Most of the readers of this blog know about the dangers of traditionalism. Yale University professor Jaraslov Jan Pelikan has been credited with saying that “Tradition is the living faith of those now departed. Traditionalism is the dead faith of those now living” [emphasis mine]. A “dead faith,” I’m sure Pelikan meant, because the traditionalist follows his traditions without knowing why; it is loyalty to nothing more than a concept, a memory. Traditionalism is continuing a practice for no other reason than the fact that it is a tradition – and that’s not much of a reason.
Maybe we can concede that Tevia had a point: tradition can keep us from too quickly and mindlessly following a crowd. Before we scrap a tradition maybe we should make sure we know why it became a tradition – for there was probably a good reason – and what we might be losing by discarding it. Paul told the Christians at Thessalonica in II Thessalonians 2:15 (KJV), “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”
At times, traditionalism is more comic than harmful. There are other stories to illustrate this, but my favorite is the one about the newlywed wife whom her husband found cutting off the end of the roast before putting it in the roaster. “Why,” he queried “are you doing that? It looks like it would fit just fine.” “My mother always did it this way, but come to think of it, I don’t know why she did.” A few hours later her curiosity caused her to call her mom and ask the now-burning question. “Well, I guess, because my mother did,” was the reply. The young bride’s curiosity was now greater than ever. She called her grandmother, told her the story and asked her why she always cut the end off the roast. “Oh, don’t you remember honey?” grandma answered, “my roaster is such a little thing, I’ve always had to cut the end off the roasts to get them to fit.” Would that our traditionalism never caused any more trouble than a wasted slicing of a roast!
At its worst, however, traditionalism is deadly. Millions are headed for an eternity without Christ because their faith is grounded on the religious traditions they have been told to rely on. The young Saul of Tarsus was murderously zealous for the traditions of his fathers (Galatians 1:14). Jesus spared no one’s feelings (Mark 7:1-23) when he denounced the traditionalism of the Pharisees which involved breaking the commandments of God in order to slavishly follow the traditions of men.
But we can be just as foolish in the following of trends. A lot of young men are going to be plenty embarrassed someday when they see family photos of themselves with their pants falling down! Eventually, removing tattoos and repairing body piercings will be a big business. Ephesians 2:1-3 depicts lost mankind as blindly following the “ways of this world” and the “ruler of the kingdom of the air.”
Sadly, as pastors, we can be almost as foolish – and we don’t have the excuse of being under the Devil’s sway. Every few years a new church becomes the “hot” place to go for “how to do it like we do” conferences. If it’s bringing in multitudes in Chicago or Los Angeles, it must be something God wants me to do in Omaha. We fly in by the thousands and fly home with our shiny three ring binders telling us how to do ministries that might be perfect for the host church and disastrous for our own church.
Donna and I have had the privilege of visiting churches on Sunday mornings the past couple of months. It’s been enjoyable and encouraging but I can’t help smirk a little bit that so many churches have departed from having “traditional worship.” That would be fine in and of itself but why is it that in our departure from traditionalism, we’re all doing pretty much the same thing? It sure looks like a new set of trendy traditions to me.
One of our interim pastorates was with a church that considered itself very non-traditional. I pretty quickly found out that they had their own, non-traditional traditions which were sacred to them. I’ve now concluded that the non-traditional church can be just as traditional about it’s non-traditional traditions as the traditional church is traditional about its traditional traditions. Is it really any better to follow trends than it is to stick with traditions?
Here’s what I’ve concluded so far, and you’re welcome to add to my understanding with your response: Traditions and trends can both be good if they are Biblical and effective. Traditions and trends can both be worthless, or worse than worthless, if they are unbiblical or ineffective. We should hang unto our traditions at least until we know what they were for and if they are working. The latest trends, likewise, should be considered and evaluated with open hearts and open minds and forced to face the same test: Is it consistent with Biblical principles and purposes? Will it work in our context?
Let’s not be traditionalists or trendishionalists. Let’s be like the God-impassioned, no-longer-tradition-bound Apostle who said “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22).