By Robin G. Jordan
We are told that the “traditional church” is on its last legs. It is about to go the way of the buggy whip. When one looks at the stagnation and decline of so many traditional churches, one is inclined to agree with this assessment. The traditional church does appear to have no future. But is this prognosis for the traditional church an accurate one? Does the traditional church have no place in twenty-first century Christianity? Is it about to disappear for good?
These questions naturally lead to another set of questions. Is the traditionalism of the traditional church the principal reason for its stagnation and decline? Or is its traditionalism simply a factor that has been mismanaged so that its contribution to the traditional church’s stagnation and decline is greater than it ought to be?
While I may be wrong, I am not inclined to view the practices of the traditional church as being so pernicious that we must remove or eliminate everything in the life and ministry of a church that is associated with traditional church--expunge every trace of it. We must strip our worship centers and gathering places of traditional ornaments, replace the chancel platform with a stage, and make the band the focus of the room in place of the communion table and the lectern/pulpit. We must take the singing away from the congregation and give it to professionals. We must dim the house lights and crank up the smoke machine.
I have heard three major criticisms of the traditional church. These criticisms are related to three key areas in the life and ministry of the traditional church—leadership, worship, and ministry (service). First is that some unchurched individuals find the culture and the music of the traditional church too unfamiliar and alien, too far removed from their own experience. It is too “churchy” for them. It smacks too strongly of organized religion which has fallen into disfavor with the younger generations.
The second is that the practices of the traditional church serve as an unpleasant reminder of the bad experiences that other unchurched individuals may have had while attending a traditional church in the past. It is not associated in their minds with real Christianity but with hypocrisy.
The third is that the practices of the traditional church are no longer effectual as they once were. There are more effective ways of achieving the results that they were originally intended to achieve.
These criticisms have some validity. The culture and music of the traditional church can be a difficult barrier for some folks to cross. It is an even tougher barrier when we do little or nothing to help them cross it.
At church this past Sunday we tried to sing unrehearsed a hymn that a choir would need to practice one or more times before singing it. The tune may have been familiar to the person who selected it and that person may have assumed because they knew the tune, the other members of the congregation knew it.
The other minister and I struggled with the hymn although we are best singers in the congregation. It was not a tune that was easy to pickup upon first hearing it.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) we did not have any first-time guests this past Sunday. If we had had first-time guests, it would have in all likelihood proven much more daunting for these visitors.
Anglican and Episcopal churches have been particularly prone to “Churchianity.” Rob Smith in Leading Christians to Christ: Evangelizing the Church (Morehouse Publishing,1990) examines this phenomenon in the Episcopal Church. He notes that it is the ambience of the Episcopal Church more than anything that has drawn people to that denomination. Those who attend Episcopal churches are a mixed bag. Some are converted; others are not. Some question the need for conversion. Others are hostile to the very idea.
In this regard the Continuing Anglican Churches that broke with the Episcopal Church over women’s ordination and Prayer Book revision and more recently same-sex marriage and related issues are not unlike the Episcopal Church.
Some traditional churches are indeed legalistic, judgmental, spiritually-abusive, and unforgiving. They have injured more than their share of people. But it would be wrong to say that these characteristics describe all traditional churches.
The removal or elimination of everything in the life and ministry of a church that is associated with traditional church is not going to keep a church from exhibiting these characteristics. It is not going to keep self-identified Christians from behaving inside and outside of the church like their non-Christian neighbors, relatives, and coworkers.
What it may do is lull the newcomer who has had a bad experience at a traditional church into a false sense of security, which will make any bad experience at the new church even more traumatic.
What I have observed is that some folks who make the first two criticisms of the traditional church have a pre-existing bias against the traditional church. These criticisms are in line with their longstanding view of the traditional church. For example, they may belong to an ecclesiastical tradition that historically has been highly critical of what Anglicans call the ornaments of the church and the clergy on various grounds. They may view the members of traditional churches as nominally Christian at best.
The third major criticism of the traditional church may be the one that has the most validity. It centers on an issue with which Anglicans have wrestled since the English Reformation.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote about it in his essay, “Of Ceremonies.” In this essay he is referring to ceremonies in the public worship of the church. But the principles that he expounds in the essay are applicable to other practices in the life and ministry of the church.
Cranmer takes note of the very human tendency to become addicted to old customs on one hand and to be attracted to novelty on the other and the tension between these two tendencies.
Cranmer champions the view that what is old should not be despised for its age but respected for its antiquity. It should be retained as long as it is “well-used,” not abused or misused, and is profitable, yields results that are spiritually or otherwise advantageous. For instance, it contributes to the good order and discipline of the church or to its edification. In the latter case it promotes adherence to the Christian religion and fosters the practice of that faith. Its meaning and use must also be evident to everyone.
What is not said in the essay is that such practices must also be agreeable with Scripture. But it is clear from his essay, “Concerning the Services of the Church,” and his other writings that Cranmer was not advocating the retention of ceremonies and other practices solely on the basis of their antiquity. They must be agreeable to Scripture and beneficial or useful.
We cannot cling to a practice because it has been around for a while and we are under the misapprehension that is the way we have always done things. I say misapprehension because when we examine the history of the practice, we may discover that it is not as old as we thought it was and it is not the only way that things have been done.
For example, if one studies the history of the various postures Christians have assumed to pray, one discovers that kneeling is just of a number of prayer postures that Christians have used. These include standing with upturned hands or with outstretched arms, prostrating one’s self, or sitting with one’s legs tucked under oneself.
Canon 20 of the Council of Nicea directs that we should stand for prayer on the Lord’s Day and between Passover and Pentecost:
Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.When the Council of Nicea adopted this canon, the practice had been around for at least two centuries.
Kneeling for prayer would not become the prevailing custom until the Middle Ages and then it was largely due to the influence of feudalism. Kneeling with one’s hands together, palm pressing against palm, a posture we now associate with prayer, was the posture one assumed to pledge one’s fealty to one’s feudal lord.
What physical posture we assume when we pray does not matter as much as the posture of our hearts—our attitude toward God.
What the English Reformers did in the sixteenth century, we must also do in our time. We must prune the ceremonies and other practices that have been abused or are no longer useful. We must resist the temptation to delude ourselves that a practice is still useful because we are attached to it, because we cannot imagine doing things any other way.
I see a place for the traditional church in twenty-first century Christianity but it will be a much leaner, healthier church, a church whose principal focus is making and forming disciples. It will be a church that is not living in the past but is engaged with the present. I am convinced that the more the traditional church seeks to honor Christ in its common life and ministry, the less its practices will prove a barrier to its reaching the unsaved. While these barriers will not disappear entirely, they will recede to the point that they are not difficult to overcome.