Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Killing the Church with Tradition

Easter has come and gone. I've found in my shorter existence as a pastor, and longer one as an active church participant, that now is the season in which there is often tensions and conflicts about the ways we are doing church and the ways we should be doing it. The high feast days have come and gone. In the coming-down-from-the-high something happen in the vortex of community that pushes some to want to blame others for their unmet expectations, un-articulated demands and possibly their unconscious essential tenants. It's not about being a killjoy as much as it seems to be a cyclical pattern of rejection and condemnation before a fear-full minority receives the rejection that they fear is coming.

This is true in my own life in the past weeks with claims that I am hiding, or embezzling money, as well as an anonymous critical comment left for me in the offering plate this past Sunday. (see image: click on it to expand it).

As I reflect on these encounters, past experiences and current theological reading I have to wonder if maybe the church is dying in our country - or at least struggling in a major Code BLUE way because we are so intent at any cost to not just hold on to tradition, but to be dominated by it. I'm not talking just about the little old ladies who only want to sing familiar hymns, nor about those that demand that a pastor/priest wear appropriate clerical uniforms. It's not just generational, geriatric or ageist. It's bigger. There is a strong surge, maybe a desperate plea for help, that rallies around the flagpole of tradition, even affirming negative aspects of our tradition out of fear or modernity and the increasingly obligatory need to adapt. Some examples include the continuation of destructive highly-hierarchical ways of relating to one another versus liberating and empowering forms of egalitarian collaboration, observation over participation, critical comment making over involved personal effort to bring about a change, cries of dogmatic and doctrinal heresy as opposed to thoughtful and time-consuming engagement of new ideas and reflection on past traditions, and the fight or flight response to emerging culture that pushes the church community to often feel the obligation to choose between total accomodation and dissipation in our pluralistic postmodern world or retreat back into the glory days of the 50s when churches were full and we were happy. [Another example is a recent article on President Obama's speech to the government of Turkey on the blog religious dispatches]

In my experience of the church I think we often don't recognize or welcome the growth, revitalization and "younger folks in the pews" that we desperately claim to want because we are addicted to the crack of the past, letting the hands of tradition so strenously wrap and hold themsleves around our necks that we can't inhale the fresh ideas, paradigms and air that is all around us. For the past years both in California and in France, I've worked with and for the transformation or revitalization of church communities (specifically in the PCUSA and the Eglise Reformee de France), maybe their is not an appropriate way to bring transformation, no peace-able way to bring change when it's perceived as possible only at the cost of throwing out all tradition.


Gene said...

The "no changes" vs. adapting is why many churches have two services, a traditional one and a more contemporary one. The latter is free to change as needed, but those who like the traditions unchanged can go to the former.

The problem (and my former church faced this problem) is that the people in the two services tend to drift apart, effectively forming two congregations in the same building.

Corn Dog said...

Whoa, Monte. What is going on over at that church? Dang. If it was me, I'd have to leave them to their own devices because I don't think they're listening when you talk to them. And the money? What the hell? That's some crazy stuff going on o'er there.

dbanoff said...

Tradition is important. Without the tradition, why are you Presbyterian instead of one of the many other denominations? However, change is part of life, both change for the better and change for the worse. When we stop changing we have died.
When the tradition is affirming, when it supports the spiritual growth of the congregation, it should be observed. When the tradition has become a barrier to growth, it must be modified if the church community is to grow and thrive. Of course, the trick it to know which is which.
My mother left the Presbyterian Church 70 years ago because it did not speak to her in a meaningful way. The traditions did not work to involve her in the faith community. I suspect that many others also don't find the old traditions to be comforting as much as meaningless in their daily lives.
Monte, your observations on the role of faith in community and Jesus' call to actually follow His teaching and not just declare belief in His divinity can be threatening, because they require a degree of introspection and, yes, hard work, which are difficult. It is so much easier to believe that one is a good Christian because one follows the approved rites than it is to be challenged to actually understand what Jesus was asking of His followers. Nevertheless, growth will not come without effort; neither personal growth nor growth in congregational membership.
Keep trying to drag Fruitvale Presbyterian Church and PCUSA into at least the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Sarah said...

I will pray for your church community and for those who critique anonymously. You know, I've been blessed with a church that knew they were going to die unless they changed. 10 years later and we are still here with informality but with a sincere respect for all of us on a faith journey. Embezzling and hiding money, I really wish you would share!! I am sorry that this faith community has a few folks that are getting in the way of the spirit moving you to new places. I'll keep praying for the church (all of us)!

Matt said...

That note is too much. We like our temple religions, keep God behind the curtain and our priests more divine than human. Even the church founded on Jesus Christ has all too often reverted to a temple religion that despises the idea of God and Humanity in communion. Is that irony or tragedy?

Monte said...

tragedy and irony....and maybe a large part of why the church is dying....