In and of themselves, traditions are not bad things. In fact, they’re good things, and I suppose we all practice them to varying degrees. For instance, one of our family traditions is to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. I know, it’s kind of like cheating. Apparently it’s a Norwegian thing. One quick click on the “Kurt’s Family” tab above will make it pretty obvious that my kids are a couple of generations removed from their blonde haired, blue eyed Norwegian heritage! But we faithfully keep the tradition anyway. And we like it. Especially sleeping in on Christmas morning. Don’t hate.
I have no idea when, where, or how that tradition began. Perhaps a good reason exists. Or maybe Norwegians are naturally more impatient than others. It doesn’t matter.
What does this have to do with church?
Churches are filled with traditions, and not just the church down the street with the gothic architecture. Your church. Mine too. For instance, some time ago somebody had the bright idea that it might be wise to meet for Bible study in the middle of the week. Great idea, if you ask me. No doubt the “midweek service pioneers” were driven by the biblical principle that people draw closer to God and each other through Bible study and prayer.
The principle drove the behavior. The repeated behavior became habit. The mutually shared habit became tradition. Now, simply insert any number of other methodologies or traditions—bus ministry, Sunday school, etc.—and consider the same process.
Here’s the problem. Once tradition sets in, we often forget its underlying principle. The tradition becomes the measure of right and wrong. Subtly, our application of a biblical principle begins to outweigh the very truth upon which it was founded. A good thing has now become a bad thing.
When are traditions dangerous?
When they become an end in and of themselves
Traditions are applications of unchanging truths. To borrow the illustration above, churches need to be places where, among other things, believers learn the timeless truths of the Word of God. This must never change. Whether they choose to do that on Wednesday night or Friday afternoon or Tuesday morning is up to them. Let’s recognize the liberty other individuals and church bodies have to recognize biblical principles and formulate the best practices by which they can honor them.
When they become a measuring stick for spirituality
Human pride loves comparisons, and she typically chooses to set herself up as the standard by which all others are compared and by which they must inevitably fall short. “The way we do it is right, because it’s the way we do it.” If we are not careful, our traditions will become the lens through which we view and judge others.
When they thwart innovation
Keep in mind that today’s tradition was yesterday’s innovation. Somebody pioneered bold new approaches like picking up children on buses, or canvassing neighborhoods, or organizing evangelistic campaigns, or extending altar calls, or printing gospel tracts. Although you might argue that some of these were first century methodologies, I could readily make the case that first century believers did not employ these methods in these ways. How could they? Combustible engines, printing presses, television, and a host of other societal advances were not available to the first century Christian.
Again, I’m grateful for each of these methods, and our church happens to employ all of them. But let’s keep in mind the principle that undergirds them lest the tradition itself impede the exploration of a better way.
We live in exciting days! Yes, technological advances have brought frightening new dangers. But they have also brought unprecedented avenues by which we may advance the cause of Jesus Christ.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s OK for you to open your presents on Christmas morning or go to Aunt Edna’s on Thanksgiving. For that matter, it really doesn’t bother me if you use one song director or a team of song leaders. Hymn book or screen. Pew or chair. Wednesday or Thursday. Growth groups or Sunday school. Whatever.
Let’s agree to love Jesus and teach the Bible.