In almost every walk of life—from football games to July 4 celebrations to military special forces training to even street gangs and college fraternities—human beings love tradition and love being a part of it. We understand not only its value and its importance but its vibrancy.
Except when it comes to church.
There, tradition is seen as stifling, stodgy, and spirit-impairing. (Go figure: In a football stadium tradition is seen as spirit-building. But in a church, it’s seen as spirit-killing.)
And I’m not talking here about the extreme love of novelty that has church pastors doing motorcycle jumps for Jesus or giving away videogame systems to build Easter attendance. I’m talking about the near-universal practice of switching up the songs and the scriptures in the worship service every week. This seems so natural to us, but it overlooks that early hymnals were more than forerunners of the juke box (or overhead projector) printed so that people knew what words to sing. They were devotional guides, given to Christians to meditate on and think about not only when they were in worship but when they weren’t.
Take Methodists John and Charles Wesley, for example. Jonathan Powers details in Theology of Worship the genesis of the original Methodist hymn book:
[T]he purpose of this collection was to be a daily devotional guide as much as a musical book used in worship. John Wesley writes in the prologue to the hymnbook that its purpose was to provide “a full account of scriptural Christianity” and “the experience of real Christians.”
Thus, the hymnbook was used to help focus an individual’s spiritual growth from the time of conversion to the incorporation with the fellowship of believers. The content Charles Wesley wrote was broad in theme, ranging from lyrics on the Eucharist, Trinity, and Holy Scriptures to lyrics concerning Easter, Church calendar, and other Church celebrations.
The invention of the overhead projector and Powerpoint didn’t make that obsolete. It only seems that way because we’ve shifted away from a practical commitment to growing every Christian to fullness in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Given that the purpose of the hymnbook was to focus spiritual growth, why defeat that by switching the songs in church every week? Why not pick four songs for the month, introducing one each week and practicing it in the church’s main service—the nightly household worship service—and digging into the theology of it until the church actually learns it and the theology it contains?
That’s what we do in the .W Lay Church—and not just with hymns, but with scriptures (one a week), the Nicene Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. We do a mix of extemporaneous prayers, too, and what we find is that our extemporaneous prayers get better and deeper because the purpose of memorizing songs, scripture, and creeds is that it shapes your imagination and your spirit and makes it so you don’t spend your whole life praying like a five year old. You pray kind of like a 2,000 year old—someone whose spirit is soaked in two millennia of church tradition. Lest you think that stifles creativity, remember that jazz musicians learn their scales and arpeggios inside and out in order to improvise well. If you don’t learn your scales and arpeggios, your improvisation is music to no one’s ears, least of all Christ’s, who says, “Didn’t you ask me to teach you how to pray?”
“For what I received I passed on to you”—those are the words from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3. And that’s God’s call to the church: Lay aside the love of novelty. Lay aside the ahistoricity. There’s a reason the church has held on to things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed for a couple millennia: They’re crucial to growing individual believers to fullness in Christ. When we ensure that each Christian learns them deeply, along with the stories of scripture and the songs of the church across the ages, we ensure that we’re wading into the stream of orthodoxy rather than ending up in the ditch of personal preference.
There’s one other very important thing the church has managed to hold onto across the ages and denominations: the content of the gospel. Sadly, though we live at a time when focus on the Scripture is ostensibly very high, the ability of the average Christian to correctly pass on the gospel that the church has received and been called to treasure and pass on…is actually very low. Contrary to popular evangelical thought, “the gospel” is not a general statement of what it means to be a Christian. It’s not one’s testimony. It’s not the Roman Road. It’s not John 3:16. The gospel is the specific content of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7—the announcement of a new king, grounded in the fulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament and the historical witness of those who saw Jesus raised from the dead:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Paul calls this “of first importance,” and every Christian ought to know this passage by heart. It is the gospel. When we treat anything else as of first importance—like the Roman Road or our own testimony—we fall. These other things are true and important, but they are not the gospel, and they are not of first importance.
“Received” and “delivered” are key Christian terms. They indicate that our vocation as Christians is to receive the witness that has been faithfully preserved by the church, “surrender” to it wholly with all of our being (hearing the Word), and then deliver it to others (doing the Word).
And that leads to a key aspect of the lay church: Definitely associate your lay church with a denomination—one that affirms the historic creeds and Scriptures and practices of the church. (And please choose one that gets the whole lay church concept, of course!)
Denominations have lost their luster these days, and certainly none of them should ever be viewed as anywhere near perfect. But it’s time for us to reconsider our distaste of denominations. What a denomination is—a good denomination, anyway—is an effort to preserve a stream of tradition worth preserving. Locating your lay church within one means you don’t pick and choose what to receive and pass on. If there are errors in denominations (and there are, of course), they are no more (and they are almost always far less) than the errors that come with we mere time-bound, fallible Christians cherry-picking through church history the parts we like and think ought to be observed and preserved. “Nondenominational” is shorthand for “ahistorical,” and “ahistorical” is shorthand for “The Church Reshaped According To My Likes and Dislikes.”
The idea that we overcome schisms and divisions—and that we achieve Jesus’ desire that we be one—by not affiliating with a denomination is, at best, an ill-formed thesis that has been sufficiently debunked in our time. “Nondenominational” churches are no less schismatic and divisive than denominational churches. In reality, they have fewer historical resources and accountability structures on which to draw when they do end up in trouble. Associating with a denomination gives you a history and theological and liturgical tradition to study, learn, embrace, be humbled with, and exemplify the best characteristics of. If you affiliate with a Methodist denomination, reclaim the tradition of the hymnal as a theology primer; if Lutheran, dig into the Larger or Smaller Catechism; if Presbyterian, be formed by the Westminster. Good theology is good theology wherever it’s found.
And receiving, remembering, and passing on good theology—through Scripture, song, creed, and the two-millennia history of the Christian church—is the best antidote for novelty there is.