The Benefits of Tradition (and the problem with trying to attract young people to church)

hpster jesusA lot of churches spend a good deal of time trying to figure out “how to attract young people to our congregation”– and with good reason– many churches are lacking in 20-somethings, and nothing seems to indicate a healthy church like having some 20-something couples with kids in tow in the pews.

Some friends recently put up a great blogpost about the dangers of this approach. The title of her blog is “Change wisely Dude” and the point is simply: what attracts 20 year olds won’t necessarily appeal to them 10 years later. People often go to church because they are looking for historical rootedness. It was by a younger woman who had started Presbyterian as a kid, fell away from her faith a while, and in her early 20’s began attending a nondenomenational evangelical church with hip music and a more relaxed atmosphere– in here words, “an unchurchy church with a mix of sacred tradition and secular trend”. But eventually she found herself missing the historical-rootedness and now attends a high-church anglican service.

I know of churches who are trying to attract youth to their church– and its not a new chase. The specifics are different from case to case, but the method has generally been similar since the 1960’s– get rid of the hymns, get rid of the ‘pomp’, relax the dresscode, relax in general, do topical sermons which are contemporarily relevant, not in depth exigesis, don’t use words like exigesis, etc etc. Some really think that music is the magic bullet. Others seem to think that allowing shorts will do it. Some believe podcasts and other technologies will finally help make the church relevant to the young.

And of course there is nothing sacrosanct about suits, hymns, or low level technologies– changes in these habits or expectations can be perfectly fine. However, what many churches fail to understand is that one thing many young people are looking for, and which many humans of any age are looking for, is sustained tradition, a sense that in going to church I am a part of something bigger than myself, and a transcendence which goes beyond me and Jesus, and even beyond me and these people in the pew beside me.  If you doubt this, you aren’t paying attention to what is going on nationwide with young evangelicals leaving for Catholicism and Anglicanism.  (I can think of countless personal examples and others i know of from a distance in Omaha and Lincoln who have gone to the Roman Catholic or Anglican or another high church.  See what I wrote a while back about that.)***

I teach sunday school once in a while at First Baptist Omaha, and a couple weeks back I’d been asked to teach on Ezra chapters 1,2, and part of 3. For those who don’t know, these chapters are primarily about three things: a. a list of the people who left Persia to return to Jerusalem to build the city, b. a list of temple artifacts Cyrus let the Jews bring back with them, and c. how the Jews focused on rebuilding the temple, and starting up their ritual sacrifices and practicing the feast of booths.

Temple-of-SolomonOn the face of it, this isn’t a lot to work with. But what I saw in these verses was a concern with tradition. We talked about the importance of having a place to worship– a temple, or church building. And we talked about traditions, rituals and liturgies which we have. Baptists are typically non-creedal and are usually low church, meaning that they don’t have a lot of pomp and ritual in their service– no one is burning incense, the pastor isn’t wearing vestments, there is no public confession together, etc. HOWEVER, baptists have tons of rituals. Our sunday school class is full of tradition. Every week we have a set format of 3 hymns (the first one is always the very same one), then prayer, then devotional, then lesson, then we pray together a closing blessing. Our church service is similarly formatted– we always have a meet and greet, always have a set time for pastors prayer and offering, a hymn at the end of the service after the sermon, and although we don’t have communion every week we do have coffee and cookies each week right after church, and the majority of people stick around for that, etc. We have tradition, because human beings are creatures of habit. It would be absurd to try to change the format every week, just to mix things up. That would be like driving a different route to work every day, or getting up at different times each day, just to keep things fresh.

The Jews wanted to build a temple, because that was a concrete means of establishing their religous practices and worship of God. First Baptist has a fantastic building, and they use it well. Its an important part of the congregations identity, and its just a great building. The Jews wanted to set up their sacrifices as soon as possible, because those were important to their spiritual habits and spiritual life. And they wanted to practice the feast of booths. During this remembrance, they would build small temporary shelters out of sticks, etc, and live in them for a few days. It was a way to remember when they wandered in the wilderness– to help remind them of the transitoriness of this life, and remind them of how God has providied, and what is really important.

