Below you will find some of my mind-wanderings based on heartfelt concern I have for millennials (and others a little bit older) that are increasingly leaving active participation in the local church. My concern is for the ones that might be expediting the leaving though just as much as it is for the ones that are leaving.
I may not express my concerns adequately as I continue to delicately straddle the fence on this one quite a bit. My goal is to open up the conversation, to make us think about both sides for just a second. Some of the thoughts I have are better articulated in the book, You Lost Me by David Kinnaman, who is the President of the Barna Group. His thoughts are based on extensive analysis of the research his group has done as well as conveying candid quotes from some of the research participants. Let me express a quick thank you to “my friend who shall remain nameless (for their own safety of course), even though you know you are guilty,” for introducing me to this book.
Every single time I hear the word tradition my mind goes straight to the song from Fiddler on the Roof. I assume it is from growing up in a home with a mother who loved musicals, even the corny ones. I really can’t even remember watching the movie, but the song is still in my head. I can sing a little bit of the song for you if would like, but you would be better off just watching it here… “Tradition, Tradition. Tradition!”
I am a fan of traditions. I think some traditions are great. We traditionally, as a family, take a yearly camping trip with a bunch of good friends. It’s a wonderful tradition. I also like our tradition of having Honey Baked Ham for Thanksgiving – I don’t want to break that tradition. In fact that is a tradition that I am willing to shed blood for in order to keep it alive.
I like our tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve and then opening stockings first on Christmas morning before cracking into the vault of presents that await. Why stop a tradition that makes everyone happy and is beneficial for the recipients?
At least I assumed it made everyone happy and it was mutually beneficial. About two weeks before Christmas, when wrapped presents started showing up under the tree, our kids decided that they didn’t like our old tradition of waiting until Christmas or even Christmas Eve to open presents. Why not open the ones under the tree now? Two weeks out seemed like a good idea to them. Pretty logical, wouldn’t you agree? The presents are there, we are going to open them anyway – why not now?
Well, we reasoned it out with the kids, explained that if we started two weeks before Christmas then on Christmas morning they would be disappointed, because there were no presents to open, blah, blah, blah. Basically I told them we weren’t going to open presents early, stop bugging me about it, or I will remove those presents very quickly. They didn’t care much for either response really, but luckily we as adults are in charge, we make the rules and traditions, we don’t have to listen to our children’s input, so we won. We stuck to our guns and Christmas morning everyone was happy again. Can’t wait to fight that battle again next year.
Traditions can be great. 🙂
I believe there are some very good traditions, yes, even in the church.
I think when it comes to church though, traditions have gotten a pretty bad wrap, especially as of late. I am certain this is nothing new though, traditions have been questioned ever since traditions started. The larger issue that needs to be examined, I believe, is the… WHY have traditions gotten a bad wrap. There are probably a multitude of reasons why, from each side of the aisle.
Some millennials (even non-millennials) might start to question traditions, just because the traditions themselves are old. The prevailing thought might be something like… “We are young, we have ‘new ideas,’ culture or the times are changing so we must adapt, your ways are old and based on ’the olden days,’ so let’s shake things up.”
Maybe the reason traditions have gotten a bad wrap though is that the ones who begin to question the traditions generally are seen as being radical, rebellious, or being too liberal-minded. So traditions are more negative, because of the expected perception of the ones that might question them. And really the expectation is that a holy believer wouldn’t question what the church does to begin with, right?
I can assure you that just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean that it is outdated, old, antiquated, and non-inspirational. Some of the most awe-inspiring, God-is-awesome moments of worship for me are those done during a very traditional part of a Sunday morning worship.
If you think about it, traditions are probably in place for a valid reason anyway. Many times traditions are in place, because Christians (way back when) have already dealt with or wrestled with the issues that you might be questioning and came to a conclusion on the matter and figured out what best to do – in their minds. And, at the time, those decisions probably seemed very valid. They are probably worth your further consideration instead of an outright dismissal based on the fact that they are man-created traditions and decided well before you were born.
I wonder though, those of us that hold to long-standing traditions… do we even know when these traditions started or why we started them anymore? One of my favorite lines from the Tradition song referenced earlier is when Tevye sings, “How did this tradition get started? I will tell you. I don’t know. But, it’s a tradition.”
