The Top Ten Most Fiercely Defended Traditions in Churches

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Order of worship service. Thou shalt not change any items in the order of worship.
  3. Times of worship service(s). The first three most frequently defended traditions are related to worship services.
  4. Role of the pastor. The pastor is to be omnipresent and omniscient. Many church members have clear expectations of what “their” pastor should do.
  5. Committee structure. Many congregations continue committee structures long after their usefulness has waned.
  6. 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.
  7. Location of church facility. A church relocation can be an issue of fierce debate, even contention, in many congregations.
  8. Use of specific rooms. Some of the more frequently named rooms are the worship center, the parlor, the gym, and the kitchen/fellowship hall.
  9. Business meetings. Traditions include the frequency of business meetings, the scope of authority of business meetings, and the items covered in business meetings.
  10. 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.
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  • Thanks for the list –I have served many churches as Intentional Interim Pastor: the “unspoken” rules are the killers – It is like going into the dark cellar where they dynamite is kept with only a candle in your hand for light!

  • By God’s grace, we have navigated numbers 1 & 2 fairly well. Haven’t needed to address #3 at this point. Numbers 5, 6, & 10 are issues that are beginning to emerge. While not written in stone like the order of worship in the cartoon linked above, they are institutionalized in the by-laws which is nearly the same thing.

    I am the lead pastor of a good church and I am following in the shadow of a 52-year pastorate. My predecessor, who is a good friend, however, never changed his methodology from the 1950’s. Seriously… Sometimes the amount of change that is necessary for our congregation to move forward is overwhelming to me and I wonder if one pastor (me) will be able to have the stamina to lead all the necessary changes.

    Drives me to my knees and to the Word. Leaning to trust…and for that I am grateful.

  • Hal Hunter says on

    During 20 years in my church, as both a lay member and later as a staff member, we have “meddled with” every single one of these, save only the location issue. The common themes were resistance to change and the “My Church” mentality. Every time one of these traditions was challenged, we had arguments and lost members. But, new people came and the arguments diminished, then disappeared. We are now happily at the point that our last annual meeting (we only have one required meeting per year) was over in about five minutes, with only one question for clarification of a budget line. Similar progress has been made in each of the other areas. God is good!

  • Mark Dance says on

    Although I led my last church through all of those changes, they did not come without the benefit of time (13 years) and the price of a few tantrums and departures. Looking back, the most successful changes were bathed with corporate prayer and sincere love…which covers a multitude of changes.

    Thank you Dr Rainer for not only listening to our comments over the years, but sifting through for patterns we can benefit from, as well as our churches.

  • I cannot say that we have any of these issues. In my 20+ years at the church we have never fought “worship wars” as they love everything from contemporary to Bach. This church loves different worship experiences. When we look to change we bring it up to members, ask their opinions, let it “steep” for a while in their minds and let them own it. We spend a lot of time in prayer asking God where he wants us to go and what to do. Yes, someone may not enjoy moving their classroom, but that is soon gotten over. We’ve restructured committees, combined them, changed services a little. All of our change we do intentionally over time so that the people own it and even then the changes are never drastic and they find it was not so bad. Then when small changes are made “on the fly” or by “pastoral decree” there is no ruckus. It has taken time for some things, but the teaspoon has steered the Titanic. We’d rather be slower, intentional, seeking God’s leading first and foremost.

  • David Clegg says on

    I wish I could insert a picture here, but putting this link is the next best thing. 🙂

  • Shawn Keener says on

    Thom, I am sad to say they are all too familiar. We have a wonderful church, but most of the above are present. Two more come to mind: continuing Sunday and Wednesday evening services and alterations to the sanctuary (under the worship style tradition above). Also love your posts on how to be a good candidate. Living that now. Thx.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you for your kind words, and for being a reader of this blog.

    • Can you clarify? Other than low attendance, what is the reasoning for doing away with Sunday and Wednesday evening services. Thanks.

      • I believe the point is simply that IF such services are serving the church, then great…but if not, they should be examined for re-purposing, or perhaps removing. Some churches have a Saturday evening service, some churches have thursday morning prayer meetings…Each church should see what works for them.

        At my church (Sunday morning about 200), we were having about 20-30 people on Sunday Evenings…since removing that service to free up sunday evenings for some community groups to meet, we have anywhere from 100-130 involved in Community groups. Some of those groups meet on Sunday nights.

      • Thom Rainer says on


      • What are those community groups doing and how are they supporting the mission of the Church universal to call sinners to repentance and saints to improvement?

  • I love the statement ” the healthy church” because the healthy church is using wisdom to determining the difference between tradition, biblical model and what’s needed in a specific local church. This covers all areas of the church from “the role of the pastor” to “types of ministries needed for reaching people in a specific area” to “number of needed staff positions.” Thank you for your insight. Very useful.

