I pastor a church with some of the most tradition-loving Baptists you will find anywhere. I’ve maintained for nearly 10 years that I pastor two churches that meet in the same building, share a church staff and usually get along pretty well. One church, called Southern Hills Baptist Church, meets at 8:30 in the morning on Sundays. We sing out of the hymnal with piano accompaniment, wear a lot of ties and coats, and aren’t much different from the church of 1972. Many would agree with Prince Caspian when he observed that he had seen progress in an egg and called it “going bad.” Many of the attenders at 8:30 would view every innovation in the church since 1967 as a perversion of God’s plan!
I also pastor Southern Hills Baptist Church, which meets at 11:00 AM on Sundays, has a praise team and sings “contemporary” (sort of) praise and worship songs. Our contemporary folks would pass as traditionalists in a lot of places – we are not exactly hipsters here in the SUX (yes, folks, that is our airport’s regional designation – I kid you not).
So, I’ve got a group of traditional, conservatives who gather for a mildly contemporary service at 11 and I’ve got a group of true traditionalists who meet at 8:30 in the morning to sing the old hymns the old way! I kid about pastoring two churches, but only a little. We are one church, but we often find ourselves of two minds. The traditionalist mindset of the early service group and the slightly less traditional, more willing to innovate mindset of the second service group sometimes diverge.
Let me tell you two stories about my traditionalists and their traditional love of traditional traditions. (Too much?)
I sit on the front row during the music. Why? Because the previous pastor did. Why? Because the pastor before him did, I guess. The traditional service used to meet at 11:00 until attendance dwindled to the point where we switched the services around. At the 11 AM traditional service, early in my tenure, a young man wearing a ball cap wandered in and sat down a few rows behind me. I always try to make the gospel clear in every message I preach, but that day I was focusing on it. One of our ushers went up to the young man and told him that he either needed to remove his ball cap or leave the church. Of course, he left the church.
When I found out about this (after church), I was incensed. Are you kidding me? We were willing to make a young man leave the church rather than allow him to hear the gospel wearing a ball cap? So, at the next deacons meeting I raised the issue, assuming everyone would share my ire. I was shocked that with the exception of one younger deacon, the feeling was that while it could have been handled better that young man should have known better than to wear a hat in church. Many of those deacons are singing hymns in Glory’s choir now (I hope the harps aren’t electric!), but I left that meeting with my head spinning.
A couple of years later, we were doing a deacon ordination council for a man who had been a long time member of another church in town, known for it’s strict stands on a lot of issues. Good man. Qualified deacon. We grilled him a little till he was roasted to perfection, and we were ready to proceed with recommending him for ordination. Then, he got serious, put his head down a little, and asked if he could say something.
“I don’t know if this is going to make any difference, but there’s something I ought to tell you before you vote on me.” I caught my breath a little. Criminal record? Had a previous divorce escaped our notice? Was he a drug kingpin? From his tone, it sounded serious! “Sometimes,” he told us in somber tone. “On a Sunday afternoon, I like to do a little yardwork and gardening.”
I laughed (and offended him by doing it). I thought he was pulling our legs. It happens at our deacons’ meetings – I’m not sure why people think cutting up is appropriate around me. But he was dead serious. I guess that at his previous church doing any kind of yardwork on a Sunday would have gotten you the left foot of fellowship. We ordained him and he served well as a deacon.
Now, here’s the point of all this.
On August 27, I will celebrate my 37th anniversary with my wife and finish my 10th year as pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church (both churches – does that make 20 years?). There are many times in those years when I’ve been frustrated with the traditionalism of the traditionalists. Change comes very slowly at Southern Hills. I’m not a “my way or the highway” kind of leader (maybe that’s what SHBC needs). I work by consensus and it’s not always easy to develop with such divergent mindsets.
Because of that, I’ve had to abandon some plans and ideas I’ve thought were good plans and ideas. A year ago, we had an idea that I think was really good. The leadership of the church was behind it, but the traditionalists kicked up such a fuss that in the name of unity we pulled it, at least for a time. It put the leadership in a bad place. Do we do what we believe is best for the church even though it might cause a mutiny among our traditionalists? Progress or peace? Tough choice!
I’ve tried to explain things to our traditionalists. As much as we may look back with longing to the days gone by, the world today is not what is was then. While we cannot change the message, we must change our methods in a changing world. The church culture of the 50s and early 60s was good for reaching the culture of the 50s and early 60s and it worked. But this is not that world. The world has changed and the church that says “we are going to do things exactly the way we did them 50 years ago” is going to run into some serious problems in reaching the world for Jesus. The church culture of the 50s is not going to reach the world of the 21st Century. We have to change when the world changes. I’ve said that 4.325 million times, but it hasn’t really sunk in. It’s easy to get a little bit frustrated.
But as frustrated as I’ve been with these traditionalists, I’ve also learned a few things about them through the years, things I think that some other churches and pastors may have forgotten. My church’s traditionalists are responsible for quite a few of my gray hairs, for some of my sleepless nights and for a little aggravation, but they are some of my best friends, loyal supporters, pillar members and more importantly – they are faithful servants of Jesus Christ at Southern Hills Baptist Church!
