Sunday, May 22, 2016

What Is a Traditional Church?

By Robin G. Jordan

The phrase “traditional church” means different things to different people. For example, the pastor of one church with whom I am acquainted when he uses the phrase “traditional church” is referring to churches that has deacons and monthly congregational meetings, which have graded Sunday school classes for adults and children, and which at their services of public worship have a choir who wear robes, use a piano or organ to provide musical accompaniment for congregational singing and choral music, and sing hymns from a hymnal. Regular worshipers wear their “Sunday best” to church.

The pastor in question believes that the strangeness and unfamiliarity of this kind of “churchiness” puts off unchurched people and is one of the main reasons that they are not likely to attend a church. They may have also had bad experiences in a traditional church and the same “churchiness” is a reminder of those bad experiences and is likely to keep them from returning for a second visit. He deliberately seeks to avoid in his own church everything that might be perceived to be “churchy.” Yet his church is in its own way “churchy.” It may not be the “churchiness” that he associates with “traditional churches” but it is nonetheless “churchiness “. It is simply a different kind of “churchiness.”

How many non-Christians, non-churchgoers attend a regular weekly event at which a band plays the guitar, the drums, and other music instruments, sings a selection of songs, and invites the audience to join in the singing, and someone gives a talk on a spiritual topic? A few may go to the occasional concert or talk but not every week, on a particular day of the week. While it may not be perceived that way at the present, non-Christians, non-churchgoers are going to perceive it as “churchy” over time—something that churchgoing Christians do.

The same pastor comes from a Southern Baptist background. Two traditions have influenced Southern Baptist worship—the Charleston tradition and the Sandy Creek tradition.
“Southern Baptist worship today bears the influence of both traditions.  Charleston influence can be seen in the set order of worship, formality and dignity, hymns focusing on God, and sermons characterized by learning and piety, head and heart. Sandy Creek influence manifests itself in gospel hymns and songs focusing on the spiritual state of the worshiper, extemporaneous prayers, folksy informality, and fiery evangelistic sermons that leave ample room, even if carefully prepared, for spontaneous improvisation prompted by the Holy Spirit.”
While this pastor has clearly been influenced by the Praise and Worship and Seeker Service Movements of the twentieth century, it is equally evident that he stands in the Sandy Creek tradition. The churchiness that characterizes his church is a contemporary expression of the Sandy Creek tradition. The churchiness against which he reacts are modern day expressions of the Charleston tradition.   

Both traditions are found in Baptist churches in the region. Churches in both traditions are also flourishing. The Sandy Creek tradition, however, is more common. Because the Sandy Creek tradition is more common, a larger number of Baptists have been exposed to that tradition and generally show a preference for churches in that tradition. These churches also attract people with other denominational backgrounds such as Assembly of God, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and United Methodists who have been exposed to the revivalist tradition.

Whether or not this pastor realizes it, the way his church does ministry and worship will be viewed at some time in the not too distant future as “traditional church.”

The priest who formerly pastored one of the region’s Continuing Anglican churches when he uses the phrase “traditional church” means something entirely different. He is Anglo-Catholic in theological outlook. When he uses the phrase “traditional church,” he mean a church that is thoroughly unreformed Catholic in its beliefs and practices, a church which embraces the dogmas of the Council of Trent and uses one of the Anglican Missals in in addition to or in place of a Prayer Book in its worship. For him “traditional church” also means the use of certain ornaments of the clergy and the church—Mass vestments, a high altar, a tabernacle, sanctuary lights, a separate pulpit and lectern, the stations of the cross, and so on—as well as the use of certain gestures and ceremonies such as making multiple signs of the cross over the bread and wine during the prayer of consecration, genuflecting and kissing the altar at the conclusion of the consecration prayer, and showing the consecrated host to the congregation for adoration. .

For members of the Continuing Anglican church that this priest pastored, “traditional church” has a different meaning again. They associate “traditional church” with the use of the 1928 Prayer Book, the 1940 Hymnal, the King James Version of the Bible, the observance of the feasts, fasts, and seasons of the Church Year and a particular set of customs and usages—processions with lights and a cross, vesting the altar in purple for Lent, bowing to the altar, kneeling for communion, and the like. They may share with the priest the association of “traditional church” with the use of certain clergy and church ornaments. They may equate the phrase “traditional church” with what others might consider “High Church.” “High Church” like “traditional church,” it must be acknowledged, also means different things to different people. They may also associate "traditional church" with a particular style of church architecture—the two-roomed Medieval monastic church. 

It is helpful to keep these different understandings of the phrase “traditional church” in mind in any discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the “traditional church” and to clarify with the other parties to the discussion what they mean by “traditional church.”

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