Traditions help us in these ways, and so trying to get rid of tradition and history is like trying to get rid of help. We cannot escape the fact that we are not merely spiritual beings, we are physical beings with bodies who live in a concrete material world. We aren’t just spirits trapped in bodys. Our body will be ressurected, and our bodies are important. Certainly as long as we are in this life, we can not pretend to be disembodied spirits, and the bodily habits which we incorporate into our spiritual practices will have an impact on us. Spiritual traditions and habits can be good, and should be pursued. And many people are in search of just these kinds of habits and traditions at church. To think that peopl want to come to church which has not habits or traditions is short sighted, and possibly wrong headed.

But what kind of habits? That probably depends. There is no magic bullet. But I know that when Celeste and I first went to First Baptist, we were impressed with the longevity and faithfulness of some of the people. My first time at Sunday school class, I asked one of the couples there how long the sunday school class had been going. They looked at each other and one said, “well, how long have we been married? 64 years?” and turned to me and said, “well, I guess, 64 years then!”. You don’t find that kind of tradition or longevity of faithfulness at a church plant startup, normally. The meet and greet time (which is basically similar to ‘passing the peace’ at other churches) is encouraging as well. And the coffee time after church is a fundamental tradition at 1st baptist.

church calendarOf course many churches are much more scheduled on the traditional church calendar, which is divided into 7 segments: advent, christmas, epiphany, lent, easter, pentecost, common time (after pentecost). Many churches use a common lexionary, or set of verses. So if you are in a lutheran or catholic or methodist or presbyterian church, there is a good chance you are looking at the same verses that week as people in a lot of those other churches. Many churches sing the great hymns of the faith, some of which have been around for hundreds of years, some even over 1,000 years. Many churches recite creeds together– together confessing what they believe (“I believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ his Son…” etc) Many use prayers which have been in practice since the time of Christ (Lord’s prayer, prayer of Mary (from when she was told she would birth the messiah), the prayer of Simeon, etc) In these ways, you find a sense that what you are doing in your particular church is part of something that is bigger. We aren’t just all making these things up weekly on our own, disconnected from the greater body of Christ and the Church.

This has great appeal to some people. And for churches to intentionally avoid these practices is kind of like a family deciding to quit celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas with dinner together or presents, because they want to avoid getting in a rut. Rituals and practices are not bad. They can often be quite life giving, sustaining, and essential to the spiritual life of a believer and the church.

***I do want to close by pointing out that it would be naive and foolish to think that evangelicals who become Roman Catholic or Anglican do so simply because they are looking for more history.  That can be a reason, or one of many reasons.  Some are drawn to the Roman Catholic church, for example, because of convictions they have regarding theological or ecclesiastical concerns.  This is probably obvious to most, but it is important for people to not mistake the conversion to Roman Catholicism as merely a pursuit of tradition.

May God have mercy on us all.

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One response to “The Benefits of Tradition (and the problem with trying to attract young people to church)

  1. Anthony Scoggins

    I read your comment and see your point; however, I don’t agree and I will tell you why. First not only are young people bored with church but people of all ages are tired of the mundaneness and ritualistic formality. They are bored because churches are NOT with the Holy Ghost and fire!! The kind that has chills running up your spine and you find yourself crying and you don’t know why. Where preachers are men of God preaching the Truth!! Those that worship him must worship him in spirt and in truth. New programs and pumped up programs appeases the flesh and works on your emotions. I want to go to a church were there is a genuine move of the spirt, singing shouting and talking in tongues as the spirt gives the utterance. Just like on the day of Pentecost when the church was formed. Peter said you must repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus christ for the remission of your sins and ye SHALL receive the gift of the Holy Ghost!!! Power my friend to overcome, power to live right, walk right, talk right!! No sir, preach preacher, preach the truth because I don’t want to be lost when Jesus comes! No we don’t need “casual church” We need the fear of God in this generation. We dress up in our best suits because we are going to church we are going UP to the House of God too see the King! There is over 100 young people in our church and they aren’t bored. They love church!! Thank God for the truth!! One Lord One faith One Baptism!!

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