“Tradition” has become a four-letter word in most church contexts.[1] The most scathing attack one can make on a pastor, church, or worship leader is no longer that they are heretical, but that they are preoccupied with tradition. Even the word “traditional,” which used to have a positive connotation, conjures up pictures of old, tired, sparsely-attended churches who have yet to get on the bandwagon and leave their old, tired traditions behind. I’ve even heard “traditional church” used as a synonym for “dying church.”

            Granted, there are valid reasons to keep an eye on our traditions. An over-emphasis on congregational tradition can quickly lead a church down the road to exclusivity or irrelevance. When “how we do things here” becomes “how we’ve always done things here,”[2] personal preferences can become nonnegotiable doctrine. In such cases, churches can devolve into exclusive social clubs whose only concern is self-perpetuation.

            But let’s not throw the baby out with the baptismal water.

While Jesus spoke vehemently against certain “traditions of men” that had replaced God’s Word, the New Testament also speaks of tradition in a good way. One reason tradition gets such a bad rap is that Bible translators have usually translated paradosis[3] as “tradition” when it’s used in a negative context, but as “teachings passed down” or something similar when it is used positively to refer to the traditions handed down by the apostles. In II Thessalonians 2:15 (among other places) Paul tells Christians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you received.” He also uses the verb form of this word  (paradidomi) to refer to his discipling of Christians in Corinth. Throughout the history of the Church, tradition has continued to be the vehicle for communicating Truth. One could argue that the Apostolic tradition has now been preserved in Scripture, so tradition is no longer needed. Yet, it is still by means of “handing down” that faith in those Scriptures is taught and transmitted. Even those of us who teach sola scriptura as the final authority for faith and practice are passing down (paradidomi) that teaching.

            Of course, all of this is only marginally relevant, as the recent objections to tradition have been on pragmatic grounds, not theological. The wisdom du jour in American churches is that people don’t want tradition. And, since people don’t want it, they won’t come to church until we get rid of all traditional elements. Even apart from the question of whether the world’s culture should be dictating our worship, I have many reasons to doubt the premise that people—especially young people—are opposed to all things traditional. Recently, we’ve seen that Generations X and Y are tired of the watered-down Christianity they’ve inherited and are increasingly returning to religious ritual, sound doctrine, and a sense of sacred space. The popularity of phenomena like the so-called “Canterbury Trail” and, more recently, the ancient/future emphasis of the “emergent church” movement are a reflection of this desire for a deeper, more historically rooted spirituality. A recent study by JET Marketing showed that most “contemporary” churches, having catered to the Baby Boomer generation’s need for comfort, will have a very difficult time getting Gen Xers and younger into their pews. While many churches are still struggling to “go contemporary,” the sad irony is that, at this point, it would be a move into the past—a paradigm that was cutting edge in the 1980s.

            While the “seeker sensitive” movement has certainly done much good, it is now abundantly clear that it wasn’t the “fix-all” we had hoped. I suggest that unbelievers should not be completely comfortable when they visit a church. After all, they are entering another Kingdom! They should be welcomed; they should feel love and acceptance; they should want to become part of this community. But if they are completely at home, I have to wonder if the church has compromised to achieve this. Now, I understand that some churches use Sunday mornings as an outreach service and then “do church” (i.e. corporate worship, discipleship, serious education) on another day of the week—a clever and biblically sound way to assimilate people into the church proper. But there are just as many churches who define their whole purpose as existing “for seekers.” This is not the sole purpose of the Church. Making disciples is more than just making converts. The Church is called to be about the work of discipleship and the total life transformation of its members. A tunnel-vision fixation on the lost is no more an excuse to avoid discipleship, growth, and community than a seeker-sensitive service is an excuse to avoid personal evangelism.

            Unfortunately, having started down this road, many churches have now resorted to copying the culture of the unredeemed in a desperate attempt to stay relevant and “hip.” True Christianity will never be celebrated by the world’s standards. Our culture worships youth, self-gratification, sexuality with no boundaries, and personally constructed “truths.” Christ’s radical message of death to self cannot be acceptable to secular culture, no matter how it is packaged. Furthermore, selling the Gospel in terms of “benefits” without urging individuals to count the cost presents a half-Gospel at best. This worrying about church being “too churchy” makes about as much sense to me as ordering a pizza and fretting that it will be “too pizza-ish.”

