Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Worship of Tradition

I've been writing a great deal about our propensity to just accept what we hear over and over. I think it's a huge deal. Even when the intentions of all parties are good, the reality is, it's a type of thought reform all its own, and something none of us should ever stand for.

Last night I went to see an old friend. She's a songwriter, and she'd asked me if I could stop by and help iron out some issues with the music to some lyrics she was writing. Afterward, she invited me to sit and visit for a bit. What I anticipated to be a short spell of catching up (I don't see this friend very often these days) turned into an engaging 3 hour discussion on life and faith. When someone asks me "What have you been up to these days, Lew?", well, it's just a great big can of worms. She's been through some rough stuff herself, and she was intrigued by much of the ground I've been working over in my own journey.

She and I share the same church background, having been members of the same little country Baptist church for significant segments of our lives. In her case, her family's involvement in this particular church goes back a long, long way, across several generations. In my case, I'm not necessarily's just what's out here in the boonies, and while I disagree with them on a lot of stuff doctrinally, they're good people who have a genuine love for God. In the last couple of years, particularly since I've started writing, I've distanced myself from them - for their sake as much as my own - to avoid that dreaded question, "What have you been up to these days, Lew?" They simply wouldn't understand.

I began to ask her a lot of the same questions that I ask here on this blog. Questions of the "Why do you believe this?" and "Why do you believe that?" variety. Her answer was often, "You know, I've never really thought about that. It's just what I've always been taught." She agreed that asking some of these questions might get me carried out on a rail at the little church we've both been a part of. It's a church that's often hung up on sentiment and tradition. Simple, country people. I've long contended that if you were to sing two or three songs in a row about "Mama" there (such as "Mama Needs No Marker, Jesus Knows Right Where She Lays"), you could follow it up with "Rocky Top" and they'd still be three-deep in the altar and shouting. It's always fascinated me.

Some things about the way we do "church" need to be examined. We need to know WHY we do them. Things like...

Where, in any book of the bible, are we instructed to make the pastor's "message" the centerpiece of a Sunday service? While I think teaching is an important part of any pastor's role in the church body, it seems to me that other areas of supportive ministry are equally as or more important. I think making the pastor's sermon the centerpiece is what leads to branding and the rock star mentality of many...and it's a man-made tradition.

"Let us all stand in honor of the reading of the Word of God" - Anyone ever heard a pastor say this before he reads the text on which his sermon is based? Every time I hear it, I have this overwhelming compulsion to stand up and say, "Whoa, whoa, people...Does ANYONE here stand up at home when they read this? Then why are you making a big fuss out of it now? Do you think it impresses God or does it actually make you a hypocrite? If you're gonna worship the bible, be consistent with it. If you're gonna make a fuss about standing here, do it at home when no one sees you, too."...It's a man-made tradition.

Why do churches put the pastor's name, often/usually prominently, on all of the marquees, signs, and advertising? If he's a solid pastor, and if he's performing as a minister should, wouldn't/shouldn't he be just about the LAST person you'd notice? Why don't these signs include the name of the least obscure member of the congregation? You know, the person no one would notice being absent if they stopped coming for a month? Why not THAT guy? Or, why not Sister Ethel who makes that god-awful meatloaf and brings it to the dinner on the ground (or, for those of you not in the south, the "potluck")? Or why not that poor family in ragged clothes who can't afford the amenities the rest of us have, and sometimes they smell a bit strange? Why not them?...Traditions of men.

How about the old hymns that have no real meaning of substance? Being from the bible-belt, I've been in about a bazillion churches where they still use the "old red-backed hymnal". Yes, there are some good old songs in there, and I don't begrudge anyone singing them. The problem is, there are some monumentally stupid songs in there, too. "Give Me That Old-Time Religion" anyone? I've heard people shouting during that song. Yes, shouting. If I'm ever in that position again, trouble-maker that I am, it'll take every bit of self-control within me to keep from saying, "Whoa, whoa, stop for a second, folks...Can someone tell me what "that old-time religion" is? No? Then why are you singing this nonsense? And you, over there next to the window...Why in the world are you "shouting"? You don't even know what any of this means, dude. Geez."...Traditions of men.

So many pastors, from those in little country churches to popular types like John Hagee, refer to the church building as the "House of God". That's bullshit, and in many ways creates an idol, or at the very least creates fertile soil for idolatry. It needs to stop. WE ARE THE HOUSE OF GOD. The veil was torn when Christ died on the cross specifically so that we could intimately commune with our God, and so that His Spirit could take up residence IN US. Every time a speaker calls a building of bricks, mortar, paneling, and carpet the "House of God", he or she sews a stitch back into the veil...It's a tradition of men.

On Facebook the other day, a friend asked a question on her status whether people would be supportive of Donald Trump running for President on the Republican ticket. Most of the responses were predictable, along the lines of "No! We need godly leadership!" Uggh. They don't even know what that means. Do they mean a Christian who relies on the values of his or her faith?...because the Religious Right and dominionist camps won't be satisfied with that. While I'd prefer a President who has a personal relationship with Christ, I'm gonna vote for the most qualified candidate, regardless of whether or not they wear their faith on their sleeve to please and appease any segment of the base. Frankly, given the current group of goofballs we'd have to choose from, Trump might just get my vote if he runs. Too many people rely on empty concepts of "godly leadership" that they've heard over and over.

