More often than not, we younger Christians tend to define ourselves by what we’re against rather than what we’re for.
One particular manifestation of this tendency is the rejection of tradition in the Christian life. If you’ve grown up anywhere near currents of Christian life that contain young adults, you likely know what I’m talking about. It often seems like movements of “traditional” Christianity are viewed backward, out-of-touch, irrelevant and ineffective sub-cultures. Even if we might not say it, some of us believe tradition is destructive.
Of course, this isn’t true of all young adult Christians. A great number of us are beginning to re-evaluate the role of tradition in the Christian life—and that’s a very good thing.
‘Traditional’ Isn’t an Expletive
For many, the word “traditional” is something you don’t say if you’re discussing how to organize a worship service, put together a sermon series or reach the lost. Many people in the modern church think traditional methods are irrelevant methods. We’ve gotten to the point in modern Christian practice where the word “traditional” has become almost an expletive.
In many ways, it comes from a hatred toward legalism and moralism that we’ve associated with our church experiences. I grew up in a fundamentalist church. Until I arrived at seminary, that experience defined my perspectives toward anything “traditional.”
The particular church I grew up in was morally overbearing, communicatively dry and spiritually confusing. Based on that experience, I didn’t believe God was a Father as much as a disciplinarian. From that point forward, I began to superimpose my distaste for legalism and moralism onto my understanding of tradition. “Traditional Christianity” became a functional synonym for “legalistic Christianity.”
That all changed when I researched the fundamentalist movement of 20th century America, the same tradition that gave birth to the church I grew up in. I discovered that the fundamentalist movement, though it was greatly flawed, held as true and important many of the same truths I hold true and important—things like the inerrancy of God’s Word and the importance of combatting cultural lies that can misrepresent and distort the Christian faith.
I then began to see my view of tradition as a problem.
Tradition isn’t just an interesting piece of history that Christians can learn from, it can be a building block in a mature expression of faith in Christ. Tradition, regardless of which tradition you associate with, offers important practices and theology to help grow our understanding of truth, accountability and the dynamic beauty of the coming Kingdom of God.
As I’ve grown in my understanding, I’ve found several reasons to embrace, not reject, tradition.
Tradition Helps Us Understand the Historical Trajectory of Truth
One of the more important roles tradition plays in the life of the Christian is in giving us a fuller understanding of exactly where our beliefs come from.
If we’re honest, we like to believe that our ideas of truth and doctrine are born from an objective reading of Scripture.
While the idea of this notion is pleasant, it’s not entirely accurate. In so many respects, the things we value theologically, spiritually and emotionally come to us from one tradition or another. Tradition offers us the beautiful practice of passing things down. We would not have many of the doctrines, creeds and core truths we hold to be foundational if it weren’t for tradition. This doesn’t mean we automatically accept everything we’re handed, but it gives us a basis of understanding to start from and dig into.
Tradition Creates Accountability in our Theological Conversations
To reject tradition as an unimportant part of Christian life is to place ourselves outside of accountability. And thinking we can completely disassociate ourselves from any expression of a particular tradition is not only naive, but arrogant.
It says we’re not concerned with entering a conversation (with the past) about our beliefs. We would rather lock ourselves up in our theological fortresses and refuse to lower the drawbridge. Rejecting tradition is sometimes an attempt to place ourselves outside of critique.
Tradition Discloses the Dynamism of God’s Kingdom
The Kingdom of God is variegated, dynamic, colorful and transcendent. There will be a myriad of traditions represented in the new heaves and new earth, and individualistic Christianity will fall away.
If we embrace the role of tradition in our lives, we are embracing the beauty of community. People from all creeds, colors and traditions have a seat at the table, and the narrow, monochromatic scope of anti-traditionalism is enveloped in the colorful, variegated breadth of true fellowship.
We All Belong to a Tradition
We would do well to understand that we all operate out of a tradition. We’re fooled if we think we can avoid it. The question becomes, then, will we belong to a tradition that opens itself up to the beauty of interaction with others, or will we remain closed off in an effort to be more in-touch or effective?
The most effective means of Gospel ministry come when we are humble enough to admit that we need the help of those from other Christian traditions, and we need to understand where we’ve come from to understand where we’re going. We need the Church more than we think.