The priority of traditions

I’ve had a number of conversations with very passionate, concerned and intelligent people in the church recently about the role of tradition in congregations. Not the tired debate of guitars or organs (not that it is resolved), but of connecting to the historic rather than the contemporary, and the larger denominational identity rather than an isolated congregation. There aren’t clear cut answers. Books are written on the subtleties of the conversation, and our email and coffee shop chats have come close. What I really value is that all the people I’ve been talking with aren’t out witch hunting, but are seeking something that answers their needs as lifetime church-goers and/or professional clerical types, and the needs they realize are beyond the doors of their church buildings.

My sense isn’t that traditions or denominational identity are good or bad, beneficial or baggage, but it is a matter of how they are used and when these ‘cards’ are played. Two things are at work here.

One is that both the traditions of the church and the denominational institutions that have carried the truth have been allowed to wander off onto thin ice. Both are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as, at least, somewhat irrelevant and with some suspicion by a majority of Americans. Bridges of interest and trust need to be built before the people we want to re-engage with the church will give the church a chance.

The other is in a cultural change in how people experience authenticity. We are so barraged by messages and claims we have been trained not to believe everything we see and hear. Younger generations have experienced failed leadership at so many levels (political, church, corporate, parental) that they care little about what people say, they want to know what we do. The cliche is “the walk, not the talk.” or praxis vs dogma. Regardless, the outcome is that authenticity is established differently than it was for previous generations. Our institutional connections don’t reassure our disenfranchised public that we are authentic. Reading a prayer or a participating in a written liturgy that is printed in a book or a program don’t either, in fact it is more likely to be perceived as inauthentic because it comes from a book, not the heart. Rather than such works ringing bells of deep, historic connections, they ring warning bells of hypocrisy.

My point: Our traditions and institutional identities are good and valuable, but they are not the message, and in fact get in the way of the message for many people today. To put them on the back burner in order to establish relevant and authentic connections with people who have given up on the church is not selling out, or dumbing down, it is putting putting first things first. I ask myself, “am I trying to make Lutherans or followers of Jesus?” And the answer is always that they are both good things, but there is no doubt as to which comes first.

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