We don’t need to compromise in order to be culturally relevant. When we drop all of our meaningful traditions in order to make church palatable to unbelievers, we are in danger of misrepresenting the nature of the Church—we are a called-out people, a counter-culture. Because the Church will invariably be one step behind in its efforts to copy the world, such a strategy keeps us from true conversation with culture. Rather than striving to be “just like the world, but with praise music and a promise of heaven,” we should be offering the world a Gospel that requires nothing less than their lives. The Church can reach out to people where they are without joining them there.[4]

When a church exchanges their traditions for the world’s latest fads, they unwittingly present a message to seekers: you can keep your life just the way it is and simply add God to it. That’s not the Gospel. The Bible lays out God’s story—a story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.[5] Rather than adding God to our story, He calls us to add ourselves to His. This is much more difficult than simply adding a “God compartment” to our already isolated, individualistic, and compartmentalized lives. While He requires nothing from the sinner but faith and repentance unto salvation, that is not an end, but a beginning of a life-long process of being broken and remade in the image of Christ.

Our culture doesn’t like this process because it does not always have instant results—in fact, it continues on as long as we live. People want quick fixes in churches just like they want them in restaurants, banks, and oil change joints. The church, however, must not give in to our culture on this point. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “do we meet needs the Jesus way or the Wal-Mart way?”[6] Discipleship happens one person at a time. When we get impersonal and rely on shortcuts and programs, that’s the Wal-Mart method. It might work for selling clock radios, but it’s wreaking havoc on the spiritual state of our churches.

It is imperative that our churches maintain a sense of urgency about evangelism, while showing patience when it comes to discipleship and spiritual formation. While church tradition may seem counter-productive because it doesn’t pack the sanctuary every week, the real fruit of the church is measured in lifetimes, not by the attendance on a given Sunday. Our desire for simple, instant fixes is leading us to try to control the mysteries of the faith, instead of embracing them. Sure, it’s easier to explain away the Trinity with a “cherry pie” analogy (crust, cherries, and holy filling), but it cheapens the Truth…and lost people who are seeking a genuine connection with their Creator can sense when it has been cheapened, when they are viewed as customers or enrollees, not real people about whom we care and in whom we want to invest ourselves.

            Anticipating the hate mail I may receive as a result of what I’ve written here[7], I feel the need to clarify what I’m not saying. First of all, I’m not suggesting that use of guitars, keyboards, and modern worship music is a bad thing (I lead a worship band myself and have been known to crank out a pretty hard version of God of Wonders). Nor am I saying that organs and old hymns are always the best media for worship. So-called “worship wars”[8] are of no interest to me. From my perspective it would be incredibly arrogant to suggest that either form of worship is the “correct” way, considering the diversity with which the Church has worshipped throughout history and continues to worship in other countries and cultures throughout the world. Whether a church worships with synthesizer, organ, or tribal drums, they can stand as an alternative to the worldly culture around them. As God’s called-out people, we must reject consumerism, isolated individualism, and shortcut-based programs. Instead of mimicking the world, we are to be in conversation with it. In our message, our community, and—yes, even our traditions—we can call a lost world to repentance, and then to a life of being transformed into the image of the Savior.


Soli Deo Gloria,

                Zachary Bartels


Back to main

[1] Just how we get it down to four letters, I’m not sure—I can’t decide between “trad” and “diti.” Both have a certain ring to them.

[2] Jackson Carrol and Wade Clark, Bridging Divided Worlds. (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 177.

[3] The Greek word for “a tradition, something transmitted or passed down.”

[4] Granted, Jesus ate with sinners and we are to emulate Christ. There is, however, a world of difference between “eating with sinners” and turning our times of worship into “sinners’ feasts” to make them palatable to the world.

[5] Commonly called the “metanarrative.”

[6]Christianity Today interview, Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons

[7] Update: make that hate mail that I have received. Ouch!

[8] A ridiculous oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.