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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  • My church decorates the road with balloons every Easter because they have been doing that for years. I wonder how this contributes to anything. Maybe some $1K for it.

    The church is small, and it has several committees.

    It has ministries that I don’t even know if they are operational. Like the food ministry that you never hear about.

    The church is directed by older people. I am the only relatively young person in the a committee or the council. They are very resistant to change. I made the mistake of putting the children’s blocks in a container instead of putting them against the wall… made several enemies.

    Funny thing, they were going to hire a pastor who wanted to get rid of the organ! Makes me laugh every time I think about it.

    So… This has led me to seriously ponder on the differences between churches who have mostly old people and churches with mostly young people. Maybe you have an article on that.

    • Old Servant says on

      Marcelo, your last statement is a valid point. While I’m a member of a large, growing contemporary style church, I visit frequently with a small church with a median age over 70. These folks are resistant to change and the church is slowly withering away. The pastor is a faithful servant and has tried to slowly bring new ideas and blood into the church. Unfortunately, it is near impossible to attract newcomers in this situation.
      As you can imagine, the pastor is over 55 and has been in ministry for a long while.
      With this in mind, and so many churches in the vicinity targeting the contemporary worshipers, maybe it’s time for some of the older churches to intentionally reach out to the senior community.

      • Thank-you! Great point, Old Servant. So many seniors need to be ministered to.

        Recently I was approached by another pastor who would like help in developing his church’s new youth ministry. He said he could do it himself (no doubt), but there may be too great a gap between him and the youth.

        I wonder if each generation needs its own spiritual leaders in addition to the more mature leaders. For example, maybe the teens need to recognize the spiritual leaders among them… and the young adults their own leaders… and so on.

  • Being a youth pastor, I would say Fund-raisers. The church I served at has done the same fund-raisers for as long as anyone can remember

  • The role of the pastor is the one that strikes me. It’s unfortunate there is so much pressure on pastors. Something needs to change — I believe it is a paradigm shift that takes the whole culture valuing the role of the layman as a pastor-in-training. To shift the burden of responsibilities from one man to many.

    Of course, leading this change is the tricky part!

  • The secret leadership structure.

    Just because a church has a vestry, deacons, elders, etc. does not mean that there aren’t people in the congregation who call the shots on the serious issues. In churches where women are forbidden from being in leadership, they are often in the secret leadership.

  • so that’s why it was so gruelling changing the first three on list in first year of appointment to lead a declining mainline church!! A brutal year, but God is bringing blessing on us for facing the biggest problems head on with truthfulness and spiritual resolve. Thank God for the people in the church family who supported it.

  • Mike Crane says on

    I am just a lay member and one that had many years of backsliding. But I see many articles like this and they seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity. Some thing labeled “traditional” seems to be listed as bad, something listed as “contemporary” seems too be listed as good.

    But it is getting rare to see a Scriptural basis in the articles. For example on music, Ephesians 5:19: Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;

    Seems to settle the discussion. At least to me.

    If the solution to everything is to just pickup the latest fad or custom of the world, we might run into a “falling away” maybe even like 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3.

    The operation of a church should be by the Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Follow the Lord’s Word and He will bring those that should be saved. (Acts 2:47)

  • Two fiercely defended traditions in a number of churches is who the church was established to service and what part of the population the church is supposed to target. I first ran into these traditions when I was involved in planting an new Episcopal church in the 1980s. There were folks in the congregation who were of view that the new church was established to serve them and should confine its outreach efforts to Episcopalians like themselves. Since that time I have run across a number of churches that viewed its existing members as those it was established to serve and its ministry target group folks in the community like themselves. This group was generally a very tiny segment of the population. In rigidly sticking to these two particular traditions and the mindset that went with them, these churches were both unwilling and unable to expand their population base and relationship networks and essentially choosing to decline and die, often in areas where other churches were flourishing and growing.

  • 11. Clothing
    12. Wedding policies

    • The baptism protocol. Minimum age, who performs it, who assists, when curtains are opened and shut if baptistry as opposed to font, etc. What songs are sung.

  • Chuck Swanson says on

    One other area for consideration is the means of receiving the offering and some issues around giving. Do we receive the offering by passing the plate during the service as an act of worship, or do we place an offering box at the entrance to the sanctuary (where it can also be received by the church as an act of worship)? Do we use offering envelopes or is that too reminiscent of previous (bad) church experiences?

    These are some issues that we face and I would appreciate any thoughts from your readers.

  • Matt Lawrence says on

    Great thoughts here. Although God is unchanging, traditions are a straight jacket sometimes and stifle vibrant church life.

    Why is this generation so focused on “fixing” the church? Why didn’t the church require this analysis to grow in the past?

    • Matt, I don’t know if this is the correct answer, but in my opinion I believe it to be AN answer. Up until just a few years ago, nothing changed except over decades or centuries. “This generation” is living in a time where there is much change in every area of life. “Normal” for them is a life of constant change. Simply put, we live in a different day than probably when you and I grew up.