  • The 1st 3 are the subject of contension in my church. Older members still want to know when the contemporary worship “experiment” will be over and we get back to “normal”. That ship sailed more than a year ago, but until those members go home to be with the Lord, that question will continue in to be raised.we will be continued using to make changes as we seek to meet the needs of a changing community and a culture that doesn’t relate to the traditional role of the church in their lives. Thank you for affirming what we are seeing and wrestling with.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Anna. Blessings on your church.

    • Kirk Skeptic says on

      No, I’m afraid that the next group will be demanding worship even more contemporary than now, and those now who call the shots will be just as frustrated with the upstarts as the elderly are witht he current lot. That’s the nature of contemporary worship: catering to the preferences of thise able to muster the most votes, and always morphing into something new; no apprciation for Godly tradition or the preferences of others.

      • Kirk
        I would point out that those who prefer traditional worship music keep churches from becoming contemporary by mustering the most votes as well. Likewise, though there is nothing wrong with God honoring tradition, neither is there nothing wrong with God honoring innovation. Embrace what is good and God honoring, and recognize when tradition or innovation are hinders or advances our ministry to the lost.

  • Greg Corbin says on

    Very good, accurate list. I would add that churches who are growing deal with these issues, not just stagnant ones. For instance, I have seen churches that had grown substantially in attendance, but their committee structure did not allow them to make decisions in a coherent manner and they were hamstrung by having constant business meetings where everything was voted on. In these cases a church has outgrown their traditions and they will either change or revert back their previous size due to conflict. Unfortunately, I have seen it work both ways. Thanks for all you do!

  • Tom,
    As an intentional interim and a TCAT church consultant I have noticed two other traditions that have no biblical basis but continue to be ground zero in the battle to refocus and restructure stalled and declining churches.

    The “Sanctuary Doctrine” keeps churches from leveraging their square footage in a multi-purpose usage of the auditorium and updating the dated décor.

    “Congregational Rule” impedes movement and perpetuates a festering of division, power struggles and disunity that distracts from our priorities of outreach and joyful fellowship.

    When these things are put in question because they have no foundation in the Scriptures they are met with the “yeah, but” explanation based on how we have always done it. On the most part these folks are sincere and believe they are defending what God wants them to defend. These are people who need to be gently and yet firmly challenged and encouraged to trust the Lord and surrender their preferences to God’s purposes.

    Jesus said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8) This is still true today for many churches who are more engaged in preservation and survival than proclamation and surrender.

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going. God is doing great things in the church I am currently working with and He is demonstrating that He is more than willing to refresh those who truly seek after Him.

    • Joe Pastor says on

      Good insights, Jim! I am in a church which slowly transitioned away from congregational rule over a period of several years. A difficult, but needed transition. Without question, there is more peace/calm in our church because of this transition.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Very insightful. Thanks, Jim. Your words are heartening.

    • Jimmy A. Millikin says on

      Congregational rule is not a tradition. I believe it is clearly taught in Scripture. The rule by one man or a few is a contradiction to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Even Paul, who had apostolic authority which no church leader has today, submitted to congregational authority. It appears to me that the centuries of Baptist understanding of the Bible on this issue is being rejected by the CEO mentality adopted from the secular business world rather than principles taught in the New Testament. Churches today are becoming more like the corporate world than a group of baptized believers under the Lordship of Christ and not under the lordship of a corporate board with a CEO.

      • Jimmi, I agree. I’m a 37 year old associate pastor who has been in ministry for a little over ten years. I have served in churches with “traditional” Baptist polity and “elder led.” I have to say that my experience with elder led was horrific…so much so I almost got out of ministry. A CEO of a large corporation got elected as our elder chairman and things quickly went down hill…members left and staff quit. I resigned as well and I’m happily serving at a church with committees, deacons, and strong pastoral leadership. It is refreshing. I mention my age because this elder led concept is popular among guys my age. My major issue with elder led polity is you are ordaining men as elders (lay elders) who’s life calling (or vocation) is NOT ministry. Therefore, they lead/rule the church the same way they do at their jobs. Even though there is SOME overlap between the corporate world and the church, you cannot lead a church like a business. I think today we have minimized God”s calling to the ministry and have forgotten that the Church is a living organism and it requires all members to do there part. Allowing a select few to rule is unbiblical. The flip side of that is calling business meetings to vote on everything is also unbiblical; there must be a balance.

