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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  • Rev. Rainer,

    The piece of your article is credible. But one other tradition left out is that prayer; to begin a program or closure.
    Thank you.

  • I think you totally missed it Thom. The most fiercely defended traditions in the church misses the #1 tradition. . .THE OFFERING!! Thanks.

  • Cchhaannggee? We have as little of that around here as possible! We don’t even know how spelllllll it!

  • I’m dealing with the music tradition myself. We can hear contemporary 7 days a week on the radio and it also seems that 99% of our churches have already gone to contemporary and praise team 7-11 songs. 7 words repeated 11 times. It’s getting harder and harder to find a church with good preaching AND more traditional music. Hymns, Southern Gospel, etc. There are a great many new songs that fit into these categories and I just love them. But when Worship leaders are asked to step down and FIVE praise teams take their place and the congregation only sings ONE song that is a praise and worship type, something just doesn’t seem right to me. Contemporary/Praise Team churches are EVERYWHERE. But a more traditional one is like finding a pearl in an oyster. Thank you for this post. At least now I don’t feel like I am all alone.

  • These are the exact reasons why I and 18 other souls left a United Methodist Church in AZ. I’ll add these rules also allow for the growth of bullies and hate and apathetic leadership provides a green light for it to continue. Why are we so surprised that these are the churches struggling for survival? They are failing for a reason.

  • Sensitivity toward others should be our desired goal in corporate worship. The exact decibels of the music, the preacher’s microphone, the worship leader’s voice, the piano, the organ, the guitars, or the baby screaming on the last pew in the church are important to everyone’s ability to engage in meaningful worship. Personally I have a damaged cranial nerve that creates excruciating pain when it is “tingled” and there are some sounds I will totally avoid – like at a football stadium or gymnasium with everyone screaming throughout the entire event. At those events, I do not ask anyone to turn down the volume; I simply leave. On the other hand, I am a musician, too. I enjoy listening and performing. The problem that I am seeing in these posts are about the same as saying the temperature of the room is not comfortable. I, also, freeze to death even in my own home because my husband is a bigger person than I and becomes “hot” at 76 degrees. The real issue here is not about setting a particular standard of decibels for every church. Folks, every building is different and contains elements that make sound travel in different ways. Every church should do a study of its particular gathering place and determine the particular decibel level that best suits the environment. Many years ago as a youth, my family toured the Mormon Tabernacle as visitors in Salt Lake City. The most impressive demonstration was given when the tour guide left our group at the back of the auditorium, went upon the stage, and let a pin drop onto the carpet. That little pin literally echoed throughout the building. Enough said! Quit fighting and workout a solution. Be sensitive to others.

  • great article but I am surprised clothes aren’t mentioned. Clothes of pastor, worship team, Etc. I am certain this would be an issue for churches with more formal attire if they tried to make the change. I bet a lot of church staffs “want” to go less formal but fear the wrath of the older people and those stuck to tradition so they don’t bother.

    • A dear brother came up to me last week to tell me how good I did in a previous sermon – only to have the grounds to tell me how good I looked in a suit! He expressed that suits are the “uniform” of a pastor – it sets them apart in their “profession.” He did not like my joke about wearing a robe like Jesus wore, though…

  • It would be difficult to avoid noticing that, according to many of the comments here, it seems that pragmatism rules. The “whatever works” model is usually a failure to acknowledge that it is the Lord who builds His Church.

  • Rev. A. Nonymous says on

    It’s been briefly mentioned a couple of times in the comments, but I’m surprised decorations and furnishings didn’t make the original list.

    I’ve seen even healthy churches tie up staff and volunteer time and energy with significant back and forth over carpet, paint, acoustic panels, and furniture. I know a church where the leaders are afraid (not an exaggeration) to paint the sanctity because the panelling on the walls was donated…THIRTY YEARS AGO.

    I know of another church that has two huge, amateurish, non-coordinating, “Creepy White Jesus” paintings on the front wall of the sanctuary. They apparently aren’t even unique because paintings with a paint-by-numbers similarity have been seen by a church member somewhere else. “I think someone in the church must have done them,” is the best explanation the pastor has been given as to where the paintings came from.

    The previous pastor managed after many years to get them moved into the stairwells. Early in the time between pastors, the paintings were brought back into the sanctuary. The new pastor has intimated to some key leaders in the church his dislike of these pictures and been met with agreement. However, the pastor is also determined to expend absolutely none of his relatively low relational capital on getting the paintings replaced any time soon.

    I think he’s wise in waiting, but I pray that those paintings go before people stop calling him “the new pastor.” There was some hope they would be destroyed when taken down so that Christmas wreaths could hang in their place, but alas they are painted on plywood and are very sturdy.