What do you think of when you hear the word “tradition?” Rules? Boring? Stuffy? Fiddler on the Roof? The word tradition has both negative and positive connotations. If you have a family tradition that involved carving out a turkey every Thanksgiving and then taking a nap, you probably think of tradition as a good thing. Or if your family goes camping every summer, you probably think of tradition as a good thing. On the other hand, if your family had a tradition of spending a whole Saturday doing yard work every spring, you may think of tradition as a bad thing. (Unless of course you got paid at the end of the day!)
Traditions are neither inherently bad or inherently good. The word tradition simply means something that is handed down or a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting. Every family has them. And every church family has them too. I can say this with confidence because every church is forced to plan, to make decisions, to develop a pattern in which they will operate as a church. By definition, churches will develop their own traditions.
So how do we know if a tradition is a bad thing or a good thing? I think a good rule of thumb would be this: If a tradition does not help in fulfilling the mission of the church then the tradition should be changed. In other words, mission trumps tradition if tradition does not fulfill the mission. If that is confusing you, let me give you an example. Jesus said in Matthew 28, “Go make disciples of all nations.” That is the mission. That is what the church should be doing. But if the church ignores that mission and carries on with a long established tradition (say singing Christmas Carols at midnight every Christmas Eve), then that tradition is actually doing more harm than good. The tradition is failing to accomplish the mission and therefore the tradition needs to be changed or eliminated altogether.
This is where the church needs crystal clear focus. Because, we can lose vision within a whirlwind of “good” activity and forget entirely what we are aiming at. We can work tirelessly to maintain traditions that do not accomplish the mission. And that is unrewarding and exhausting. Why? Because Jesus does not empower us to maintain traditions. He does not empower us to prop up patterns of ministry that have been passed down from generation to generation. He empowers us to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8), to make disciples (Mat. 28) and to glorify His name. (Mat. 5:16). He empowers us to do the good works that He has set before us to do (Eph. 2:8-10). And to stay empowered by Jesus, we must stay close to the mission of Jesus.
So what does that mean for our church as we approach a new year of ministry. I think it means that we think hard about the mission of our church; that we do not burden ourselves doing things that do not support the mission of the church; that we offer our traditions on the altar of the mission and pray to God, “what would you have us do? How can your church better accomplish your plan to make disciples and to spread your great gospel. What traditions need to go? What traditions need to stay? And which traditions need to be changed?”
It was no accident that Jesus didn’t give us a lot of specifics for how a church should be run. He did that for a reason: so that we would trust Him, depend on Him and lean on His Word. He wants us to love the mission, not the tradition. So let’s love that mission together this year and offer this church to our great Leader again and again,