Another thing I worry about is an outright dismissal of those who question a tradition especially when we may not even know how effective or ineffective our traditions might still be? Have we really thought about whether or not our traditions are still effective in this culture, this time period? I personally don’t think the ‘cultural relevance’ argument is invalid.
I know – just suggesting that probably puts me in the postmodernist camp – whatever that means. Postmodernism is a theology that seems to get mentioned every other Sunday whenever we discuss “new age” thinkers that don’t agree with “traditional” values and question what we think is undeniable truth (even if it is just our tradition). I understand the broader spectrum and meaning behind this postmodern reference, but I think even in the church we might use it as a general reference to those that might question, even with skepticism, our traditions and I think we need to be very careful with this approach.
Are We As First Century As We Would Like to Think?
Have you ever thought that maybe Paul, Peter, James, and John were the “millennials of their time?” First century Christians were the ones setting some of the new traditions, like eating daily in one another’s homes – those rebels!
What I fear though is that we may stick to our traditions and revere them so much that we might start thinking they, too are doctrine. I worry that I may personally be very Pharisaical in my practice and beliefs. I wonder if we are really trying to be like the first century church as much as we would like to think or if we are trying to be like the church that our oldest members are comfortable with and remember.
Maybe we have confused what is tradition and what is commanded or expected in the New Testament. Can we tell the difference any more in what is doctrine and what is tradition? Do we try to emulate everything the first century Christians did or just what we have grown accustomed to and are comfortable with based upon our own traditions?
Someone once said, “Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of.”
If I picked up a Bible and read it for myself with no preconceived notions or examples of what modern churches are doing – would my worship look much like what I am currently experiencing? Would I feel compelled to worship in a suit in utter silence? Would I be free to be more vocal in a worship or even clap my hands when something good happens, like a baptism. Would I be meeting for worship in someone’s home or a big pretty building? Would I focus more time on the Lord’s supper or listening to a sermon? Would I eat with my brethren wherever we met, after worship?
I Worry About the “Defectors”
For some reason we seem to have drawn a battle line…
I don’t believe all millennials want to flat out reject all tradition, because “the old people” came up with it and they are repressing ‘us’, because they are set in their ways and are not as open-minded as they profess to be. I don’t think that is the general consensus. In fact, further research has been done that shows millennials actually prefer some of the more “traditional” feel of worship and even worship environments.
I also don’t believe that all “traditionalists” want to repress the millennials and just keep doing things their way, because that’s how they have always done it and they are older, wiser, and more experienced so you should just listen to them.
I know though, even from my own non-millennial experience that they (millennials) are skeptical of the answers they get, because they are not always met with open-minded, inviting, engaging responses. Even if the arguments make sense and the reasoning is there – our attitude can influence heavily how the answer is received.
Let me give you a few quotes or excerpts from the book You Lost Me…
- “A culture of skepticism (doubt as to the truth of something) is a culture of questions, and questions can lead to conversations, relationships, and truth.”
- “A generation of young Christians believes that the churches in which they were raised are not safe and hospitable places to express doubts. Many feel that they have been offered slick or half-baked answers to their thorny, honest questions, and they are rejecting the ‘talking heads’ and ‘talking points’ they see among the older generations.”
- “I never lost faith in Christ, but I have lost faith in the church.”
- “Most young Christians are struggling less with their faith in Christ than with their experience of church.”
These are some thoughts we need to take to heart.
So, what about traditions that aren’t even based on what we think was done in the first century? How we respond is crucial.
An Example – Sunday Evening Services
I will throw out a personal example and put my own head on the chopping block…
Say that you would like to advocate for and have suggested to church leadership that they should consider changing or even canceling Sunday evening worship services. You believe your motives are pure, in fact you would like to replace the evening service with what you consider might be something more engaging for the majority of the members (in your opinion, of course); something like a Bible class or small group studies at individual’s homes. You would actually like to do more, not less.