      • Mike,
        I can definitely relate to your hesitation and bad experience when it comes to Elders in the church. I went through a very traumatic experience as well a few years back with the Elder body at our local church. They were basically turning a blind eye to abuse and blatant sin to protect the pastor. It got very messy, and the church split over it. I am sorry that you had such a hard time as well. However, I would encourage you not to write off something that is so obviously biblical. The bible is very clear in that churches are designed by God to be elder LED( 1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-16). The rub comes when Elder’s see themselves as rulers domineering over the sheep and not shepherds leading the sheep to green pastures(1 Pet. 5:1-5). Just because you and I can sight a couple of elders that did not take their duties seriously, does not mean the office itself is invalid. I am sure there are more than a few doctors out there that commit malpractice, that does not however mean that every doctor is lazy or incompetent. The elders at my previous church caused more than a few to walk away from the faith, and they also caused me to question my faith, but four years later I find myself at an Elder led church with excellent men that care deeply for their flock. I just wanted to encourage you not to throw the baby out with the bath water, and to trust scripture when it tells us what is best for the church. Love you brother!

      • > My major issue with elder led polity is you are ordaining men as elders (lay elders) who’s life calling (or vocation) is NOT ministry.

        Elder led works, when:
        * The elders have been around long enough to know what works, and what does not work;
        * The elders meet the qualifications laid out in Timothy;
        * The elders do not unsurp the functions of the deacons;

      • Jason & Jonathan,
        you are correct. For every church that is led poorly by elders, or poorly led by a CEO pastor, we could also site many churches led poorly by deacons, committees, etc. Human beings…sinful and fallible…trying to lead in their own wisdom, will always mess up. Even when we are seeking to walk with God closely and hear his voice, we’re going to mess up. Maybe that’s one of the “traditions” of the church that causes so many problems…the perceived and supposed infallibility of the pastor.
        Bottom line is, we are to be led by the Spirit. Pastors, Elders, Deacons who are not submitted humbly to the Holy Spirit’s direction and leadership in their own lives will never lead the church well. Same is true of a father who is to lead his family.
        Scripture lays out elder leadership of which th Pastor/shepherd is one.
        When we started a new church 10 years ago, we said we would not “fill the office of elder.” Rather, we would wait on God to bring us elders, then we would seek Him as to who should fill that position and when. It was tough because we waited over 4 years. In the meantime the 3 pastors along with elder counsel form sister churches helped us lead. But God sent some godly, humble men to lead the church as elders. It was worth waiting on God’s timing and God’s men.

      • THANK YOU!!! And God bless you for your clear and SCRIPTURAL admonition to this brother to follow what is written; above personal experience or preference! Where are you located if you don’t mind my asking?

      • Wade Campbell says on

        Amen. We definitely do not need a CEO in the church. Members should have a voice in any area of church ministry.

    • The “Sanctuary Doctrine” is from when churches were open 7/24/365, and people came in at all hours of the day, or night, to pray.

      Today, finding a church whose sanctuary is open for prayer, during daylight hours, is a rare experience. Finding one that is open 7/24 is impossible. (Local building codes usually put paid to the idea.)

      Furthermore, some of the (probably forged) writings of Pope Honorious (EG: _The Sworn Grimoire of Honorious_), _3 Enoch_, and similar texts, provide a theological basis for only prayer and worship, to be carried out in the sanctuary.

    • I think that most people who defend the sanctuary are right. This should be a holy place not a multi facility I have been through all the supposed non scriptural applications. The bottom line do not call it a sanctuary if it is a multi use room. Jesus himself drove out the money changers in the temple/sanctuary.

  • Roy Wahlgren says on

    “THE ROLE OF THE PASTOR” It seems to me that most times, the role of the pastor is not known to the pastor until he “doesn’t do something.” Following “not doing” the role becomes more clearly defined.

    It could be the pastor doing something that was someone else’s job that causes the problem.

    The role varies depending on which church member you ask.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Roy.

    • @Roy: Ain’t that the truth! Show me someone who thinks pastors have an “easy” job and I’ll show you someone who’s never had to do it.

    • Marcia Boland says on

      100 % agree. As a worship leader AND a pastor’s wife, this one instantly stood out to me… In our experience, it has definitely been #1 on the list. (Though music has always been a close second.)

    • I am afraid that many pastors don’t know their own job description very well. It really does not surprise me if my people don’t know what I do. They really can’t know fully what I do. They don’t need to know, if I know. If I don’t know, ahhh, there’s the rub.

      • Amen and amen. My new church has some great things about it but when I came in there was undoubtedly tension around the type of music and the proposed relocation of the church. I am pretty confident that we will get through it, but it is most definitely a factor that has affected our past, present, and future.

        And in regards to Roy, I say a hearty AMEN. I am not quite six months into my new role as pastor. I was never given a job description, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it has allowed me to focus on the biblical job description of a pastor. The curse is that I am always waiting to have the boom lowered on me for not doing something I did not know I was supposed to do. Also, as I interact with the committees, I am still feeling out what they expect of me. They all seem to basically want me to take on as much responsibility and involvement as I want to take on–but I still anticipate that at some point I will “go too far.” I hope that by then our relationship will be such that they can feel comfortable enough with me to let me know when they have that concern. Anyway, I prefer to let the lay leadership take the bull by the horns and lead by giving guidance and asking good questions to help them think things through, so I think this will work well.

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