Oh, Medium-Sized Town of Lexington…
The town I live in, Lexington, KY, has a massive population of church buildings representing a mix of denominations – somewhere in the three-hundreds. We have small churches and we have mega-churches. We have black churches and we have white churches. We have young churches and we have churches from the Civil War era. And of course, we have traditional churches and we have contemporary churches.
A Lesson in Church Sign Subtext
Some of our churches stay silent and some of our churches choose to use their church sign to speak to other churches or come up with corny, and sometimes funny, phrases (check out this website for some examples). Once, I saw a sign in Lexington that said something along the lines of, “Come Worship With Us…Where We Still Sing Amazing Grace.” It didn’t take much “reading between the lines” to see what this church was saying and who they were saying it to – “contemporary” churches that no longer sing “traditional” hymns. There is a subtext beneath these statements that say a certain amount about the church’s identity and beliefs.
We are traditional! We do it the old way! (And perhaps, even) We’re doing it the right way!
“If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It!”
These kinds of statements remind me of the argument, “Well, we’ve been doing it/saying it/thinking it for ______ of years…” which usually leads to another statement about if something isn’t broken then it shouldn’t be fixed. While I agree with not tampering with something that isn’t broken, the danger in continuing with this line of reasoning is that eventually what “ain’t broke” can suddenly become the right way to do something out of pure tradition and nothing Biblical.
The fact is, churches that would consider themselves “traditional” – ones that are only willing to sing hymns, put steeples up, and where choirs and pulpits are a must, etc. – were, ironically, most likely “contemporary” at their inception.
But, this post isn’t a critique on churches that hold steady to a “traditional” model – it’s a conversation on the nature of how any church can become traditional regardless of self-given titles and identities. I think there are a considerable amount of voices in the church world that have given many words and books to critiquing the traditional church model. In fact, a considerable amount of my own words have been spoken in attempts to envision new ways to “do church” that move beyond tradition. Though, what I think might be happening is that while we are focusing on, and sometimes even making fun of, “traditional churches” we lose sight of how our own churches might be showing symptoms of stale tradition, too.
So, What’s Traditional?
The question then remains, “so, what is traditional?” What I must first do is explain what exactly I mean by “traditional.” Over time, words take on different meanings to a specific culture that might be defined otherwise by a dictionary. One word that is being used currently that is causing divide and debate is the word “religion.” A video that has become popular discusses the evils of religion and how Jesus is better than religion. Many people have praised it but others have condemned. In situations like this, I think the question that should be asked is “what does the author mean by the word and how do I view this content in light of his or the popular, albeit different than the dictionary’s, definition?”
I attempted to define “traditional” a little earlier. Some “traditional” props might be: the hymnal, pews, specific architecture (like a steeple), choir robes, suits and ties, etc. But I believe it is less about the objects, props and aesthetics and more about the attitude behind them. Suggesting that the above objects are necessary to do things right or that a church without them is doing things wrong might be a good litmus test as to whether something has fallen into the “traditional” category.
The Contemporary Church
As ways of doing church progressed, we saw a surge in churches doing away with the usual architecture and building style of steeples, long pews and stained glass that were replaced with theater or warehouse-like buildings, stadium seating/single chairs and advanced technology (lights, sound systems, projectors, etc.). Also, we saw a shift in the kind of music played during worship. The days of piano and organ hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Just As I Am” were over and new churches ushered in guitar led music like Chris Tomlin, David Crowder and other touring Christian artists with CDs and celebrity-like status. Even the preacher started looking different. No longer was he bound by a suit and tie, but jeans and a button-up (untucked, even!) became the norm. (Watch this video for a hysterical, yet sobering, parody on “contemporary” churches)
And people came to these churches. Sometimes a lot of people. Going on experience, I would say most mega-churches still boast this style of worship and atmosphere. But, it isn’t uncommon to see smaller churches have a “traditional” and a “contemporary” or “modern” service – at a later time in the morning, of course!
What we can see in these two distinctly different models is at least one common thing: props. If we look at the contemporary model, we see props all around. Lights, sound, guitars, drums, cool glasses, tattoos, coffee, Apple products, websites, hip lingo and on and on and on. Traditional churches have their props, too: hymnals, choir robes, suits and ties, high heels, pews, steeples, stained glass, potlucks, pulpits and on and on and on.
The problem isn’t the props, but rather what role the props play. All of the above things are great tools to assist people in their discovery of the deeper thing – Jesus. But, the props aren’t the message and they aren’t the truth we are thirsty for.
Contemporary can turn into traditional depending on what role the props play.
We (contemporary church-goers) tend to roll our eyes when we pass a church sign that promotes their congregation’s firm commitment to continuing to sing “Amazing Grace” but are we really that much different? Sure, our props look different but have we adopted the same attitude of our way being the only or right way of doing it? And if that’s true, have we then become traditional?
Tradition Implies Movement
…or no movement, rather. I believe something becomes traditional when it fails to move forward because of the assumption that this way is the only/right way to do it. To truly be a contemporary church, leaders must be willing to change, move and progress. Are the eyes of the leaders open to the culture? Because, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, culture defines a congregation and if we refuse to acknowledge it, then we might as well stop using cover songs and playing video clips (for more on this, check out this blog post).
Tradition is less about the props and more about the attitude.
If you finds that stained glass, hymnals and pews help your congregation connect with God then you might actually be contemporary. But on the other side, if you continue to use Hillsong and Crowder and buy warehouse-like property because (regardless of the current context) that’s what worked and was cool ten years ago, then there is a good chance you are traditional.
By writing this, I do not want to alienate anybody. If singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while in your best dress connects you to Jesus then I think that is exactly what you need to do. Or, if you find that grabbing a cup of coffee in a relaxed atmosphere puts you in the correct mindset to come in contact with Jesus, then again, I wholeheartedly think that is exactly where you need to be.
And at the end of the day, don’t we all just want ourselves, other believers and non-believers to experience Jesus in whatever way that is supposed to look like for us and them? Ultimately, this issue is not about what’s right or what’s the only way to do it – it is about whether an individual finds, daily, a fresh and new life that flows out of Jesus and into them.
So, what do you think? What does “traditional” mean to you? Are you or have you ever been involved in a church that calls itself “contemporary” but has signs of actually being “traditional”?