There are a number of terms that concerned people use to talk about what makes the difference between thriving and struggling churches. I believe that behind the terminology, the difference boils down to a congregation’s corporate personality – whether it is fundamentally future-oriented or past-oriented. Or, to put it another way: whether the membership agrees, and acts on the conviction that its most important task is to reach others for Christ whatever the cost.
Struggling churches tend to put “institutional maintenance” at the top of their list of priorities. Whether they are aware of it or not, they look to a past “golden age” when the church was vibrant and influential and they think (even if they don’t realize it) that if they could recapture the culture and programs of the church during that glorious period, people would once again flock through the doors. They see their failure to thrive as a failure to be sufficiently faithful to the church’s traditional ways of doing things.
It’s not true. It is a form of worshipping the dead. And what a church worships it becomes.
Thriving churches look to the future – to God’s future, when the world is more profoundly influenced by the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. They are mission oriented, and they are willing to change whatever customs and habits they have that stand in the way of becoming reborn instruments of Jesus Christ in the world.
Changing church culture, developing new traditions and practices, does not mean abandoning all history or tradition; it does mean being prepared to let go of whatever stands in the way of developing appropriate understandings and new answers to emerging cultural issues and social needs. It means refusing to freeze time in some “golden age” while remembering that our future is partially built upon our past. Tradition has a role, but it is not a sacred talisman.
Churches that can manage an appreciation for tradition without closing off innovation are the most stable and long-lasting communities of faith. They are also the most likely to thrive under changing circumstances. Exploring traditional values, and how to innovate upon tradition to connect to contemporary people, is a theme in the work of the Faith & Leadership project at Duke University. Here are some resources from the project that can help your congregation discover and begin to embrace the practice of “traditioned innovation”:
In this brief address, L. Gregory Jones, Christian theologian, scholar, and Dean of Duke Divinity School, explains the term “traditioned innovation.” It is a good place to start, and can be a useful prompt for a sermon or church discussion.
Christian author Andy Crouch discusses “political power” and “cultural power” in this 8½ minute video interview, and his belief that Christians are called to hold forth a vision of being human that does not constrict, but entices all people to recapture our God-given calling to renovate the world. His distinction between political and cultural power gets at the same contrast Jones is pursuing, and that Pelikan defines (below). It is another way of engaging a congregation in a discussion of its orientation.
Church historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan coined the phrase, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” to succinctly distinguish the perspectives we’re exploring. In a brief book (the 4 lectures he gave on the topic in 1983), Dr. Pelikan underscored the value of tradition and the harm of traditionalism. The book, The Vindication of Tradition, offers Pelikan’s conceptualization, which is at the heart of the notion of traditioned innovation; his little book would make a great church study.
Episcopal Bishop Claude Payne has written a book in which he distinguishes between “maintenance” and “mission” orientations, and argues that church vitality depends upon replacing a maintenance focus with a mission focus. His book, Reclaiming the Great Commission, offers an adaptable plan of action that has produced real-world success in churches from both hierarchical and non-hierarchical polities.