So, you are sitting there Sunday night when the preacher starts his sermon by “encouraging” the listeners and he says, “I’m so glad we aren’t like all the other churches that no longer have Sunday evening services.” How encouraging would that be to you if you were the person who thought it might be good to consider doing something different with Sunday evening services? How willing would you be to converse with anyone else about suggesting a change after hearing about “all those other churches?” It almost sounds like we are putting on an air of Pharisaical holiness does it not? How willing do you think you would be to suggest any other change or question any other tradition in the future after something like that? Eventually someone in that situation would probably just leave, because they don’t want to be the “troublemaker” in the group.
Why are we so afraid to change one big tradition? Why is it hard to even change even a small tradition? Why are we even afraid to enter into a conversation about it or entertain such an idea? Well, the argument usually starts with… “That just starts us down a slippery slope. First we cancel Sunday evening worship and before you know it we are all going straight to Hell.” That slope is apparently pretty steep and slippery.
We look at changing as something that is negative – why? We look at even questioning a change to a long-held tradition as potentially rebellious – why? What are we really so afraid of? Why are we instilling such a spirit of fear on everyone, so that folks don’t even bother questioning, they just leave?
It’s all right to ask questions. I encourage it. I think it helps people get to a deeper personal belief and closer relationship with God, faster. I don’t think Jesus ever intimidated anyone to such a degree that made them afraid to ask questions and He is God. So, why do we? Tradition? 😉
But, from the other perspective, too – why do we want to change a tradition like this? Is it, because we just don’t want to come to church twice on a Sunday? Is it because you have something better to do than worship God? What are your real motives? Is your heart really pure or is it selfish? Is it just wanting to change something for the sake of changing it – because all the other churches are doing it?
Maybe our culture is changing, and maybe that is a good enough reason to question how effective our traditional practices are. Maybe we started having an evening worship service on Sundays, because the culture at the time had changed. Really, we would make a change, because of the culture? Traditionalists were millennials of their day?
I don’t think those that desire to challenge tradition are any less holy than those that might stick to their traditions unapologetically. Maybe we should meet more often during the week? Maybe we meet Sunday morning for another hour – there, you have your traditional three hours on a Sunday. Let’s talk about it.
Can We Just Talk for a Second?
Why is it that when someone wants to talk about something that we have done for a long time we think they are rebelling – even before we enter into the conversation with them? What is it that we are so afraid of?
My hope and my prayer is that we don’t shut anyone down immediately – hear the other side out. Engage in conversation. Let’s not judge motives, before we know the person – from either side.
Would we rather drive folks away than engage them in conversation? I know when my children no longer think of me as being open-minded and approachable – I’ve lost them – and that scares me to death. Why don’t we feel that same level of fear and trepidation when it comes to “running off the rebels?”
A couple of more excerpts from You Lost Me…
- “We in the Christian community need to… be honest enough with ourselves to determine where our allegiance is merely cultural… rather than Biblical.”
- “Can the church rediscover the intergenerational power of the assembly of the saints?”
I truly believe with all my heart that millennials are looking for authenticity, for relationship, for dialogue, and for truth. I believe that honest open dialogue will lead to relationships and in turn that will lead to truth.
Don’t forget that those of us, those of you that set these traditions were once the “millennials of your time.”
Just some extra food for thought – which of these quotes are you drawn to, and why? Leave your comments below.
- “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” – W. Somerset Maugham
- “Tradition: one of those words conservative people use as a shortcut to thinking.” – Warren Ellis
- “Tradition is an explanation for acting without thinking” – Grace McGarvie
- “What an enormous magnifier is tradition! How a thing grows in the human memory and in the human imagination, when love, worship, and all that lies in the human heart, is there to encourage it” – Thomas Carlyle
- “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” – Mark Twain
- “Traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past” – Lewis Mumford
- “It is only those who are in constant revolt that discover what is true, not the man who conforms, who follows some tradition. It is only when you are constantly inquiring, constantly observing, constantly learning, that you find truth, God, or love… Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” – Jiddu Krishnamurthi
- “A love of tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril; but the new view must come, the world must roll forward.” – Winston Churchill
- “Cultures grow on the vine of tradition.” – Jonah Goldberg
- “I’d rather be at the end of a dying tradition, which I admire, than at the beginning of a tradition which I deplore.” – Margaret Drabble
- “A tradition without intelligence is not worth having.” – T.S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot