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Identifying Constricting Traditions

Identifying Constricting Traditions

Traditions are traps.

We’ve all been to the traditional church. They’re consumed with liturgy. They sing hymns and do responsive readings. They have stained glass icons and golden flourishes adorning their walls. You won’t see drums, electric guitars, or v-neck t-shirts on the stage.

While some people legitimately experience God in liturgical or traditional churches, they’re largely irrelevant to our generation. The traditions that used to be vibrant expressions in the church have become dead minutia.

What makes these traditions so lifeless? Traditions are not necessarily bad things. But when traditions lose their lifeblood they become irrelevant. The lifeblood of a tradition is purpose.

Can I suggest that a traditional church with purpose is more relevant than a modern church without it?

A traditional church with purpose is more relevant than a modern church without it.
God can touch hearts and work through a traditional church that’s alive with purpose, while He seems stagnant at the most creative and edgy churches. It’s all about purpose.

Are your church’s traditions alive or dead? Be assured, your church does have traditions. Everything becomes a tradition if it gets repeated.

The fact that you hold Christmas Eve services. The fact that you take an offering. The fact that you do five songs then the message. These all become traditions.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But you need to make sure there is life and purpose in those traditions. That’s why evaluation meetings are so important. Everything needs to be on the table for discussion. And everything needs to be reevaluated to make sure it’s purposeful.

Otherwise even the most creative things we do can become lifeless traditions.

Even the most creative things we do can become lifeless traditions.

New Traditions

Imagine a church that decides to do creative staging for a Christmas service. They want to capture the congregation’s imagination. So they put together the volunteers and create a visually impacting stage design. The congregation goes crazy for it. Everyone loves it.

So the staff decides to do another stage design for the month of January. Another success!

Pretty soon the church is building a stage design for each series. Not only that, but each stage design has to out-do the previous design. Even though the stage designs are different each week, it’s become a tradition. And soon it becomes more about wowing the crowd than about capturing the congregation’s imagination.

Creative stage design quickly shifts from a relevant idea to a lifeless tradition that is draining the staff’s time and emotional energy.

You should never fall into the trap of doing something because it has worked well in the past or because people like it.

You should never fall into the trap of doing something because it has worked well in the past or because people like it.
Our best ideas can become entertainment or fuel for our egos. Then they lose their life.

A tradition can easily lose its purpose and become a bondage. The church starts serving the tradition rather than the tradition serving the church.

The church starts serving the tradition rather than the tradition serving the church.

This is how a traditional church can become more relevant than a modern one. If the traditional church is intentional about the traditions they perform, the traditions have life. But if a modern church is creative because that’s “what they do”, they will quickly become irrelevant to the people who need their message.

Some tell-tale signs of traditions that have lost their purpose are words like these:

If people are having to tolerate something in your service it has lost its purpose.

  • “I know that song is 15 years old. But it’s still a good song.” Instead you should decide whether that 15 year-old song accomplishes the purpose of the morning. It could just mean you don’t like the new songs and want to stick with the style of music you’re used to.
  • “People will tolerate baby dedications in the middle of the service.” If people are having to tolerate something in your service it has lost its purpose.
  • “Jennifer always sings the solo for that song. It’s her song.” Unless Jennifer wrote the song, it isn’t her song. Is Jennifer really the best one to sing that song or has it become about her ego?
  • “We always have a church picnic on the 4th of July.” You haven’t always done that. The tradition had to start some time. And the tradition may need to end some time.
  • “Everyone loves when the children act out the passion play during our Easter services.” Chances are that only a few people love that. Only a very few. Is that sort of program the best use of your Easter Sunday or is a tradition?

None of those traditions are bad. But it doesn’t mean they are good. Traditions or creativity need to reinforce the story we are telling on Sunday mornings. We can avoid the trap of traditions by being intentional about everything we do at our churches. We need to evaluate every element of our services to make sure they have purpose and life.

Evaluation shouldn’t just happen once a year at a congregational meeting. Evaluation should be a weekly thing.

