Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Young Fundamentalism - Tradition in Perspective

I love tradition! I firmly believe that we should eat turkeys at Thanksgiving time and hot dogs at picnics in July. I think that apple pie has to be paired with vanilla ice cream -- always. That, and every parade should have a marching band, horses, and an army tank. Traditions are great! They bind us together as a culture. Traditions give us a rallying point and a sense of corporate identity amid the bustle of our individualistic society.

In the church, traditions can be just as useful. Activities that are repeated become traditions that are learned. As long as the tradition accomplishes something of Christian value, that tradition can be valuable as a teaching tool over generations.

Traditions also make people comfortable. One of the dangers that is faced by those who would like to throw out all tradition from the church is that even the unchristian person has an expectation of tradition when it comes to the church. Those who do not attend church expect that when they walk into a church auditorium that it have a certain setup and atmosphere. So, from the pulpit and pews to the annual Sunday school picnic, the traditions of the church have served a purpose through the ages. In part, they make people feel comfortable in finding what they "expect". (Not that a church should strive to meet the expectations of the lost, but we should give thought to the fact that some traditions do give an atmosphere of familiar comfort. This is why Amazing Grace is sung at nearly every funeral. It is familiar and comforting.)

In addition to all of this, shared traditions bind people groups together and give them identity. When we are talking about "how great our church's yearly harvest potluck is," that is good. It shows how we as a group see ourselves, as people that make good food. However, when traditions of belief and practice cause an identity of a superiority that looks down on those that don't have our traditions, that's just unchristian. Traditions must not be allowed to become the shibboleth for acceptance into our churches and of other Bible-driven, gospel-centered churches.

Having said all this, the church that lives on tradition (instead of intentionally using tradition as a tool) is a dying church. Living solely on tradition is kind of like eating leftovers. It reminds you of a real good meal you had sometime in the past, but you aren't that thrilled about it warmed up and fed to you over and over now.

The question of "Why?" has to come up on a more regular basis in our churches. "Why are we doing this?" "Why do we believe this?" "Why do we practice our faith in this way?" Now, the answer to the question of "Why?" is not always simple. (We have to get better at communicating complex answers instead of simply dispensing rehearsed platitudes that sound good on the surface but don't stand the test of Biblical investigation or consistency.) Sometimes the answer is as simple as: "we do it because of tradition." Even this answer, in some instances can be acceptable. If I do something out of tradition that most of my congregation enjoys and is blessed by, then that's okay as long as we all admit that what we are doing is a tradition, not Bible truth. The problem obviously arises when tradition is raised to the level of Bible truth and is proclaimed to be so.

So, if tradition is so great, why rock the boat? The answer for this is simple. In order to be useful traditions have to meet three criteria:

  1. Tradition cannot contradict, replace, or supersede Bible truth
  2. Tradition has to have an "end game" -- a goal that is accomplished by the tradition
  3. Traditions have to "work" for and be relevant to those involved - (example: There is nothing wrong with a tradition of opening up Christmas presents at 2:00 AM Christmas morning. The kids would love it! Why don't we do it? It doesn't "work" for Mom and Dad. They want sleep!)
If a tradition within the church does not meet the standard of the above criteria then it is a tradition that is either unBiblical, ineffective, or obsolete and should be reviewed and revamped, or discarded. 

The last thing we talk about with the church is the concept of competing traditions. The truth is that both millennial generation and the baby boomers (these seem to be the loudest voices in the church today) want tradition, they just want different, and at times competing traditions. Here is the deal, God intended the church to be multigenerational. (For more on this see my book, Before the Box: Freeing the Church to Emulate First-Century Christianity) Nowhere in the Bible do we find instructions on how to establish demographic specific churches. God intended great grandma to go to church with little Sally. He also intended that Christian love be displayed from both ends of the age spectrum. With real communication and the true love of a Christian family a church is enabled by God to bridge the "tradition" divide and find traditions and compromises that will work across generational lines. After all, if I love my eighty-seven year old deacon (and I do, his name is Noah Sparkes and he is awesome) I will want him to come to church and be comfortable and blessed. The reverse, of course is true. Noah wants the church services and traditions to be a help and a blessing to those of my generation. This is how a Biblical church works. No one gets their own way, it is always about others. That's the way of Jesus.

First Corinthinans 14:26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying

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