know what to expect, and tradition helps us here. Continuity and stability are good things that can promote growth, which is why “we’ve always done it this way” sounds reasonable to some people.
But at this stage, tradition becomes so familiar that we cannot imagine life without it. There are Christians that cannot imagine a church service without an invitation at the end; others can’t imagine one without a robed choir. Some imagine a mid-week prayer meeting or a Sunday evening service as inviolable elements of the church’s schedule.
What would a church be without an organ? A bus ministry? A youth pastor? Hymnbooks? Vacation Bible School? AWANA? Training Union? A baptistery? A pulpit?
How could a church possibly function with drums? A tie-less pastor? Small groups meeting in homes during the week? A video projector? Communion elements served at the front of the meeting hall? Online tithing? Women praying out loud?
All these questions and more have been voiced – at least, implicitly – by tradition-loving Christians. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
What’s wrong is when the church’s traditions become confused with the church itself. That’s when fear sets in.
When the exercise of faith is mistaken for its essence, the faithful will resist all changes as if they were defending the faith, because that’s exactly what they think they’re doing. Even when the tradition causes difficulty (e.g. with increased maintenance costs) or hinders the mission of the church (e.g. with methods contextualized to a previous generation), they will continue to practice and defend it.
Often this amounts to making a virtue out of a perceived necessity, and preachers will perform interpretive gymnastics with the Scriptures in order to justify their tradition. Church history also falls prey to their myopic gaze, and the naïve Christian comes to believe that the only way anyone has ever pleased God is by serving him in this particular way. Evangelistic strategies, prayer meetings, tent meetings, prophecy conferences, Bible translations, missions programs, dress codes, music styles, educational preferences, denominational relations, and even architecture have all been badly supported because they were believed to be the only way to serve God, instead of merely the best way to serve him at a certain time and place.
(Some defenders of tradition are less quixotic. If they were to tell the truth, they are merely protecting an investment, a constituency, or a reputation. In these cases the trap isn’t tradition but something else, like pride.)
At this final stage, Christians part ways. Tragically, they often do so without recognizing their common faith in Christ. Because the tradition has eclipsed the Gospel, anyone questioning the tradition is seen as a “liberal, compromising, Bible-denier,” while the questioner views anyone defending it as a “legalist.” Neither can get away from the other soon enough, and the Body of Christ suffers.
A Way Out?
So what’s the solution? How does the church avoid being trapped by its tradition?
By going back to the source, to the Word of God.
Not to defend a practice we’ve already assumed.
Not to oppose a practice we don’t understand.
But to discover and re-discover the single Gospel for every generation, culture, and context in order to edify the Body of Christ in all places and all times. To compare everything we do with what God has done and to seek his guidance for what to do next. To evaluate every procedure and policy, every custom and convention, every tradition by the truth of Scriptures. To submit the exercise of our faith to the authority of the Lord we trust.
And, if need be, to change.