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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Heritage and Tradition in the Church

The best definition of tradition as it applies to the church is: an inherited pattern of thought or action. (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) Heritage is defined as: something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor. There isn't a significant difference in the two definitions. However, one of these will kill a church and the other will establish it.

A church built on heritage decides what has made her great. She notes the things which are transcendent and makes sure these are not violated. She holds carefully to her theology and makes sure that is transmitted to the next generation. Her practices don't become sacred. They are simply ways of transmitting this heritage.

A church built on tradition makes her practices sacred. She defines worship by the traditional way it has always been. Traditionalism often forgets the reasons why it is done. The tradition takes on a life of its own. A church build on tradition will continue to do what it does long after it is no longer practical. The tradition becomes more important than the principle for which that actions once supported.

A church built on tradition will argue over when the offering is to be taken, how the offering is taken, where it is to be taken and how it should be spent. The members try to spiritualize those things which are merely tradition. They actually think this is the way the Bible prescribes an offering should be taken. They do not understand that the taking of the offering has evolved to the place where it is today. 

The same is true for the 11:00 AM worship service, the giving of a percentage of the offerings to missions, the patterns of sermons, the establishment of Sunday Schools and many other activities and entities in the church. They were means of passing down the church's heritage. They have become traditions which must be done exactly as they have always been done whether or not they are accomplishing anything that resembles the church's heritage.

Traditionalism becomes detrimental when it forgets the principle it supports. The church will live for its traditions rather than its heritage. The church will, therefore, pass on its traditions rather than its heritage. When younger generations ask why it is done this way the answer will be either, "Because God wants us to do it this way," or "We've always done it this way." 

Often the ones who should be passing on the heritage don't understand the question of the younger generation. There real questions are, "Why do we have to do this at all?" and, "What does this mean?" Unfortunately, the ones wrapped in tradition can't answer. It may have not been passed down to them. There may have been generations of members who no longer know why things is done in this traditional way.

I am afraid that some of the things I do in church will become traditions that forget our heritage. I baptize at the beginning of services because I don't have time to get dressed at the end. I wear a robe when I baptize to cover up the waders I wear to keep me dry. These can easily become traditions which will plague the next pastor. He may have a baptistry which allows him to stand outside the water to baptize. He doesn't need time to get dressed so he can baptize at the end of the service and won't need a robe either. I am afraid that someone will tell him that it isn't a legitimate baptism if he isn't wearing a robe or that it was done at the wrong time of the service.

Traditionalism will eventually kill a church. People will not gather when they know there is no meaning in what is being done. They will sense that it is all ritual without much substance. They will stop being mesmerized by the robes, the candles and the organ music. They will look for something else. It may not be spiritual but they will call it such. They are looking for something with meaning.

A church is a living organism which changes or it dies. It is built on heritage. It is killed by traditions without meaning. 

Jesus said He would build His church on a heritage that even the gates of Hades would not prevail against. The Church is built on this heritage.

Matthew 16:15-18 (NIV)
15 "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
17  Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.18  And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

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