There are important dates that come with this time of year. Yes, there’s that date (I love you, mom!). But there are also other events worth celebrating, at least to me—the completion of 33 years of life and 9 years in the role of a pastor. These, of course, are not epic milestones and in both cases by many people around me, I am still but a pup.
Side note: In 9 years of pastoring, I have always been the youngest “senior” pastor in my association. When I started at 23 going on 24, this was a bit of a no duh type thing. Now I’m like, “Are we ever going to get anyone younger than me?” Fortunately, to keep me humble in this regards God has instilled in my life a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan—I have the hair line of the older pastors and they have the hair line I’ve been missing for at least 5 years. But I digress.
I have an odd sense of humor to begin with, but I wanted to briefly share a couple of things that make me chuckle as a pastor—and it has to do with people’s desire for tradition vs. a desire for the lack thereof. Simply put, the church I pastor, in regards to style 90% of the time, is traditional. Though I have joked with several people we can still be hip and cool as a traditional church. We simply have to rebrand ourselves as vintage. I just went clothes shopping today and I can assuredly say: vintage is in.
But what gives me the good chuckle is what people say to me at times. Waxing eloquent about the glory days of the church in the 80’s when the sanctuary was full as was the choir loft, some say, “It was so much better when we had a choir. Pastor, why don’t we have a choir now?” I smile and resist the urge to remind them that in the 80’s I was still running around in superhero underoo’s, and tell them, “Because we have no one who wants to direct it and only about three people who want to sing in it. Would you like to direct it?” Conversation ends.
And then there are others. “I hate piano and organ and songs in a hymnbook. Why can’t we have guitars and drums?” I smile and resist the urge to remind them that I am not Mark Driscoll and this is not Seattle, and tell them, “We do break out the guitars on occasion. The drums, however, we don’t have anyone who knows how to play them. Do you want to learn?” Conversation ends.
So we are what we are. If God happens to bless us in the future with people of diverse musical gifts and a desire to use such talents in various ways then the door will be open to all sorts of possibilities. At present, I will keep fielding questions and keep chuckling to myself.
That said, the polarity of these questions show a fundamental divide that exists in my church and indeed I believe in many churches. Either that or the particular local church has taken a stand on one side or the other and are self-defined as such. Even as Christians who are to be willing to selflessly set aside personal preference for the sake of unity in the Kingdom present (the church), we tend instead to be people of extremes.
Recently for my Integrating Faith and Practice class (D.Min studies at MBTS), I’ve been reading Kevin Vanhoozer’s hermeneutical thesis The Drama of Doctrine. It is a thick book which I am approximately half way through, but I am loving it. Undoubtedly, Vanhoozer being Presbyterian will draw conclusions with which I being Baptist shall not agree. Nonetheless, I agree with his overall idea that the Bible is God’s script for his story in which he plays a role and gives direction, and calls us to play a role; and this script is supremely focused on Christ and empowered by the Spirit for such purpose. Essentially he systematized a viewpoint that I have held to for a while—that creation is all about God telling the story of redemption that he wants to tell, and the Bible both tells us his story and draws us in to shape our lives around his story.
One of the driving points Vanhoozer makes is how tradition plays into our role of interpreting Scripture. As he says there are some who view the tradition of the church as being the primary authority in interpretation. Here we find some very theologically conservative elements such as Catholicism (old tradition) as well as theologically liberal elements bound in postmodernism (continuously creating tradition) sharing an uneasy common ground (often without realizing it).
But also (and this is my point), we see it in the so-called worship wars of the church. Those who maintain that the only good worship is traditional (read: piano, organ, and songs dated mostly in the 1800’s) and the only good Bible is the KJV, elevate the status of their tradition to King. Whereas those who swing to the other extreme of doing all contemporary (or possibly contemporizing select “old” songs), elevate their own tradition-making as King.
Back to Vanhoozer for a moment—he argues the Spirit does indeed use tradition to help communicate to us proper interpretation of the truth of Christ (after all, if we believe something that is out of the norm of hundreds of years of Christian history, we probably have a better chance of being wrong than right—though this is not always the case; see: the Reformation and for us Baptists, the further reforms of our Baptists and Anabaptists forerunners). Our tradition, however, must be subservient to the storyline of Scripture.
Ultimately Scripture is about God bringing glory to himself by saving a people for his own possession through the sacrifice of Jesus and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. And what was a primary step God took in achieving this? The Father sent the Son to live among us as a Jewish carpenter 2000 years ago in a particular culture and at a particular time (the “fullness of time” or the perfect time in God’s plan, as Paul argues in Galatians 4).
John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Vanhoozer makes the point that the incarnation is the most radical example of contextualization—God became a human being to save human beings.
So how does that play for our lives?
We must remember that our primary aim in life individually and corporately as followers of Jesus is to manifest and reflect Jesus to the world. Jesus said, “As you [Father] sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). And, “A disciple is not above his teacher; but everyone when he has been fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). We are to be incarnational in the sense that we do everything we can to portray Christ to the world and call them to be like Jesus for his glory, and do it in a way that communicates clearly.
We have a message that is eternal and set in the heavens while being proclaimed upon the earth to diverse cultures (Revelation 14:6). But as those who embody that message by living and proclaiming it, we must come to transcend the cultural divides and be neither traditional (or vintage) nor contemporary; while at the same time being both traditional and contemporary.
What I mean by that is this:
1) We cannot let human traditions define us. If we draw lines in the sand and say “We shall only be traditional,” or “We shall only be contemporary” (which in and of itself is simply a new method attempting to become traditional by being the norm), then we have lost sight of what God has done in Christ by sending him to live among us and sending us to embody him among every nation and tribe and tongue and people.
2) We cannot eschew all church traditions as irrelevant. Some traditions are necessary and some teach. White sheets and silver platters are not biblical elements of the Lord’s Supper which we must keep for all times. The Supper, itself, however is a tradition (implemented by Jesus himself) to be passed on from generation to generation and peoples to peoples.
3) How we decide what to keep and what to toss must be decided first by what the Bible commands and second by what elements of one generation work in effectively communicating Christ to the next generation (or sub one peoples to the next peoples, one language to the next language, etc.).
And we see this as a biblical norm. After all, the same apostle who said, “I have become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22) and who used the poets of the day to point a pagan culture to Christ (Acts 17:28); also said, “Stand firm and hold the traditions which you were taught by us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and also used the Old Testament Scriptures to reason with those familiar with them and point them to Christ (Acts 17:2-3).