Although we like to say that tradition doesn’t carry authority for us like it does in the Catholic church the truth is, in practice, many times it does. How many times have you heard an idea rebuffed because either “We’ve never done it that way” or “The people who started this church would be rolling in their graves if they knew about this!” Ok. But what pleases God? Not what have we done. Not what did our ancestors do. What pleases God?
We aren’t animists. We don’t have totems or shrines to our ancestors but sometimes church buildings and their contents seem to operate just like them. That is unfortunate and although we don’t like to admit it it is often the case.
Here are a few thoughts to help put that thinking to rest.
First, this line of thinking isn’t healthy doctrinally. You don’t base doctrine sheerly or maybe merely based on what others before us did. That is never a good criteria in and of itself. There were many things they got wrong and we don’t have to be doomed to make the same mistakes again. There are other things that just don’t matter.
Second, it isn’t healthy psychologically. We need to have better self-differentiation and less enmeshment with the past. They were more than their traditions then and so are we today.
Third, it doesn’t have an adequate appreciation for generational or cultural differences. If those church founders from the 1940s or 50s were born when you were born they wouldn’t think like people born in the 1920s. They would think more like people born in our generation. They might still have their pioneer spirit and still want to start a church. But the way they would do it had they been born when you were born wouldn’t be the same as how they did it then, for better or for worse. In other words, when we make these statements we are comparing apples and oranges. We are comparing a frozen past to a dynamic present. The present will always lose that contest. But take them out of the past and project them 50 to 75 years into the future and take their pioneer spirit and consider how they might apply those same motivations and dreams today and I believe you would find they would not roll over in their graves for what is going on in many instances but would in fact applaud much of it. Innovators of the past would be innovators of the present. It was in their DNA.
Now, this doesn’t work with everything. There are some things that don’t need to change cross-generationally. There are some things I would hope they would hold onto that our culture no longer holds on to but maybe some of them would have flexed on those as well (just as they did in their day) – remember, they were human too. Somehow we miss that point. When our belief is that they are automatically right and anything new is an innovation and therefore automatically wrong we box ourselves into a corner we created. What they did when they did it was innovative so I can only imagine they would do the same if they were alive in our generation.
So don’t worry about who is rolling over in their grave. If we are going to make up what we think they might do we could just make up that they are smiling at our attempts to do things in ways that fit our context and culture just like they did.