Tag Archives: Tradition

Tradition: Breaking Tradition


A few years ago, the Denver Zoo had a Polar Bear donated to them, under the condition that they would build it a state-of the art place for it to live.  They agreed, and accepted the bear. During the construction of his new home, they made a small cage for Mr. Polar Bear to live in. The problem was that the space was so small that the bear could only take three steps, turn around, and then take three steps.

The construction took three years. But it was worth it. The new home for the polar bear was very impressive.  It had waterfalls, and caves, and wind. The only thing it was missing was the Klondike bar.

And when the moment of truth arrived, when the bear was released into its new home, it stepped in, took three steps, turned around, took three steps, and turned around.

I’m a big fan of Christian History. I love studying it, and learning from the way saints in the past have tried to be God’s face to the world. In studying Christian tradition, one of the things that I’ve learned is that there really aren’t very many new problems. We’re dealing with the same stuff we’ve always dealt with. Including the problem of tradition.

Learning Division

When Martin Luther walked up to the Wittenburg Chapel door and nailed his 95 thesis on the wall, it was a watershed moment for Christianity. Luther really wasn’t trying to stir up the whole world, as much as just point out some things that he thought the church could do better. But a ball started rolling that would change tradition forever.

When Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone got together they decided to form a unity movement in a world divided by Christian nuances and sectarian ideas. Luther’s protest had created the unintended consequence of making ever little disagreement Christians had, something to separate over. And Campbell and Stone disagreed on a lot.

Matter of fact, the things they disagreed on would split most movements, but for them it was the foundation of one.

They were, we were, a unity movement.

Until we weren’t.Luther-posting-95-theses-560x366

Because eventually, the world of Protest caught up with the Restoration Movement with a vengeance. And we learned to protest about every little detail. In the particular tribe that I belong to “Churches of Christ” I’ve seen us have church splits on every little detail. From how we would serve communion, to if we would pay the preacher. (Maybe that’s a more valid argument to have).

And to our shame, we exported these traditions.

The Mission of Tradition

Last week I was in South East Asia talking to Church of Christ missionaries about some of the struggles that they have with serving in their context. Many of their problems came from someone, years before them, who went and taught them the same divisions that we as a tribe had started off trying to avoid.

I met people in places like Cambodia, who said they couldn’t get the other Church of Christ in the nation to talk with them or work with them, because their church clapped.

As in clapping their hands, while they were singing and worshipping…in Cambodia. Which is a much more celebratory culture, than the Scandanavian Caucasian world that this particular church was sending missionaries from.

That’s what it looks like when you export a tradition without thinking about it.

That’s what it looks like, not when you have a tradition of mission, but when your tradition is your mission. 

A few months ago, I read a letter written to a worship minister. The person who wrote it was upset about the new songs that were being introduced to the church. Specifically, one song really rubbed the guy the wrong way. Here’s what he actually said to the worship minister:

“I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it.  Last Sunday’s new hymn – if you can call it that – sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon.  If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this – in God’s house! – don’t be surpassed if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship.  The hymns we grew up with are all we need.

The Song?

Just As I Am. 

We church people don’t change well. And this, In fact,  can be one of our strengths. I get that we don’t need to marry ourselves to the spirit of the day, but I do think we need to pay deeper attention to our tradition. And we must learn how to bring it to bear on the culture and time that we are living in.

Because every tradition, at one point, was a break with the status quo. Every tradition started off with trying to do something new and fresh and compelling. And over time, what was once revolutionary becomes static and codified.

We stop paying attention to what the tradition was trying to do, and only focus on what it did.

We started off as a unity movement, and now we don’t talk to the other churches in town.

Every tradition starts off as a break in something else. That’s part of the tradition.

So maybe the best way to keep tradition, is to learn how to break it better.

In other words, it’s time to step out of the cage.

Tradition: Guards or Gardening

“Far too much Traditional Church has been too much tradition, and not enough Church.” -N.T. Wright


I was almost an art thief. Or at least I felt like one. It was at the end of our semester abroad, we got to go to the Louvre where we saw thousands of priceless works of art.

Including the Mona Lisa.

But the Mona Lisa, was a bit disappointing. Maybe it’s because of all the hype from Dan Brown, and the fact that Da Vinci was not actually admitting to the world that he was a descendent of Jesus through this famous work of art. Or maybe it’s because the actual painting is pretty small. But I think the reason that I didn’t enjoy it was because of the guard.

Unlike so many other incredible works of art at the Louvre, there was a guard specially assigned to this one piece. Just watching you as you watched it. And I noticed that as he was especially watching me, I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t want to give him the impression of being a suspicious character. But that’s when he had me.

Because once you start thinking about trying to act like you are not thinking about stealing a famous work of art, you in fact start acting very shady. So much so, that I think they assigned a special guard to me for the rest of my time there.

Context Is King

This past Sunday at the Highland Church, I co-preached with Doug Foster. Doug is a Church historian who teaches at the ACU Graduate School of Theology. He’s passionate about Church history and the tradition that we have been handed down, and he’s a great story teller. (Which all historians really should be).

And we talked about how, in our particular tradition, the way we sing and worship has become codified over the past few generations. Many Churches of Christ have sang A Capella for the past few hundreds years. It’s a wonderful tradition…

But Dr. Foster and I were talking about when this became more than just a tradition.

If you want to hear the whole sermon, you can find it on ITunes or here, but the basic gist was that this became more than just a good tradition, pretty soon after the Civil War.

Because now Churches of Christ in the North had some money to spend, and some of these churches bought buildings and organs, while some of the Churches of Christ in the South were dying from hunger. And they saw their brothers and sisters dying and their northern brothers and sister buying. And they said that’s not right.

