Traditional religion or inspiring rituals?

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).

What’s in a name? Southern Baptists and Baptist identity

A conflict in my church’s recent history concerned a rumor that made its way through the congregation.  Some were under the belief that the staff was planning on dropping the “Baptist” in Trinity Baptist Church.

Not sure how the rumor got started, especially since staff then (and now) are more Baptist than many folks in the pew.  It points to the importance that names have, especially when it conjures notions of identity and history.

Back then, church name-changing was common; and although its been nearly a decade, churches are continuing to drop denominational monikers all over the country.

Even denominations are reconsidering.  In an article for “USA Today,” Jonathon Merritt reported that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) executive committee put together a task force to study whether having “Southern” in the name hinders its mission.

SBC execs argue that “Southern” points to an antiquated, regional identity.  The Convention no longer advocates for a “Southern agenda nor a Southern vision,” according to Albert Mohler as quoted in Merritt’s article.

That may be true in theory; but, although I do not have any right to opine on the wisdom of this latest discussion (since I am not involved in the Convention per se), it would be hard to argue that the Convention does not reflect a southern ethic.  I can speak confidently about that because I am, after all, a Yankee in King Mohler’s court.

I once visited a church that refused to identify itself as Southern Baptist.  The goal was to not turn away visitors, but ten minutes into worship and three minutes into the sermon, my wife and I knew the church was nothing less than Baptist.  It was not just the pastor’s southern drawl that gave it away.

I understand the Convention’s reasons for giving up the name.  Southern Baptists have the reputation for being too far to the right, too politically involved, and too exclusive.  Whether or not that is true of Southern Baptists in general or in particular is besides the point.   Even Merritt points to a survey in which 40% of 18 to 24-year olds would not visit a church if it was Southern Baptist in name.

Many times, perception is reality.  Trinity has had several families visit just in the past year who said they hesitated coming to church because we had “Baptist” in our name.  Likewise, if the Convention wants to focus on church planting in North America, it will be an uphill battle to found a new Southern Baptist congregation in say, Manhattan.

Nevertheless, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

For years, many friends and I have been salvaging the “Baptist” part of our churches to rebrand what many feel is a more mainline trajectory in church life.  Opponents of this trend have labelled many a church “liberal,” hoping to hinder our own church growth for some rhyme or reason.  We argued all along that at least we didn’t give up on our heritage.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: Is subterfuge an effective means of evangelism?   Perhaps the Convention should take it from us and not give up on what it means to be Southern.  That, and focus energy on fixing their reputation.

Don’t give up on “Southern,” just help the public discover why many thousands of individuals are proud to be Southern Baptists in the first place.  Don’t abandon an identity because of polls; rather, work hard in the years to come so that the polls reflect a different perception.

No amount of name-changing will shape the SBC in the near future.  Its reputation for good or ill still precedes it.  Perhaps its time to ask what needs to be done about those perceptions instead, because even if it quacks like a duck, one will still eventually find out that it could be a Baptist in disguise.  It’s just a matter of time.

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly reveals larger, post-denominational trends (Part 1)

This past week I spent some time in Charolotte, NC, attending the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly–the annual meeting of a denominational “fellowship” made up of some 1,900 churches.  It is truly a blessing to be amongst fellow brothers and sisters who share a common identity and values, to meet with friends old and new, and to network with other clergy.

I also had time to notice that the overall feel of the General Assembly reflected some larger trends, both positive and negative, facing North American denominations as a whole.  This blog is the first in a three-part series outlining my reflections and learnings from the CBF meeting:

Positive Trend 1: Many denominations are being intentional about raising up a new generation of ministers that are proud of their heritage and core values.  The CBF, specifically, has taken explicit steps to include young leaders in every aspect of the denomination, from upper-level staff positions to board positions.  This insures communication across generational lines and inclusive ministry throughout this brand of Baptist’s hierarchy.  It also reinforces good, old-fashioned Baptist identity by giving the next generation a stake in the denomination’s future.

For example, this morning I attended a breakfast for pastors that are participating in the Collegiate Congregational Internship Program.

This program, funded by a Lily Endowment Grant, enables the CBF to place and pay college students and first-year seminarians in a variety of ministry positions in participating congregations.     This year is the first in the three-year program, and over 90 interns were placed in congregations throughout the nation, from California to Virginia, in the summer months.

This program intends to train students for ministry and nurture potential calls to ministry.  It also gives them hands-on training in local church settings, while exposing students to the work of the church, be it deacon ministries or lay leadership councils.

Churches, strapped for resources, benefit by having the interns as well as the stipend to broaden their ministry outreach.

I speak from personal experience.  At Trinity Baptist Church, we placed an intern as the Minister of Youth and Missions.  The intern, Matt, and is getting invaluable experience that coincides with his classroom, seminary training at Mercer University.

The CBF’s intentional shift towards including young leaders in key positions is continuing to pay off.   While other denominations navigate through the uncertain terrain of generational conflicts and leadership crises, the CBF has diversified its leadership in both age and ethnic make-up.

Positive Trend 2: Denominations are becoming holistic in their approach to ministry.

Initially, many denominational bodies started out as missionary-sending boards that did little in terms of public advocacy and social transformation.  After all, Baptists have prided themselves on protecting the thin line of separation between church and state.

As these same denominations face economic and enthusiam shortfalls, however, Baptists had to expand missions into the larger field of public policy and advocacy.  Not only do Baptists want to feed the poor, they want to insure that the poor live in a just society that helps to eliminate poverty altogether.

Baptists see that they must meet a broader set of needs in a broken world.  The theme for this year’s CBF assembly, for instance, focused on missions and social justice; workshops and seminars informed and trained participants in a variety of topics that are facing our society, from human sex trafficking to disaster relief efforts.

The first seminar delivered at the CBF, facilitated by Alan Roxbrough, inspired churches to be transformative agents in their local communities.

I attended a workshop today that informed the audience on ways local churches can take part in social justice ministry and public advocacy.  The seminar allowed both the facilitators and the audience to bear witness as to how their churches are ministering to and fighting on behalf of the most marginalized people groups in our society.

Devita Parnell, Congregational Resource Specialist for the CBF, explained the need to include a wider focus in ministry that includes social justice.    Churches are good at helping the poor and broken in society much like the Good Samaritan helped the hurt traveler on the road to Jerusalem, she stated, But churches are not good at taking intentional steps to make the road from Samaria to Jerusalem safer for all pilgrims.

We bear witness to the world in order to lead people to the love and forgiveness and lordship of Christ.  We also bear witness by fighting on the behalf of those who are weak and disenfranchised in society.   This is what it means to engage in holistic missions.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.  Visit Trinity’s website at