You probably have read the story of the husband observing his wife preparing dinner. She cut 1 1/2″ of the end of the roast before putting it in the oven to cook. “Why do you cut 1 1/2″ off the roast?” he asked. “Because my mother always did it,” was his wife’s reply. So he contacted his wife’s mother and asked her why she did it. Her answer: “Because my mother always did it.” Their grandmother was still alive, so he called her up to ask her why she did it. Her response was, “Because the pans we brought from Europe were too small, so we had to cut 1 1/2″ off the end so it would fit in the pan.” Here was a tradition that carried over three generations without a good reason for doing it. Such is the power of tradition. So, let’s look at the subject of traditions.
TRADITIONS – A DEFINITION
Traditions are simply a time-honored way of doing things. It is often an “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior” (merriam-webster.com) that is passed down within a group of people, be it a family, a church, or in society in general.
Now we need to recognize that traditions are not necessarily bad but quite the opposite. They can be helpful and beneficial, but they can also be inhibiting and, at times, for a Christian sinful. It is a part of life to have traditions. For example, your church probably has certain times for worship services; it is a traditional time. What if your church said, “we don’t want to be bound by tradition, so the worship service is at a different time every week.” It would create confusion. Traditions can be helpful.
JESUS & TRADITIONS
Jesus often challenged the traditions of the religious leaders of his day. In Matthew 15, Jesus asked the question, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3, NASB). He then gave an example in regard to the scriptural command to honor your father and your mother (Exodus 20). Here, the tradition refers to the Jewish oral teachings, which the Pharisees believed to be equally binding as the written law. It must be noted that Jesus never rejected the law, and His teaching actually fulfilled them. He only challenged the Rabbinic additions to the Word.
PAUL & TRADITIONS
Paul, like Jesus, warned his listeners, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men” (Colossians 2:8, KJV). He himself abandoned the traditions of the Elders when God revealed His Son to Him.
Nonetheless, Paul saw the value of good traditions. In 2 Thessalonians, he declares, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15, KJV) (i.e., the emerging fixed orthodox belief that became the basis of Christian faith. See also 1 Corinthians 11: 2&17 and 15:13)
So obviously, traditions created by people can be binding and sinful. However, traditions that are consistent with God’s will and ways, especially as revealed to us in scripture, can be beneficial and bring blessings. Let’s look at how that applies to us today.
PERSONAL & FAMILY TRADITIONS
All of us have our own personal traditions and our ways of doing things. We usually call these habits. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t have to do everything in a different way each time we do something. But nonetheless, they can, at times, be inhibiting to personal growth.
If the tradition is not edifying and even sinful, it must be dealt with. Let me step on a few toes here and give an example. What about the tradition of Halloween. What is Christian about that? I know that it is a way that kids collect free candy. However, I remember when I was staying with a pastor in another state, one Halloween, and his grandkids came to the parsonage that night, all dressed up as witches. What is Christian about that? I suggest that we should think about what a tradition is all about.
Also, from time to time, we need to examine ourselves as to how we do things to ensure we don’t get into a rut. Remember, a rut is a grave with both ends knocked out.
I heard a friend of mine described how in his family, growing up, they celebrated birthdays in a particularly low-key way. When he got married, he discovered that is wife’s family celebrated birthdays in a different way, and he came to embrace a new tradition.
Churches can very easily get caught up, like the wife with the roast, and be bound by traditions. Let me share one such experience I had as a pastor.
It was Christmas time, over 50 years ago. I was in my first church in Sydney, Australia, after being ordained as a Methodist minister. It was then that I committed an unforgivable sin in my church. I changed the time of the Christmas morning service from 7:30 am to 8:00 am, a whole half-hour change. At that time in Australia, churches usually had their Christmas services on the morning of Christmas Day, after which the people would go home and have their Christmas dinner. The first Christmas in the church, I noticed that parents with young children struggled to get to the church by 7:30 am, so I thought an extra half hour would make it easier for them. Children, at that time, opened their presents when they woke up on Christmas Day. Well, I took the initiative and changed the time by 1/2 an hour to 8:00 am. At the next congregational leaders meeting, I was well and truly roasted. Why did you change the time of the Christmas service? That has been a tradition in this church; our families have always come at 7:30 am. Why did you change it? I tried to explain the reason but to no avail. Nevertheless, while I was pastor of the church, we had Christmas day service at 8:00 am. But guess what happened when I left the church. The service went back to 7:30 am.
DEALING WITH TRADITIONS IN A CHURCH
If the tradition is good and consistent with God’s Word and quickened by the Spirit, then go ahead and embrace it. In actual fact, we, as families or churches, and even society, have traditions that we celebrate. These include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, Anniversaries, and even the daily and weekly ways we do things.
If, however, particularly in a church, the traditions (like the 7:30 am Christmas service that I wrote about) become more important than the Lord Himself, then we have to challenge them and change them. The leadership of Jesus administered by the Holy Spirit has to be the Lord of all traditions involved.
HOW TO CHANGE TRADITIONS IN A CHURCH
Well, let me say, it is not always easy as the illustration of the Christmas Day service shows; in fact, the last eight words of a dying church is “we have never done it this way before.”
Assuming it is not blatantly sinful, then we need to recognize that changing traditions involves change, and people do not always like change. So it is often necessary to do a couple of things.
- Take it slowly and be patient with people who may not want to change. I remember a good friend of mine telling the story of a British pastor in a church who wanted to move the piano from one side of the church to the other. So he moved it 12″ every week until he moved it over to the other side. People don’t always like to change. For example, people and their likes of music and what is sung at church. Hence, worship wars over hymns versus songs.
- Educate people regarding the change. If the truth be known, I was wrong in how I changed the time of the Christmas Day service. It would be easy to say, “Well, the people were bound by tradition, and the resisted the change.” However, instead of just doing it, I should have spoken to them before I did it, and not after I did it. I was a not very good change agent on this particular occasion, and that caused trouble in the church.
A CLOSING THOUGHT
It behooves all of us to examine ourselves and ask the hard questions to show us if we have created traditions in our own lives that quenches the Holy Spirit working in fresh, new ways in our lives. Have we just gotten into a rut? Do we keep doing the same things over and over again and are not open to how God may want to do new things in our lives?
So let the Holy Spirit move in our lives to break the power of any traditions we may have, big or small, that is preventing the Holy Spirit working in our lives in new ways.
Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? (Isaiah 43:19, NKJV)