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The Problem With Traditionalism

The owner of a Chevron station in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle got tired of plastering advertising deals on his sign.

Instead, he began posting puns and "Stephen Wright/Far Side"-type comments. Now known as The Wallingford Sign, it has over 60,000 followers on Facebook & Twitter. One of my favorites is: A Day Without Sunshine Is Like Night.

That’s pithy.

But as someone who works with a wide variety of churches, this particular message about tradition presented an interesting challenge. My first reaction was: Ouch.

Fact is: there is no “tradition-less” church. We all have our traditions, some have simply been around longer than others. As a new follower of Jesus in my twenties, I was mentored by a pastor in the Pentecostal tradition. He once told me of a traveling Bible teacher who used to chastise pastors for using notes and manuscripts (considered “traditional”) instead of being “Spirit-led” with their sermons. Problem was, my mentor told me, he gave the same sermon everywhere he went.

Some may differentiate between “tradition” and “traditionalism”. The prolific Christian historian Jaroslav Pelikan stated, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Interestingly, Pelikan collected hundreds of different Christian creeds and statements of faith. Years ago in a tribute to Pelikan, theologian Timothy George described one from the Masai in Nigeria. George writes: “This creed Africanizes Christianity by declaring that Jesus ‘was always on safari doing good.’ It also declares that after Jesus had been ‘tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died, he lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended unto the skies. He is the Lord.’”

George recounts that when Pelikan heard that, he shivered. “…Just the thought, you know, the hyenas did not touch him and the act of defiance. God lives even in spite of the hyenas.”

I shivered as well. Beautiful.

If tradition is about “the faith once delivered unto the saints,” traditionalism is more about methodologies. Face it: most American Gentile Christians would feel extremely uncomfortable in the first century church gathering in Jerusalem. The Hebrew hymns and psalms, primarily minor keyed, would feel so foreign with unfamiliar accompaniment. We would find neither worship bands, ProPresenter, nor pipe organs.

For church leaders, methodologies must be framed with the question: who is this for? And the “who is this for?”-question is the most important question to ask in shaping our gatherings. Is it for us “insiders”? If so, is it for us insiders of a certain age, cultural context, ethnicity, or demographic? That question will back us into the intentionality problem: for what purpose do we meet?

That, my friends, is the existential question for church leadership. We then must decide where the “gatherings” (weekend services, whatever) fit into the overall mission of the church.

Has your leadership team wrestled with those questions? Not only are they the relevant questions, but questions of relevance as it relates to those around us.

Especially if Jesus is always on safari doing good.

Dave Workman | The Elemental Group

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire. ~ Gustav Mahler.


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