“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
This truism, attributed to Peter Drucker, is definitely applicable to our churches; I use it often in leadership workshops. Culture is what occurs when traditions become so embedded and interwoven into our daily thoughts and actions they ooze their way downward into our subconscious. We become oblivious to not only the “why” but even the “what” that constitutes the bulk of our worship, our ministry, and our identity as churches. “Oh, that’s not a problem, everything we do is Bible-based.” Really?
If it’s been a long time since someone “other than” your core congregants raised these issues, consider this: a closed system tends to rapidly reinforce its chosen values, and a false sense of normalcy quickly solidifies into orthodoxy, regardless of whether it is rooted in biblical truth. Repetition of an act or a catch phrase can take on an aura of quasi-credibility simply because it becomes at first the accepted and then the expected way of saying or doing things. (For a humorous take on this theme, see this 30 second commercial: https://www.ispot.tv/ad/AOWy/febreze-does-your-kitchen-smell?autoplay=1) We have seen it, smelled it, participated in it so long we have become inured to how others react when they experience our church for the first time. When was the last time anyone challenged you to give a rationale for the way your church conducts itself? What would happen if your church leadership undertook a thorough review of not only your constitution and bylaws, but the times you have services, the order of worship, the literature used to disciple, the ministries you deem important and why you never undertook others, all in light of Scripture, not track record?
Traditions are habits that acquire a pseudo-sanctity and are often elevated to parity with Scripture. If you don’t think so, try introducing new hymnals, a new pulpit, new carpet. . . One time I did pulpit supply for a small country church. The pastor had warned me ahead of time the members were being contentious but he didn’t mention what the offending issue was. When I arrived that Sunday, the issue became apparent quickly. Deacons argued openly about how many inches to expand the foyer entrance into the worship area (seriously). The line of reasoning revolved around whether or not to restore the original dimensions of the church or change it entirely to serve future needs.
Traditions provide several positive things:
1. Stability---everyone knows what is expected;
2. Certainty---stability’s first cousin, the known outweighs the unknown;
3. Trajectory---the sequence of events will unfold in a predictable direction and pace;
4. Identity---a church (or organization, a family) is known by its signature traits or style of worship, its set of traditions sets the church apart from others of their kind;
5. Theme/Standard---it’s hard to introduce a variation or innovation if you can’t recognize what is the standard;
6. Longevity---since traditions need time to coalesce and harden, traditions denote the institution has been around for a long time.
Traditions also present negative situations:
1. Triteness---that which is predictable often becomes ritualistic and loses its depth of meaning;
2. Lack of Dynamic Nature---we don’t worship a system but a Savior, not principles but a Person who is alive and dynamic; He’s steady but not static;
3. Non-changing Trajectory---sometimes a mid course correction is necessary to reach a stated goal (see Apollo 13 movie) and holding one’s course is not only inadvisable but dangerous;
4. Inflexibility---while we should be respectful of traditions (which usually arise from noble origins), when they become inflexible, they restrict creativity and freedom of expression;
5. Identity---yes, traditions can help identify who we are, but they can also be used to distinguish quickly who the “others” are since they are unfamiliar with “our” traditions.
Consider Acts 6.1 from an ethnic perspective. The Greek widows were being neglected in favor of Hebrew widows in the daily food distribution. Hospitality was stretched to breaking by the sudden swelling of the church’s numbers, and apparently many transformed by the miracle of Pentecost lingered in Jerusalem instead of going back home. The apostles were gifted many languages to preach the gospel, but even so, picture the daily headaches of dealing with the cultures’ questioning of ‘why this’ and ‘why that.’ People’s concept of time, personal space, superiority, muted prejudice (I will tolerate that group here as long as they behave like us), leadership (autocratic or collaborative), style of music. . . the list is endless. Are their voices heeded or told they are perpetual guests, not part of our “inner” circle who set the norms?
This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Our SBC churches pride themselves on being “people of the book.” Much of our rationale for why we do x thing in church is not a product of biblical obedience but a mashup of Grandpa’s decisions, circumstances, favorite hymns, business meeting votes when few were present, and mainly ingrained habit. Many of our practices are culturally based instead of rooted in God’s Word. Truth is not what we declare it to be with our acclamations or actions, it is what God says it is (Jn. 17.17). The growing Gentile sector of the church in Acts and in Paul’s letters questioned everything; even the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 was the church asking itself ‘have we allowed culture to replace Biblical truth?’ as it wrestled with the role of Jewish rites in salvation. It took a holy humility to admit the need to drop certain practices so as not to hinder the work of the Holy Spirit. Are we so inclined as our churches prepare to enter the third decade of this millennium?
The simple phrase “being the norm doesn’t make something right” should cause us to periodically re-examine our practices and beliefs. Acts 15 showed that the church leadership had the courage to admit they needed to make changes to allow the Holy Spirit breathing room to expand the Kingdom of God. The Reformation was a sign the church was again in need of revitalization. I will be the first to defend the Word of God as our sole authority in all matters of practice and belief, but sometimes I have to admit my understanding of it and behavior I thought was based on it is in sore need of examination and correction (2 Tim. 3.16-17). After almost 45 years of ministry, it is easy to coast, get into maintenance mode, punch the right buttons, rely on experience only instead of partnering experience with fresh looks at the Word and my life in light of that Word.