It seems that a church’s worship style determines congregational attendance these days. I thought it was a fad, but I’m now convinced that people primarily choose a church based on music and liturgy. Gone are the days in which people went to church according to denomination or upbringing.
It was only a few years ago at Trinity that folks had many conversations about worship. We had trouble attracting–and keeping–the “under 35 years of age” crowd, so the worship committee and the pastor at the time were discerning how best to blend music old and new.
Although we do include new music every now and then, we still like to call ourselves a “traditional” church. That’s my fault. I can very well tell inquiring minds that our church is “blended” or postmodern or emerging or whatever other labels are hip right now, but I really like traditional.
Some people think that “traditional” is a bad word, but I think it has some gravitas. It communicates that we adhere to an intentional, spirit-led trajectory and are anchored in a history formed by God and our church’s founders. That’s not such a bad thing after all.
Yet, even in a place like Trinity in which liturgy and an “order of worship” determine our tempo, movement, and experience every Sunday, tradition can get in the way of the Spirit. We like our order of worship, thank you very much, but sometimes it seems that we try to control the process rather than let the Spirit move and have a say in how we worship on a typical Sunday.
Jesus confronted this in his own ministry. In Mark 7:1-14, the Pharisees, (a traditional bunch if there ever was one), complained that Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. This was a tradition, albeit an important one, but Jesus responded with a challenge, in effect, saying that tradition, no matter how well-intentioned, can replace a relationship with God.
“This people honors me with their lips,” Jesus quoted Isaiah as saying, “But their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).
So much for tradition: God always gets to the heart of the matter (no pun intended). You know, I think washing hands is a good thing. I tell my children to do it before every meal, and I do the same ritual myself frequently. What I think Jesus was getting at here was that the Pharisees let their traditions determine their attitude towards others. Traditions have their place, but when a tradition is elevated to become a thermometer for piety, it loses its value and meaning.
Whenever I hear people scoff about tradition or liturgy, I always snicker to myself. Even in the most contemporary of churches, the most out-of-the-box churches, traditions arise unknowingly. There may not be a printed bulletin that lets you know of the order of worship, but there is always an order, I assure you.
Even a protest against “traditional” worship can replace a relationship with God!
Jesus quotes Isaiah again to the Pharisees when he stated that they, the Pharisees, were “teaching human precepts as doctrines” (Mark 7:7). That reminds me of something Harry Emerson Fosdick once wrote: We humans sometimes get too swept away with our emotions that our emotions threaten to become doctrines. In turn, those doctrines become divisive within the Body of Christ.
If you don’t believe me, then just ask yourself why some traditions are meaningful to you. Most likely, they are meaningful because they evoke an emotional experience of some kind. Our worship preferences replace inclusive ministry because we start to discriminate against others based on their traditions!
Traditions are not meant to determine how holy a person is before God; rather, healthy traditions are rightly born out of the inner awakening and movement of God’s Spirit. “Nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15).
If we have a relationship with God, if our hearts are near to Him, then our worship, no matter the style or preference, will be pure, holy, and accomplished “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).