When we're ritually exposed to this kind of thinking and behavior, it easily becomes commonplace in our own thinking and behavior, and it shouldn't be there at all. It's what causes so many to become indignant and seemingly deeply offended when a Rob Bell comes along and asks the right wrong questions. It's why so many get defensive when someone like me writes something that questions the construct of the biblical canon. It's thought reform, and it's cultic, although we'd never want to admit it. Truth is, I'd dare to say that half (and possibly a lot more) of what most professing Christians believe is based on nothing more than tradition and ritualistic indoctrination from traditional sayings and behaviors. It doesn't speak well of our faith.

Tradition breeds insecurity because it's shifting sand. Shifting sand proves to have no integrity as a foundation once the wind begins to blow against the structure.

Why would any of us want to build on it?


  1. Um, excuse me, but your preacher is showing. ;-)

  2. Lewis, it is so refreshing to read here-on a Sunday morning, especially, when all my IFB family is at 'church'. I need these injections of truth. Keep preaching. What your are saying is true, and it needs to be said. I only wish you had a larger audience. Maybe you will write a book someday. :)

  3. @anonymous He really should write a book.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Tragedy101...You've been warned, and I keep my word. If you want to comment here, being that you're bent on being a fundament, you'll use your real name. Otherwise, anything and everything you say will get the boot.

    You seriously need to move past your personal obsession with me.

  6. Very sharp and thoughtful commentary here. This kind of "thought reform" shows up in a lot of different ways in our lives. In what kind of worship we're comfortable with, in which way our views slant vis a vis Christ, God, the Bible... It ends up springing from the pulpit more often than not.

    On my blog profile, I mention that I'm "trying to figure out just what I believe--as opposed to what I've been told I should believe." It's commentary like this that helps me do that, by making me examine just why I believe what I believe. Thanks for that, Lewis.

  7. Woah. Just a little while ago I asked my husband "Do you ever sit in church and wonder why were're there and what's the point?" We must've been on the same wave-length. :P

  8. Yes yes yes yes and yes again! You must have been crawling around in my brain again, Lewis, or listening in to my rants after church...

    If we really want to follow Christ and his purpose and intention for us after His death, we need to examine every detail of what we call "church." For instance, I can see the point of singing hymns or songs together -- worship, fellowship, each individual adds to something that becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and invites the Holy Spirit to join in... does that mesh with the gospels and Acts? Yep. Check.

    But WHAT IS UP with the big speech every single Sunday? Did Jesus preach every week, on the dot? Seems like He gathered an audience whenever there was something monumental to say. (And had a meal afterwards -- where's my catered lunch???) Considering none of us are Jesus, maybe we could get by with big speeches once per quarter, and spend the rest learning in other ways. Or doing service projects. Or communing with nature.

    I mean, after studying the gospels and Acts, what is it that is mentioned as church? Can we figure out some basics? Can we go out on a limb and say some things were just cultural? What if we kept a very, very few basic guidelines and then completely re-imagined church in our time?

    If we are keeping the gospel message front and center, why is the thought of changing church so very, very scary to people?

  9. New tip for everyone: once you have your post typed out, copy into word pad before choosing "post comment" because Blogger is very hungry these days. Blogger especially likes my words. I am flattered, Blogger. Yum,yum.

    My college age daughter has recently stopped going to church with the nearly the same comments, Darcy. "That's two hours of my life I can never get back" were her exact words.

    I love going to my church for one purpose: to publicly praise Jesus with a grateful heart in one spirit with others who are there for the same reason. I have this metaphysical belief that it really honors him. Google "Love Rocks" and see if that short story is still in cyberspace. It was published on Crosswalk in the '90s and it expresses well my sentiments. I give God love rocks all the time, but it's cool to add mine to a bucket with other people's love rocks too.

    I John 1:9"...when we walk in the light as he is in the light, we HAVE fellowship with one another..." It's something we HAVE, not something we DO or a meeting we ATTEND. It's that instant heart connection between people whose hearts are set on Jesus. I have it with a few people in almost every church I've attended, but the sad truth is that is only with a very few. Most people are not there with hearts overflowing with worship and humbly yet honestly calling out for more of Jesus, like a beloved child wanting more of mom's home cooking. n_n

    I do admit that in most churches such people are the rare exception, unfortunately.

    On another note, I am reading Rob Bell's book and I love it. I am only in the first chapter, but it's full of question after question after question. Ah, here is a man whose heart is aflame with the reality of God. Knowing God should leave us full of wonder, as in "I wonder..." Anyone claiming to have all the answers (think Bible Answer Man LOL!) is not in touch with the God who "dwells in unapproachable light", whose love has depths and widths and heights that "passeth understanding", whose "thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and ways are higher than our ways", who is "able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think" and of whom it is declared that "eye has not seen nor ear has heard what God has prepared for those who love him".

