I have been thinking lately …
… about tradition.
We in the church often get stuck in debates about worship styles and music.
We hear the cry from one side that holds on tightly to “traditional” music, decrying the entertainment and shallowness of much of contemporary music. One church insisted on this so strongly that they proclaimed in a billboard: “The Church That Has Not Changed: Our Music. Our Worship. Our Bible.” Yet, when pressed about why they insist on traditional music, it often comes back to how they were raised and what makes them “feel good.” In other words, they insist on traditional music because it entertains them.
Meanwhile, we hear the cry from the other side that insists on only “contemporary” music, saying that the old styles do not appeal and do not reach the younger generation. Yet, often the songs that are written appeal only to an individual and emotional level. I worry that for too many of these songs, I could replace the name of Jesus with the name of a boyfriend or girlfriend, and it would make little difference. While loving the style of music, I long for the spiritual and community depths of the best of our traditional music.
The problem has been that we have pitted these two sides against one another, so that we must make a choice between traditional music or contemporary music. When it becomes an “us vs. them” battle, both sides are left wounded and scarred. Then, our witness suffers.
Jesus offers us another path: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
We need both the old and the new together to show us God’s kingdom. We need both the traditional and the contemporary to draw us together to worship our one God.
The church historian Jaroslav Pelikan said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” Those that have insisted only on traditional music or worship have fallen into the trap of traditionalism. They have lost sight that our hymns were all written in the “contemporary” music of their day in order to communicate what our faith means. When we say that God can only speak in one way, we have made an idol out of the form and the music. We have lost sight of the God to which the music points.
On the other hand, those that have insisted only on contemporary music have lost sight of the depth and power and insight that the tradition offers. We learn from those who have gone before us. By their witness, they encourage our witness in this present age. And, interestingly enough, the same critique I wrote about previously applies here: when we insist that God can only speak in this one way, we make an idol out of the form and music. We lose light of the God to which the music point.
In response, let us follow the words of Jesus. Let us look for and express the God to which all our music and worship points. Let us bring out the treasures both old and new to understand and express our faith. Let us move beyond taking sides and unify ourselves together to witness to the love and grace of God in Jesus.
The Rev. David Armstrong-Reiner is pastor at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 2375 Ga. Highway 20 in Conyers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.