New Traditions and Old

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Every week, it seems, I read of one or another church planted in some place.  I pay more attention to those planted as congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, since that’s my home (for better or worse).  I’ve seen so many that I can describe them for you: it’s got some enigmatic name: some combination of letters and numbers, some obscure reference to a story in the Scriptures.  Either that, or it sounds like an early 2000s, upscale housing development (Eastpointe, Southpointe, Midpointe).  Second, it’s in a building that doesn’t look like what people associate with “church”: a warehouse, a storefront, some other nondescript building.  Third, they are going to play the worship music you’ll hear on the local Christian radio station, or maybe an uptempo version of an “old” hymn (e.g., “Amazing Grace.”  Although, I acknowledge, you are likely to hear both “In Christ Alone”–the ubiquitously cited great modern hymn–or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”)  Fourth, the congregation is often going to revolve around the vision and the leadership capabilities of the pastor and the great team the pastor has developed.  Fifth, they are going to have tech and sound people producing slick slides for the pastor’s “message” (often a series of messages based on some hot topic).  Sixth, the pop culture references are going to be coming out of your ears by the end.

Personally, I wonder how effective this pragmatic, relevant, culturally sensitive approach is at “reaching” the “unchurched” or “dechurched,” but whatever.  They aren’t asking my permission to do what they want, and they don’t really care whether I like what they’re doing or whether I think it is faithful to what we as Lutherans have received or whether it can adequately convey the weight of what Lutherans have received from our ancestors in the faith.  They are much more interested in the synchronic nature of our world, than in the diachronic tradition of benighted, premodern Christians.  Fine.

But could they please just acknowledge that they have a tradition and that it’s about 15 years old?  It’s the post-modern, clever, ironic, casual tradition of recent American consumerism.  It’s not the Lutheran tradition of 1800 years, reformed 500 years ago to bring the Gospel to the forefront.  I know, I know: they believe Lutheran theology, and they highlight free grace and mercy.  I suggest that holding to the sound pattern of teaching might be more than just saying the right things.  Language matters and every action teaches something.  I suggest they (since they employ the novelty) give an account of their traditions, and how they better and more adequately convey the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.  I suggest they show why the liturgy that we have received (not just the “order of worship”) is deficient, even though it has been used in multiple languages and cultures, East and West, and for centuries.  I wonder if they have actually delved into the depths of the Lutheran liturgy and found it lacking, or if they observed merely the externals of it (organ, lackadaisical singing, little enthusiasm) and decided it wasn’t worth examining.  Can they see that from the perspective of the centuries, their complete jettisoning of the liturgical tradition of the Lutheran church for the trappings of modern evangelicalism infused with some Lutheran clichés appears a little arrogant?  As if what has been developed and strengthened and worked out for generations suddenly doesn’t “work” any more, and now they’re going to get it right?

Let me put it this way: nothing comes from nowhere.  From where do the songs come?  From where do the thoughts about the texts come?  From where do the ideas for how to set up a “worship space” come?  From where does the language come to talk about what is happening when congregations meet together?  Does it all have to come from Lutheran sources, as if there is nothing good outside of our tradition?  Of course not.  But when none of your language and none of your songs speak in a Lutheran voice, is it possible–maybe–that you’ve given up more than just the “style” of the Lutheran church?  I realize this discussion is acrimonious, but it’s not just because I’m a jerk who won’t let you “be all things to all people;” it’s also because we can’t be honest with each other about what we’re really doing.  If we could define what we think the gathering of the Church is for, we might have better success talking about what that gathering should look like.

[Just don’t tell me it’s all about preferences.  If you think that’s so, you simply haven’t understood the issues.]


5 thoughts on “New Traditions and Old

  1. I wonder if the Greek Orthodox Church felt the same way about the Roman Catholic Church at the first of a very long line schisms and splits. If only they had known that they were initiating a very old tradition of splitting into new churches – but if they hadn’t, then the Lutheran church or my church for that matter, wouldn’t exist. The good news is that most major church traditions, however old or young they are still exist. Very few have gone extinct. It’s easy to love a church tradition if you were born into it and knew nothing else. But if walked into a church in your street clothes (nobody said anything about a dress code) would you feel welcome? If you saw people bowing or making symbols with their hands and arms, would you understand them? If you saw people singing from a hymnal, would you be able to join them if you never learned how to sing or to read music? Lutheran churches don’t exist here – liturgy is a foreign concept. (Though I once saw a video online that explained it – it was different from what I’m used to.) These ‘new tradition’ churches exist to speak the language of people who are unchurched, churched but uninitiated, and suffered spiritual abuse at church. It’s not meant to replace the “old tradition” just supplement where it fails.

    • Although I am glad when visitors attend and hear the Word of God preached, I do not think that the gathering of Christians on the Lord’s Day is primarily for them. Unbelievers, for example, cannot understand the language of the Church (because it is the language of the Scriptures which the Holy Spirit has given us). The Father’s worshipers worship in Spirit and Truth, and someone who does not believe the Word of Christ cannot worship. So I am not overly disturbed that the language of the Church will be foreign to someone who is not in the Church. Can we help them find their way around? We can and should. But if Christians in the services of the Lord’s House speak the language of people who are not believers, then they have ceased to speak the language of the Christian Church.