And then suddenly, what had previously been a preference or tradition became what some would call, “A Salvation Issue.”

And over time, we forgot about the context of why this became such a passionate problem for some people, and we just knew our grandparents taught us it was wrong.

In my context, I’ve learned that while this form of worship may have mattered a lot to my grandma, chances are it didn’t matter as much (or at least in the same way) to her grandmother.

And that’s the value of tradition! It doesn’t codify the way things used to be done. In fact it can help to challenge it!

Living Tradition

For the past few months, I’ve taken up gardening. That’s probably too generous of a word for it. Basically I tried to make the primary color of my front yard to not be brown. But as Leslie and I have planted shrubs and flowers, I’ve noticed how much trimming and cultivating we have to do. We have to keep something’s in and other things out.Gardening

Gardening is in some ways like Guarding.

Except for one fundamental difference.

One is about something that is alive, and the other is about something that is dead.

One of the problems with tradition is not knowing how to live with it.

So for example, in my tribe, we’ve said that we want to worship A Capella because the early Christians (some times) did. That’s an okay reason, but it’s dead by itself. It’s copying and pasting a form, without having the heartbeat behind it.

We ask the question How…but the real question to ask, to have a Living Tradition, is Why did the Early Christians sing like that?

And the answer is of course, far more fascinating and engaging, it’s because they were trying to be different than the Jewish and Roman religious around them. They were trying to be a distinct group of people in the world that they currently lived in.

And now all of a sudden, you have a tradition with some teeth in it. Not just the form that they used, but the principle behind it. Which was to be a good missionary for the culture that they were in.

In other words, maybe the best way to not break tradition, is to sometimes break tradition.

And this is why, in keeping with my last post on Tradition, I think my generation has undervalued it. Because the answer to what to do next, probably isn’t to invent something new. The way forward lays through the past, but you still must engage your present.

The early Christians didn’t have everything worked out as far as what their strategy should be for spreading the Gospel, let alone what our strategy should be today.

They were just trying to think like a missionary for their time and context.

That’s the tradition that we’ve inherited.

That’s a living breathing tradition that demands more than just someone guarding it.

It demands that we replant it in every culture and see what blooms.

*Tip of the hat to Shane Hipps for the Guardening/Guard metaphor

Tradition: How To Stick It to the Man

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. -Jaroslav Pelikan

So I’d like to start a small series for the next few weeks about tradition. Why we need it more than we think we do, and why it probably doesn’t mean what most of us think it means. Most of my friends tend to think about tradition in the same vein as maintaining status quo. But it actually can be one of the best resources to challenge it.

Here’s what I mean.

Maybe you’ve seen this video before. It’s from a slam poet named Jeffrey Benke who wrote and produced an incredibly well done video about the downside to American Christianity.

He wrote it as a Christian who was trying to wake up the American church to how they were being perceived by his peers. He wanted the church to know that they weren’t representing Jesus very well, and so he spent days and weeks writing and creating this. And as soon it went live it also went viral.

Turns out he was giving lots of people words and art to say what they had been feeling, because somewhere around 10 million people watched it within a few days. Personally, I must have had this video emailed to me a dozen times the week it came out. And whether you agree with this video or not, you have to admit Jeffrey was tapping into something that was widely felt and he was giving these people a voice.

And then the criticism started.

Preachers and Christian professors came out of the woodworks critiquing this poet for critiquing the church. They had well thought out, articulate arguments against what he was doing.

And the slam poet folded.

He totally just gave in, and said he was sorry.

And that’s a shame. Because the problem wasn’t the traditionalists that didn’t like someone critiquing them. The real problem was that this young man didn’t have a firmer grasp on tradition.

Advice to a Young Rebel

A few weeks after this all went down, a guy named David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece about this for the New York Times called “How to Fight the Man.” And it was genius. He made the point that this kids problem wasn’t that he was standing up against tradition, it was that he didn’t know enough tradition to stand up against much of anything. Here’s what he said:

“For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea….If you go out there armed with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is what happened to Jefferson Bethke.”

In other words, the problem is that we don’t have an alternative vision. We critique but we don’t know how to construct. My generation has a lot of angst about religious institutions (and just about every other kind of institution) but we don’t know what we want to replace them with. We just know what we don’t like. David Brooks goes on in his article to say that if he could offer any advice to a young rebel, it would be to understand the world that has come before you. The answer to defying tradition is to attach yourself to what he calls a counter-tradition.

Learn about the way people have lived counter-culturally before. From Amos to Augustine, the people of God have been in pits worse than some mere blog war in the past.

See Jeffrey Renke might have benefitted from knowing that, despite what his critiques were saying, The Bible and Christian history is filled with people and prophets who God sends a fresh hard word through for his people. And they almost never like it.

In other words, Renke was standing in a tradition that was much older and stronger. And had he realized that, he might have kept standing.

All the Best Letters Come From Jail

I’ve noticed this is so true in my own life. Just knowing what’s wrong with something rarely gets anything done. In fact, it does the opposite. Without an alternative vision for what could be, people don’t change. And you can’t get an alternative vision by looking ahead, we don’t know what is to come. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s hard to predict, especially about the future.” We can’t see into the future, but you can get an alternative vision by looking backward.

Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letters from a Birmingham Jail? It was to white clergy members who had the weight of society behind them, they were respected members in their community. And they were making sound arguments for an evil idea. If I was Dr. King, I would probably not had the moral fortitude to press on. But Dr. King, knew the Christian story didn’t go like this. And so he reached back into a counter-tradition as ancient as the prophets, and he said, “Let justice roll on like a might river.” He didn’t fight their traditional view of society with a new idea.

He fought it with an idea as old as time.

That’s one of the reasons that tradition matters.

It’s a good way to stick it to the man.