Evaluation shouldn’t just happen once a year at a congregational meeting. Evaluation should be a weekly thing.
A lifeless tradition can be formed in as little as two weeks. If we do something one week just because it worked well last week, the tradition has already started and it’s already lost its purpose. It quickly becomes a distraction to the purpose of the church service.

Matt Redman led worship at a church in England. You can imagine how great it would be to be a part of those services. An amazing worship leader like Matt–singing his well-written songs. But the pastor noticed one day that the worship service had become more about the cool songs and great band than about purpose of the worship time.

To combat this dead tradition that was forming, the pastor scaled back. He removed the band and the lights. He had Matt lead by himself with a single guitar.

The song, Heart of Worship, grew out of that experience. As they removed the traditions they found the purpose again. They got back to the heart of worship–all about Jesus.

The powerful chorus from the song needs to become part of everything we do in the church. What is your department? What traditions do you need to strip away to get back to the heart of your ministry?

You might need to sing a song like:

  • “I’m coming back to the heart of stage design, and it’s all about you, Jesus.”
  • “I’m coming back to the heart of ushering, and it’s all about you, Jesus.”
  • “I’m coming back to the heart of service programming, and it’s all about you, Jesus.”

Substitute your area of ministry and pray that prayer to God. Let Him show you areas where you’ve let traditions clog up your ministry’s relevance.

Strip your ministry down to its bare essentials. Then add the traditions back as they have meaning. By the end of this exercise you might have changed nothing, but the heart of the ministry will be different. And the heart of the ministry translates to people more than the accoutrements.

Get back to the heart of creativity–whether you’re doing something traditional or something that’s never been done before.

About The Author

Jonathan Malm

Jonathan is a creative entrepreneur and writer. He is the author of "Created for More," a 30-day devotional to help you develop a more creative mind. You’ll find him in San Antonio, Texas, roasting his own coffee beans and enjoying life with his Argentine wife, Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanmalm.

4 Comments

  1. Joel

    Man, such good words to remember. Thanks for the article!

    Reply
  2. Yvette Tripp

    Very well spoken, Thank you very much!

    Reply
  3. Amy Flickinger

    I am a worship planner at an Anglican church where we are consumed with liturgy: we sing hymns and do responsive readings and you will also see drums, electric guitars and v-neck t-shirts up front in our service

    We are consumed with liturgy because we believe it makes us more faithful worshippers of Jesus. And the people in our church find it incredibly relevant. Why do we worship the way we do? Our worship originates with God’s work and we simply respond in the most faithful way we can with what he has given us: his Word and his Sacraments.

    Everything we do creatively has to fall into the beautiful constraints of liturgy that keep us anchored to the Word and saving work of Jesus. It protects us from planning to please our congregation with traditions or novelty. This Lent we made floor to ceiling charcoal drawings of the Stations of the Cross. And many people were deeply moved by them and asked that we make it a tradition. But we won’t because we will study, pray and seek God next year about how to faithfully share the story of Jesus’ passion again and again.

    Frequently when we seek to incorporate something new in worship, we actually wind up using even older traditions and liturgies because they are tested by worshippers who lived and died faithfully following Jesus. Tradition means giving the generations who have gone before you a voice in your worship planning meeting.

    So it wouldn’t matter if people don’t care for baby dedication or baptism Sunday. Bringing children into the family of God is one of the primary activities of the Church. It signals that our worship is eternal as generations of believers offer unending praises in churches and before the throne of God. You can’t allow congregational preference to overrule that.

    Purpose is good. Coming back to the heart of your craft is good. But we are inadequate to define these things ourselves. In my experience, well-considered traditions are tools to make us more faithful worshippers of Jesus.

    Reply
    • Jonathan Malm

      I’m excited to hear that! It seems like you guys are effectively using liturgy in your church. That’s exactly the sort of thing I was saying when a traditional/liturgical church can be more relevant than a modern one. Kudos and keep up the good work! 🙂

      Reply

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