Let me share a few thoughts about loving traditionalists in the church.
1. The traditionalists love Jesus.
They hate drums and guitars. Many of them think small groups are some sort of commie plot to destroy Sunday night services. They don’t like innovation – not one bit! They don’t like new-fangled technology and strategery.
But they LOVE Jesus. They love the Word. Argue methods and strategies and priorities with the older generation, my young whippersnapper friends, but please don’t assume that because they hate the music with which you worship Jesus that they don’t love the Jesus you worship. Don’t assume that because they hate the changes you’ve made in your church that they love the Jesus you made the changes to serve any less than you do. Don’t pretend that your willingness to change is evidence of a greater love for Jesus.
I will never see eye to eye with some of my dear, close friends in the church, but neither will I be able to make them see things my way. They honestly believe that God is more glorified by songs sung from a hymnal accompanied by a piano instead of those sung off screens with a band. God is more honored by the old ways than the new. I’ve realized that they aren’t just being obstinate or difficult. It’s in their hearts. It’s their convictions. Fifty, sixty, seventy years of worship has reinforced this idea. I may not agree, but I have to realize that they aren’t just being difficult, they are being convictional!
I can bully them if I want. I can win a vote against them if I want. I can defeat them. But I would rather respect them and understand them. I will never agree with them, but I understand that they genuinely love Jesus and see the world through completely different lenses than I do.
These traditionalists love Jesus. They are not willing to listen to guitars and drums during worship, but they would willingly die for Jesus. I don’t understand that, but I believe it.
2. The church has often abandoned older folks and traditionalists.
Why don’t these people go to Billy Sunday anymore? It’s doesn’t exist. Two things happened. One of their former pastors decided to modernize the church and introduced contemporary music. Horror! They up and left!
But the Tab wasn’t the only church that followed that pattern. Pretty much every evangelical church in town has decided that contemporary music is the path to reach people. The older folks, the traditionalists who liked the hymns, were basically told to like it or lump it! That is only a slight exaggeration. Because we have a traditional service, we became a gathering place for folks who felt chased out of their lifelong church homes.
My dad is a traditionalist of the higher order. He pastored churches in Texas, Iowa, Taiwan, and Florida, as well as several interims, until health issues forced him to the sidelines. He has told me, “We should do things today the way we did them in the 60s and 70s, and the church would be in much better shape.” He told me one time (my paraphrase),
Dave, I don’t understand church anymore. I gave my entire life to the church, and it has thrown my generation away. I don’t understand the songs we sing. I don’t understand the sermons the preachers preach. Nothing is familiar or normal. The church I devoted my life to is gone.
Look at it from the perspective of the 80 year old in the modern American church. For 60 years, church was pretty much the same, then in the last couple of decades everything has blown up. Are the changes effective? Perhaps, but that’s not the point. Suddenly, these folks go to the same church they’ve attended for 65 years and nothing is familiar.
They feel abandoned, neglected and unwanted. And, honestly, it’s not all untrue. I’ve heard young people talk about the elderly as if they were a hindrance to the work of God. (Yes, that goes both ways!)
3. The traditionalists have born the burden of change.
This is one of those “duh” observations, but in most churches, the norm has completely reversed. For most of history, the young have had to fit in with the old who were respected. Now, old is an insult and we prize and value the young. It is the old and established who have to mold themselves to the ways of the young.
This is unique in history – when the church is run by youth culture and tells the old to adjust.
4. There’s a lot to learn from the traditionalists.
There is a fidelity and institutional stability among the traditionalists that is admirable. When they make a commitment to a church they make a commitment. Younger folks are must less institutional (that can be both good and bad) and are much more likely to move from church to church. The kind of commitment it took to fight and win World War II made an impact on that generation.
They may, at times, hold on to traditions as if they are biblical imperatives. They may get cranky over secondary issues. They may not be willing to adjust to new things. And certainly, at times, they make the mistake of over-prioritizing their traditions.
But the wise church realizes that there is much to gain from the wisdom of the ages, even from the traditional traditions of the traditionalists!
5. As with racial segregation, age-segregation is a blight on the church.
I understand the desire of young people to be with young people and seniors to hang with seniors. It’s normal and natural. I’m not convinced that Family Integrated church is the only way or even the best way to do church (not trying to make that a fight here).
Too many churches are age-divided and that is not healthy. Older people should teach the younger the ways of God – not just their traditions and how things used to be, but how to walk with Jesus. Younger people can provide an energy and enthusiasm that keeps the church moving. Both old and young have their place and their purpose, and the church has only gray heads or only young hipsters is probably unhealthy.
In the next few months I will probably find myself frustrated with the traditionalists at Southern Hills Baptist Church over something. Some brilliant idea I come up with will flounder because it’s not the way we’ve always done it. But every Sunday and Wednesday (it’s the traditionalists who show up for our midweek prayer service) I will love and appreciate the fellowship, the faithfulness, the devotion to Christ, the love for the Word, and their partnership in the work of the church.
The traditionalism of traditionalists can be frustrating. But at Southern Hills Baptist Church, they help to form the backbone of our ministry and I am thankful to God for what they give to