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The Ally of Tradition

In our world of rapid change, innovative leaders often associate tradition with the dying past and change with the more hopeful future. Others affirm tradition as the spine of church stability and think that innovations disrupt essential Christian practices that sustain the faithful over time. Most congregations have strong champions of both views.

Those who promote innovation are frequently insensitive to the positive power of existing practices. Longtime members naturally experience discomfort when they suddenly lose routines that have made them physically comfortable in place and posture, reminded them intellectually of their historic faith commitments, and put their spirits on track through worship habits of prayer and praise. Traditions can offer in church activities what creeds provide for theology--the resolution of old conflicts in accessible, symbolic forms. Such traditions can maintain irrepressible springs of memory that sustain a congregation in hard times and energize a people to adopt new causes.

All but the most static congregations accumulate particular expressions of tradition from many sources and modify them over time. Even when they worship in another place the faithful bring their traditions with them. When asked after worship why he sat in a particular pew, one new visitor replied, "I always sit here." He had never before been in that sanctuary, but he carried his worship traditions to the new church. The hanging of the greens, Christmas pageants, Maundy Thursday services and other annual festivals of faith are shaped as much by those who observe them today as the ancient practitioners. The use of the kitchen, the accounting of income, the location of the pulpit and some less visible traditions can be more difficult to reach and reorganize. All these are expressions of faith and sources of stability.

Tradition can lose its power, however, when it becomes meaningless routine, inexplicable habits whose only justification lies in the threadbare appeal, "We've always done it this way." Tradition's true opposite is not innovation but ignorant, meaningless repetition.

Innovation can be the ally and helpmate of tradition, the warp and woof that weaves meaning into events and people's experiences. Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, it connects a new interpretation to the historic faith in a contemporary symbolic action. Most innovations can be traced to earlier moments in a congregation's array of past experiences. As I have worked with congregations to begin "new" community ministries, we invariably find precedent in church groups' prior concerns and members' experiences. A city church that was concerned about the elderly developed a new program of home care for infirm members, and named the ministry in memory of an especially caring older member. A suburban congregation with many single parents produced an innovative program for auto repair, managed by automotive buffs who have worked together on their own cars for years.up

Carefully planned innovation grows from sensitivity to existing sources of energy within the congregation and is grounded in enduring values that members recognize and affirm. These apparent changes do not deny essential traditions of ministry, but affirm and expand these commitments in a contemporary setting. They emphasize the unchanging elements of faith. Without these innovations, the essence of the tradition would be locked in an expression that has lost its relevance. As Jesus made clear in his ministry, our task is not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17).

As an instrument to sustain the power of relevant tradition, innovation can strengthen congregational vitality. Most changes in congregational life are subtle and not disruptive, but reflect the blessings of common consent and benign neglect--that is, when old routines wear out, pastors and people simply stop doing them. However, Some more overt efforts at innovation are forceful and inappropriate, as when church leaders push a new procedure without helping the congregation to understand (and spiritually absorb) how it can deepen their faith commitment in a changing world. When a church changes its order of worship, develops a new community ministry or establishes more open procedures for managing money and using the church facilities, members may begin to see more clearly what their basic Christian commitments are. More than once I worked with pastors who introduced changes "just to see who cares." They eventually restored much of the prior procedure after brief controversy that helped members appreciate its meaning.

It's a paradox: since innovation is a new expression of an old faith, congregations that are more comfortable with their identity more freely make changes. Because they feel certain of what they believe, evangelical more than mainline churches easily adopt new technology and contemporary music. With a firmer faith foundation comes increased flexibility. Rather than seem like a threat, innovation can strengthen church members who know Christian tradition from their Bible lessons, annual celebrations, personal prayer and community programs of service and social justice. These congregations use innovation as a partner with tradition to provide more opportunities to enact their deepest, strongest and oldest awareness of God's love.

March-April 1997up




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