Some time ago I visited a rapidly growing church in Columbia, South Carolina, that was primarily attracting young adults to their worship services. At the time the congregation was only four years old but already had several hundred young adults attending one of ﬁve services each Sunday. I was 42 at the time and was clearly one of the “old people” in the group. I watched as college students and young professionals worshipped God with passion. While their music was much more energetic than most churches, the focus of the music was on Jesus, not entertainment. I was amazed at how forcibly the congregation was challenged in a biblically based sermon to grasp God’s concepts of stewardship and what that meant in the lives of those present. The preacher may have been dressed in blue jeans, but the sermon was not some watered-down version of the gospel, but a radical call to live like Jesus.
I wrote about my experience both on my blog and in an article for the Baptist Courier, the oﬃcial newspaper for the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Though many read the article and rejoiced that God was doing such a powerful thing among young adults in their area, two pastors contacted me to say they disagreed with my observations. I encouraged them to visit that church for themselves and make their own observations. They replied that they did not need to visit the church because they knew all about “churches like that.” Though I want to be careful not to judge my brothers in Christ, their comments highlight what I see as a disturbing trend developing in some traditional churches. I call it tradition idolatry.
Tradition idolatry is the tendency to assume that following one’s religious traditions is the same thing as following God. Do not misunderstand. Many cherished church traditions are very meaningful, and it would be sad to see them neglected. But cherished traditions are not equal to biblical mandates. It is imperative that churches not give up biblical mandates, even though they may alter their manmade traditions multiple times.
Most traditions in churches were simply convenient ways to do things when the traditions were developed. Times have changed, but in many churches, the traditions remain. For example, many traditional churches have Sunday morning worship at 11:00 a.m., a time that worked well for the farmers who made up many congregations when American culture was more agriculturally oriented. Today that particular time slot is not as convenient as it once was, yet the tradition remains in many churches. Churches that forget the point of worship, which is to honor and glorify God in spirit and in truth, and instead focus on the time slot are in danger of practicing tradition idolatry.
Perhaps the time slot is not important to some churches, but what about the instruments used in worship? Certain instruments were popular a generation ago, but diﬀerent instruments may be popular today. The point is not the instruments themselves but how those instruments are used to glorify God. More traditional churches may use a hymn book while less-traditional churches may project the words on the wall. Both are products of the times, and neither is mandated in Scripture. Congregations need to worship with a heart that is focused on God instead of on self. While traditions may have an aura of godliness, they are often simply catering to self because we tend to feel more comfortable with traditions. It is easy to confuse the feeling of comfort that comes with traditions with actual spirituality.
When people choose to follow their traditions instead of following the Bible, the boundary of tradition idolatry has been crossed. God cannot bless a church that worships idols, no matter how traditional they may seem.
Adapted from Dr. Dorsett’s book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.