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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Tradition: Breathing new life into ancient practices

In a denomination marked in recent years by declining attendance and closing churches, young adults in our growing urban congregation repeatedly use the word “tradition” to describe what draws them to worship. 

In the same neighborhood, a synagogue is experiencing something similar. A continuous stream of several hundred Jewish young adults gather Friday evenings in a newly formed worshiping community that describes itself as “spiritually dynamic, liturgically traditional and socially progressive.” Compared to Reform Jewish worship of recent centuries that uses English and de-emphasizes ritual, nearly all the prayers and songs in this liturgy are in Hebrew.

Tradition. Some of us think of the well-known song in Fiddler on the Roof. As outside influences threaten the long-held religious traditions in Tevye’s family, he sings of continuity amid life changes happening before his eyes.

Lutherans have tradition, no doubt. But what tradition are we talking about?

For some, it refers to the practices of a particular congregation in the past couple decades — or even centuries. Perhaps it was a Swedish community that celebrated Santa Lucia or Julotta services on Christmas morning. Others may refer to the Lutheran tradition of music, such as choral singing and congregational hymns. Still others may call to mind Bible reading, communion, baptism, or common texts and prayers in the liturgy they remember from their childhood.

In recent years, traditional and contemporary worship have been pitted against each other. Some congregations allow people to choose the style that suits their tastes. A traditional liturgy may use organ, the clergy wear robes and well-known hymns are sung. Contemporary worship often implies more informality, perhaps with a praise band and song texts projected on a screen. 

Yet this distinction isn’t always helpful since all our Christian services are connected to the past as we read ancient texts and celebrate the sacraments. And all worship should be contextual, relevant and meaningful for our contemporary lives.

Living vs. dead faith

Certainly some people cling tightly to tradition and resist the changes that new worship books and recently written texts, songs and hymns can bring. As theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said in a popular quote: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living … it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

Most of the new members in our congregation, Holy Trinity, Chicago, are in their 20s and 30s. When they say they appreciate the sense of “tradition” at our church, I’m not always sure what they mean. Is it that our building is nearly 100 years old and reminds them of their home congregation? Surprisingly, they often say they like traditional hymns and church music, even if they don’t listen to classical music in other settings. 

I suspect they value something else that they may not be able to put into words. Worship connects us to God’s people through time and space. In a world in which our identities are in flux and formed through advertising, media, politics and commerce, the Sunday assembly reminds us of our roots — not only our specific forebears but our ancestors in faith through the ages.

In recent decades many Lutherans have come to define tradition in terms of the catholicity of the church. Some of us can remember the uproar from the pews when the more ancient word catholic replaced Christian in the Nicene Creed. In response, pastors helped people understand that catholic meant universal.

The introduction to Evangelical Lutheran Worship has a great definition for tradition, though the word is never used: “Worship unites the people of God in one time and place with the people of God in every time and place. We use patterns, words, actions, and songs handed down through the ages to express this unity and continuity” (page 6).

Fifty years ago many Lutherans would have been offended to consider our faith catholic, not to mention close kin with Roman Catholicism. Many young adults today don’t carry an anti-Catholic bias and treasure our connection to the broader traditions of the church that we hold in common with other Christian bodies. Some may even call Lutheran worship “Catholic light,” not because it lacks substance but because of the freedom, welcome and breathing space they sense in the ELCA.


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