Several years ago I embarked on a major research project for a new resource. Part of my research included a long review of thousands of comments made on this site over the past few years. Though my research had another purpose, I became intrigued by the comments related to church traditions.
Of course, by “traditions,” I am referring to those extra-biblical customs that become a way of life for many congregations. A tradition is neither inherently good nor bad. Its value or its distraction in a given church really depends on how members treat the traditions.
With that in mind, I began noting the most frequently defended traditions in churches. As a corollary, these traditions can also be a potential source of divisiveness. They are ranked here according to the frequency of the comments.
- Worship and music style. Though I have noted elsewhere that this issue is not as pervasive as it once was, it is still number one.
- Order of worship service. Thou shalt not change any items in the order of worship.
- Times of worship service(s). The first three most frequently defended traditions are related to worship services.
- Role of the pastor. The pastor is to be omnipresent and omniscient. Many church members have clear expectations of what “their” pastor should do.
- Committee structure. Many congregations continue committee structures long after their usefulness has waned.
- Specific ministries and programs. The healthy church constantly evaluates the effectiveness of its ministries and programs. That’s good stewardship. Other churches continue their ministries and programs because that’s the way they’ve always done it.
- Location of church facility. A church relocation can be an issue of fierce debate, even contention, in many congregations.
- Use of specific rooms. Some of the more frequently named rooms are the worship center, the parlor, the gym, and the kitchen/fellowship hall.
- Business meetings. Traditions include the frequency of business meetings, the scope of authority of business meetings, and the items covered in business meetings.
- Staff ministry descriptions. Some churches insist on having the same staff positions with the same titles with the same ministry descriptions even though the needs in the congregations may have changed dramatically.
My purpose in writing this article is twofold. First, I thought it might be of interest to church leaders. Second, I hope it can provide a cautionary note for those who are leading change.
Let me hear from you. Do these fiercely defended traditions seem familiar in your church? What would you add?
Posted on February 16, 2015
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
#1 are you kidding me? It’s noW more pervasive than ever! Try and switch it and it’s a process that usually has the word “war” in its title and has created at least 1 new church via a split all happening over a period of about 5 years. Because once the style has been decided, that’s it baby for the foreseeable future. Don’t you dare try and change it. Try and turn that organ on today and see what happens. Or, but much less often, bring a drum kit on Sunday morning and see what happens. Bottom line: the music is the music. DON’T CHANGE IT. We just might hear something we don’t like for 10 seconds.
These are exactly the “traditions” we are stuck in right now!! We tussle with some of our membership knowing we are stuck in these traditional ways and wanting to change but have a group of those whom want to continue the ways of old because we’ve always done it that way. We are experiencing some scarcity mindset because as the members age we are not seeing younger people join the membership which fuels some of the hold on to everything mentality.
I would add church membership, tithing, observing advent, maunday Thursday and lent. The tradition of all the focus on the pastor speaking, rather than allowing for the showing forth of the Spirit that all may benefit from the manifold wisdom God has gifted each member of His body. Only by allowing for His Life to be displayed by the members can the love and encouragement of the body be displayed. John 13:34, 35….I give a new commandment to you, that you should love one another; according as I loved you, you should also love one another. In this all shall know you are my disciples, if you have love among one another. That can’t possibly happen in a spectator assembly that every church is holding up as the gold standard. People are witnessed by seeing loving interaction of believers per Jesus, not clever sermons. People are searching for life not what’s currently offered.
Denominational doctrines….. these are the foundations of what’s taught in the church. It’s interesting to me that the general consensus of church goers is: ‘It must be in the Bible, that’s why they teach it.’ Every doctrine and tradition has its origin, and not all are found in the Bible. We have an individual responsibility to know Biblical doctrine ‘rightly divided’ as opposed to the traditions of men proclaim as church laws or church doctrines. Do the research, then make a decision about your church and if it truly teaches the Bible.
as a Lay Leader of a very small UMC church in Wisconsin, I have seen how damaging these traditions can be, especially when they overshadow true worship of God. Our congregation averages 82 years old and the few of us who are under 70 are expected to do all the work of the church but not change any of the antiquated systems that no longer work in our society. Example: we had to fight for 4 years to get a computer in the church and only got one when our district office no longer sent forms etc. through the mail. My prayer is that we put less emphasis on church traditions and more of our energy into God’s will for us.