We’ve got a problem. It’s lurking within every congregation and affecting the lives of countless Christians. We’re hung up on our traditions. We’re binding opinions upon each other and we’re standing in our own way. Let me start by giving a few examples that have really bothered me (and while I will address specific incidents, I won’t name congregations, so don’t even ask):
One congregation I know of won’t let their song leaders ever deviate from a preset plan of songs in the worship service. It doesn’t matter how well the intentions of the song leader or how the alteration might benefit the worship service, it’s always two songs before the opening prayer, one song before Communion, one song before the sermon, an invitation song, and one to dismiss before the closing prayer. Someone I know once dared to sing three songs before the opening prayer and was swiftly told how unacceptable that was. A brief reference to doing things “decently and in order,” (see 1 Corinthians 14:40) was made as if that passage had anything to do with the number of songs selected from a book of four-part hymns.
Another congregation I know of won’t let anyone (and I mean anyone) lead in any form of public worship service if they aren’t wearing a coat and a tie. I won’t get into the debate about worship attire (however, I will point you to this article that sums up my feelings nicely), but I will say, that’s just plain unnecessary. To think a man shouldn’t lead in service without a tie is just plain binding what isn’t Scriptural. There is absolutely no inherent respect found within the knot of a tie or the seem of a sportscoat. A person can respectfully worship God in blue jeans and a t-shirt or a three-piece suit. If I had the chance, I’d ask their elders, “do you provide coats to every man who is immersed? Do you provide it for those who can’t afford it? Would you bind this standard on every other congregation if you had the chance? Do you feel a congregation that doesn’t have these standards is less respectful to God than your congregation? If so, wouldn’t their worship be less acceptable to God than yours?”
These are just two examples, but to me, they set the stage for a discussion we must have. That discussion centers on one idea – what’s most prudent as we divide God’s truth from our opinions? Is it the traditions we establish or the Gospel we teach? I believe almost every Christian would say “the Gospel,” but I don’t know how many would give up their traditions to actually make it happen? Let me set forth some hypotheticals:
If your congregation had always met on Sunday mornings but found a larger number of non-Christians could come on Sunday afternoons and were interested, would you move services to 2 pm and dare inconvenience your members?
If a large number of your members didn’t have checkbooks, but always carried credit cards and debit cards, would you set up a way for them to give digitally in your auditorium during the contribution or just make them adapt their ways and the ways you’ve always collected their giving?
If your community had a large number of Hispanic immigrants who wanted to learn about the Church and attend worship, would you incorporate a second language into your service or would you shuffle them away from the regular service so that the extra time to translate didn’t inconvenience anyone who needed to be out of here in a timely manner?
If every other congregation in the community met on Wednesday night, would you move your midweek services to Tuesday or Thursday night for those who couldn’t attend on Wednesdays at any of those congregations?
If your minister has always done the preaching, the visiting, the counseling, and overseen the organization of events, but you found in the Scriptures an expectation that others also be about that work, would you adjust or just let things go on as always? Would you bind unrealistic and unscriptural expectations upon someone instead of dividing up the responsibilities biblically all for the sake of convenience and tradition?
If, if, if…
There is a never-ending debate found among these examples that centers around another question – how comfortable are we with change? I’d say most people aren’t comfortable at all. It wasn’t all that long ago I had a conversation with a lady where I worked. She told me she wouldn’t sit in the auditorium for the worship service because we used a projector and power-point during the sermon. She told me that was a denominational idea and wrong. I asked her about song books that display words and the suggested melody of a song, I asked her about overhead projectors or even chalkboards. She told me they were okay, but the projector wasn’t. You see, she had a problem with her traditions. When something she approved of was changed, it became something she feared and it drove her away from a congregation and a group of people who loved her.
Recently, I tweeted something that I’ve felt for quite some time about this topic. Here’s what I said:
As I wrote that, I kept thinking about why we do what we do? Why we meet when we do each Lord’s day? Why we expect certain behavior and frown upon anyone who dares wonder why? Why we follow a preset plan of acceptable fellowship and feel threatened or defensive when someone dares suggest we do it another way? I believe that many of these things we hold on to as “ways of life” in the Church actually get in the way of what might be most beneficial to the Church.
Please don’t think I believe all traditions should be thrown out, that’s just not practical. What I want is for our traditions to lose their “sacred-cow-ness.” I want us to stop worshipping the traditions, and instead, ask what works best in my world in 2018.
None of our doctors practice blood-letting, none of our high school baseball players bat without helmets, and none of us drive our babies around without a car seat, so why do we hold on to the traditions of the Church from yesteryear like we’ll be eternally punished if we don’t? Let’s wake up, and realize that God’s Word is eternal, our traditions are not. Let’s remove the phrase, “we’ve always done it that way,” and ask how can our worship be scriptural yet inviting to generations that learn visually, not just audibly? Let’s find ways to get our benevolence actually to those who need it? And let’s ask why we still do anything if it doesn’t work anymore?
I hope by asking those questions, we’ll avoid the condemnation of Matthew 15:7-9 which quotes Isaiah 29:13 and says:
Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
If our society can move beyond bell-bottom pants, black-and-white televisions, and even slavery, surely, moving beyond other outdated things can’t be so tough, can it?
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.