      I am not, however, talking about sermons. Obviously, the Word of God has to be proclaimed in an understandable way. But even there, it’s the Word of God and it is not understood by unbelievers because the Word of God is spiritually discerned by those who have the mind of Christ. No Christ, no Spirit, no faith, no understanding.

      Where are you that there are no Lutheran churches?

      And I think the question still stands: where has the tradition failed that a radically different tradition is needed? Remember, we’re not talking about some minor updating of language, or even of different melodies; I’m talking about a wholesale disregarding of the Lutheran liturgy in favor of American evangelicalism.

      I doubt there are too many churches left where many people don’t dress more or less casually. Also, at least musical notes go up and down. Words printed on a screen with no notes whatsoever are no easier to sing than listening to a hymn and picking up the tune.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • The unchurched is any individual who has absolutely no previous experience with church, the churched but uninitiated is any individual that went to church but never learned its practices and teachings (it’s language), those who suffered spiritual abuse is any person who has experience any of this: in their churches and as a result are so close to walking away from Christianity altogether. Oftentimes, such people see traditional ‘language’ as coded words with multiple meanings – saying “are you washed in the blood?” to ask whether or not a person was baptized might mean to them “have you prayed for forgiveness for each and every sin you’ve committed today?” In other words, the language of the church they learned was a warped variation of the truth used to manipulate and control them and their loved ones and keep them in fear.

        An old tradition church might be just what the doctor ordered provided that it teaches it’s language to believers coming out of other church traditions and to non-believers that are seeking Him by going to where He is – the church. But in some cases, old tradition churches are unintentionally doing more harm than good, especially in the case of spiritual abuse where people are fleeing a bad old tradition church doesn’t usually find it easy to integrate into a good old tradition church. Jesus had this parable about leaving 99 lambs behind to seek and save the lost one. The church (all denominations) has lost many lambs over the years, it’s time to seek them out and let them know that God loves them no matter where they are in order to begin the process of restoring them to the rest of the flock.

        I just looked at the statistics – in my county there are 70% Southern Baptist and 10% Methodist churches, the rest are smaller groups that do not include Lutheranism. There’s not even one Lutheran church in this county. The nearest one involves waking up very early for a very long drive to a very big city.

        This problem isn’t limited to the Lutheran denomination, in both the SBC and Methodist churches they’re having the same conversation. (I should know, I’ve been a part of both denominations at one point or another in the last few years.) Perhaps our problems with it is a little worse because it’s difficult to be spiritually abusive with such rigidly unchanging teachings as liturgy seems to be and we don’t have that. But the elders are probably asking: “What’s wrong with the way we’ve been doing things all our lives?” Truth is, I can’t think of anything wrong with it – I just know that it’s not right for me.

        While looking for some more information on the Worship Wars, one pastor was talking about watching the faces of the elders during worship. They were at peace, connected to God, and content. He then glanced at the faces of the youth, they were just the opposite – squirming, disconnected, and absent (He actually used the phrase “deer in the headlights sort of look”). I attend an Old Tradition church because there aren’t any New Tradition churches here either. I think about everything but God during worship. I don’t even try to hide the fact that I’m not singing the hymns I don’t know – which is pretty much all of them. While the preacher is delivering his sermon – I’m thinking about the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, why we don’t greet one another with a holy kiss is a good thing during flu season, and whether or not there’s something to Cessationism – and by the time it’s over I realize that I didn’t miss anything I didn’t already know. I used to live where I had access to a new tradition church. There I felt revived, at peace, and so connected to God for the very first time ever that every church I’ve been to since seems dead to me. Perhaps I’m just in mourning for having lost my connection to God and nowhere to go to restore it. So please, give the new tradition churches a chance to reach those that old tradition inexplicably cannot.

  2. “Contemporary” is already becoming it’s own form of “traditional”–contemporary often means “they way we decided to do it in the 70s”, and of course, it can’t be changed, either.

    But why do we even insist that there is separation between “traditiona” and “contemporary”, as if the two never intersect? There is certainly a place for newer music in the church (provided it is theologically sound, which CCM commonly isn’t) and more technology, and there is of course a place for the traditions we have used and treasured for decades and centuries.

    • Hey, I’d be happy for Lutherans to write new hymns. We have a number of them in Lutheran Service Book, and many of them are very good. I find generally that that’s not what’s happening. And it’s not even that people are writing new music for the old liturgy (which is fine by me). Again, it’s a complete disregard for that liturgical heritage. People omit things in the liturgy for which they cannot see a reason, but they never tried to find out why it might be there in the first place. And then they write new things which are not sanctified by long use, things which are temporary and merely local (meaning they don’t reflect the whole Church), and then the Church ceases to exist because we can’t even use the same words any more. Obviously, I realize that “The Liturgy” does not exist, and there were variants throughout the Church, but I doubt that ever meant that people belonging to one congregation would go to another congregation and not even recognize what was happening as the same thing they normally did.

      Would Christians of the Fifth, Twelfth, or Sixteenth Centuries be able to come into our churches and recognize what was going on, even with language and cultural barriers? I think they would have recognized the basic form of the Lutheran liturgy, even if there had been some modification and change. I doubt they would recognize much of what passes for worship in many churches. Even if we don’t think that matters, it should at least give us pause. But I doubt we have time for reflection on what we’re doing because we’re all pragmatists now.

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