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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  • # 11 – name of the church
    # 12 – denominational affiliation

  • Thom,
    In the article, you mention committee structures as being outdated or beyond their usefulness. I do not disagree, but I would be curious as to what structure you would suggest as being most beneficial for a normal size church today (around 100). Thanks and I hope you get a chance to give an answer!

  • H. B. "Sunny" Mooney, III says on

    True Story re. Order of Service –

    I had been at my present church for over five years when I noticed that some were using the bulletin as a “check off” list rather than engaging in worship, gleaning from the Word, and making life transforming decisions. By the time that I reached the invitation some were already packing up their things rather than unpacking their ‘spiritual baggage’ at the altar. Worship appeared to be a rote religious act for far too many rather than an encounter with the Audience of One.

    So after much prayer my staff and I made an executive decision. We simply removed the listing of every praise song and hymn from the bulletin. We inserted the following – Opening Prayer (Deacon led); Worship in Song; Worship with Tithes and Offerings [usually specials would be listed to identify title and person(s) sharing]; Worship in the Word (identifying title, text and speaker); Worship through Commitment and Benediction.

    We did not change one thing regarding the mechanics of our worship service. Everything, with the exception of the printed format, stayed the same. But one would have thought that we were promoting and preaching heresy by some of the responses received.

    “Why did you change our worship service?” was a question often asked. I honestly replied, “We didn’t change anything in the Order of Worship. It’s the same. We simply removed “The List” because too many focused on it rather that God.”

    “You didn’t get our permission when you changed our bulletin!”

    One little old saint threatened, “We will discuss this (and put things back to the ‘old way’) at a Business Meeting.” So I often offered an invitation to the floor to bring up New Business (But this topic never arose). So our new Order for Worship Service has remained the same for the past seven years. It’s the new ‘tradition’ that I better not think about changing any time soon.

    Oh, some still use the bulletin with their old bad habits. But now they have less things to check off and distract them as they sing and listen (and pack up their things way too early)! Freeing up this space has also allowed us to insert ‘Sermon Notes’ and ‘outlines’ so they can actively engage the hearing of the Word. So there is a positive with some changes if you’re willing to handle the responses.

    I hope this true story causes a chuckle from you as it did me in its re-telling.

  • Seems to me these all clear up with a healthy elder-rule situation.

  • Thou shalt not sit in someone’s seat in the sanctuary even if their name is not engraved on it. Even if the person is long dead, their seat frequently remains unoccupied. You may be told to move seats.

  • Terry Addis says on

    How quickly actions become traditions and traditions become gods…

    Tradition is not a curse word, and at times feels like the hug of a grandmother. But when traditions trump effective ministry, they become stumbling blocks which lead to decline. One of ministry leaders’ greatest challenges is navigating the strain between traditions and ministry to an ever changing culture.

  • We are updating our church constitution. We finally removed the Sunday School super from the list of “required” church officers. I don’t think anyone has filled that position since the 90s. At least when I became pastor 7 years ago no one held the spot. #1 for my church would have to be location of church facility, but I think that would happen once the church hits 199 years old.

  • At our church, we finally decided to stop baptizing people just because they join fellowship with us for another denomination. There were people who looked for another church because of that. I thought we were going to have a split in the church over it, but cooler heads finally prevailed.

  • Joshua Hamilton says on

    Traditions can be a very helpful thing if they can be leveraged to connect the heritage of the church to the present and guide into the future. Unfortunately, it’s rarely traditions that are the problem, but traditionalism. When the form becomes more important than the results, then we are on the path to whited sepulchers filled with dead men’s bones. There are two extremes – The “means” justifies the means (traditionalism) or the end justifies the means (who cares what we do, just as long as we have “results” usually measured by a metric heavily relying on numbers). The balanced and proper approach should be the end is justified by a God honoring, biblically based, prayed over, Holy Spirit filled and carefully led means. That means what I do is going to look different than what you do, but as long as we are both led by the Holy Spirit and God is getting the glory, then your opinion needs to abide by it’s Constitutionally guaranteed right to remain silent. 🙂

  • Deni Davis says on

    The message of the Cross never changes. But we need to realize that our world has and adapt to those changes in a way that we can reach the lost while still maintaining the integrity of the Church.