Tradition can be a powerful tool. If tradition is used right, it can connect us to past generations, teach us important lessons, and serve as a rite of passage into the next stages of our life. Liturgical Christians, like Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox have a fantastic grasp on great ways to use tradition well.
I love tradition, when it’s done right.
But tradition can also be overly romanticized and kind of stupid.
Case in point, the tradition of Seppuku within the Bushido code.
Here’s how it works:
If you were an honorable warrior in feudal Japan, you were bound to a certain code of ethics, values, and traditions. Chief among these values and traditions was ‘Honor’. It was better to die than dishonor your family or master. So, if you were defeated in combat or about to be captured, or dishonored in any way according to tradition, your best solution was to jam a ceremonial dagger into your stomach and kill yourself.
“That’s ridiculous”, you say. “We’d never do anything like that”
The thing is, there a lot of churches that would rather die by tradition than fight for their mission. Too many churches remember “the good ol’ days” too fondly to let go of those traditions, because letting go of traditions feels like we’re ‘abandoning our heritage’ or ‘dishonoring our past’.
The biggest problem with tradition isn’t tradition itself; it’s the lack of a good enough ‘why’. Why do we do it that way? Why do we have Vacation Bible School if none of the kids connect with the church after the fact? Why do we keep the same style of worship if the church is shrinking and losing people?
A great example of bad tradition from within my denomination (United Methodist) is how we handle Communion. Our founder (Christ by way of John Wesley) believed so strongly in the sacramental nature of communion that he would have it as much as possible. He is known to have partaken in communion four or five times in a week, because the opportunity presented itself. The sacramental theology of the Methodist Church is to take communion weekly.
In the modern Methodist church, we take communion either monthly or quarterly, because of tradition. In the early days, there weren’t enough ordained pastors to offer communion more frequently than quarterly, then eventually monthly. Now, most churches have pastors who can offer it weekly. But they don’t.
Because tradition in this case trumps theology. And when tradition becomes more important than theology, the church is falling on its sword.
Churches will have Vacation Bible School because “we’ve always had it”. They’ll sing certain songs because it’s what they remember from the “good ol’ days”. Churches will keep doing the same things they always did, using ‘tradition’ as a mask.
In reality, many churches are holding onto routines because they’re comfortable. At this point, many churches can run their vacation bible school in their sleep (and do), so why change it? We barely need to read the hymnals for our songs, so why mess with a ‘good’ thing?
And these traditions are slowly, but surely, killing the church. These traditions are off limits, and so, any changes (and thereby growth) must happen somewhere else.
I understand that this can be a sensitive subject for many, and I want to remind everyone that I love ‘high church’. I love the creeds and prayers of old, because they taught us so much in such an effective way.
But we need to be careful and answer why we’re doing something. Is it because it is congruent with scripture? Or is it because it’s what we’ve always done?
One leads to life. The other does not.