    Sweet, sweet mystery.

  10. Good observations. I think when you begin opening your mind up to new ideas, soon you find yourself far away from where you came and you do not have the ability to go back. You begin to take the path less traveled and you find yourself having to explain yourself for drifting far from the traditional path.

  11. Shadowspring, thank you for pointing out that awesome truth in 1 John!!!! I had not noticed that but it is right there. And those who really think about these things instinctively know this has to be the way it is. The day will come when those who worship Him will worship Him in spirit and in truth. No mention of legalism or the need for it in some of these passages.

    I visit churches on rare occasion, hoping to just meet a few more like-minded ones. I try to find the least obnoxious set of practices and that is where I visit. Yet, I find myself absolutely chaffing at the churchy-ness, the dead stuffy flavor that seems to be in all the churches I have visited-to varying degrees.

  12. Ever read anything by Frank Viola? How about Wayne Jacobsen?

    Here are some sites you might enjoy - This guy doesn't see the weekly sermon in the Bible, nor any of the other things you wonder about. - I love their podcasts.

  13. Shadowspring, that is exactly why i go to church. That and I'm on the worship team which I absolutely love. :) But sitting and listening to a sermon about stuff I either disagree with or already know? I usually just blank out. Last week, I played with the newborn baby sitting next to me. :) I just feel like, while teaching is all good and necessary, that we're stuck in this rut that says we have to pray, then sing, then have a sermon, then pray and voila! We can pat ourselves on the back cuz we just did church. :P Compare that to the day before when some of us ladies got together and I led worship and the pastor's wife said some stuff that you wouldn't have heard in "church" but that was perfect, and we circled our chairs while one lady shared her heart about how much God loves us, and I sang a song that i had just written and we prayed for each other and encouraged each other and it fed my soul. Why can't "church" be like that? Why do we allow tradition and expectations to dictate how we corporately worship God? Why do we schedule and regulate when the Spirit can show up and when He can't? I'm so tired of it all.

  14. Darcy, I agree, and I would even go so far as to ask why only the certifiably trained tend to be assigned to things? I have no official singing or musical skills so I sometimes have a hard time with only the 'musical' people getting to lead musical things. I think God can appreciate even those of us without musical abilities-the simple singers. I often experience frustration with 'worship' songs because many times the songs chosen only showcase the musicians' talents and are difficult for the less or non-trained to sing. It is a particular pet peeve of mine. I, personally, have been deeply moved by the singing-imperfect though it may be-of persons who have a tremendous passion and heart for God and belt out their praise songs with beautiful abandon. I do agree with what you said about 'church'. I hope I have only offered a different perspective on music; I hope I haven't offended.

  15. Anonymous, (I am the other or one of the other Anon's-confusing but necessary for now) I have read Viola and I know Wayne Jacobsen and love what they have to say. My problem is that it can be very difficult to find like-mindeds to fellowship with in person on any level or in any format or non-format, so every once in a very rare while, when I can stomach it, I step inside a 501C3 building, hoping, perchance, that I will find another in whom is the Light. I am so uncomfortable, though, with programmed 'church' that I don't really want permanent regular fellowship of that type. I don't know what that makes me other than a lonely sojourner at times. Other times, I am happy-mostly-to pack up books and lunch and go read/pray/think somewhere on Sundays-alone,of course.

  16. I think that everyone has gifts and they are all necessary. I happen to be gifted musically. So I get asked to lead worship a lot. I'm not much of a teacher or speaker, so I leave that up to others who are more gifted there than I am. i wouldn't call any of us "certified", just stronger in one area or another. So those are the areas we serve in. It seems simple to me.

  17. Darcy, I agree with your comment and apologize for the offense in mine. I have musical family and friends and I often hear them speaking of the faulty performance of others. This bothers me because I am not sure church should be a performance. It seems like it should simply be folk all gathering and bringing what they do have and that being enough and acceptable. However, I realize that some people view church (not saying you do, :) as a place to bring our best offerings-including musical, teaching, and other abilities. In this perspective, it would make sense to only use the most gifted in each category. I guess I am a sucker for the broken sheep corral where all levels of ability may freely share. :)

  18. No offence taken. :) I totally agree that "church" shouldn't be a performance! That's one of my pet-peeves, actually. Especially musicians who freak out if the music isn't perfect. Bleh. Who cares? I mentioned to a worship team once when we were practicing and one of the musicians was having a hard time with something that "this isn't a performance, don't worry, it doesn't have to be perfect". The leader turned to me and said "Well, but we don't want to be a distraction to the worshippers...we're supposed to bring God our best, after all. So let's try that one lick again." I was so shocked I was speechless and by the time I recovered we had moved on to the next thing. I started to write a blog post about performance-based worship but never finished it. Maybe I should, then give it to that guy. :P

  19. Maybe could help you find some people in your area to meet with.

  20. Amen brotha! This has been my battle for a few years now and breaking free from tradition and seeing it for what it is, is very refreshing and liberating! Keep on preaching!