I grew up in the free church tradition (some people say “free church tradition” is an oxymoron, buy it’s only an apparent one). This means I had a healthy skepticism, even fear, of anything that would subvert the raw, naked authority of Scripture…which means I had a special fear of and kept a healthy distance from anything related to “church tradition.” Perhaps the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t suspect, but reciting it in worship was.
I carried the default perspective that the Church’s talk and weaving in of any notion of “tradition” was one of the primary reasons it got off course, which means that the only Church of the past, prior to the Reformation, that I had any respect for was the absolute earliest church–the apostolic church of the first century. Once the church fathers started their writing and processing in the post-apostolic era, that’s when things started going downhill, I thought. Tradition was the “leaven of the Pharisees” that Jesus so vehemently opposed, I believed.
That this type of thinking is so prevalent among evangelicals was evidenced by the fact that my church history professor at Denver Seminary had to go to great lengths to validate the medieval period to us as a time period worth studying, knowing, and appreciating. I remember him poking holes in precisely what I thought–namely that, after Augustine, the Church entered a “dark period” it did not emerge from until the Reformation. The millenial span between roughly 500 AD and 1500 AD was a black hole, a void, in the growth and influence of Christianity…so we thought.
Beginning in college, largely through a study of Western music history (which is, for the first several centuries, a course in CHURCH history, interestingly enough), God started driving the wedge of tradition into my soul. What started as appreciation moved to fascination, which then led to experimentation, which then led to appropriation.
For me, it started simply with the church’s songs. I began to dig into the hymns of the past and discovered that the type of Christianity expressed was one that I had longed to express but had no vocabulary for. Examining these hymns shifted to jumping on the bandwagon of regifting these hymns to the local, modern, Western Church. But hymnody was merely a gateway drug toward more intensely exploring the traditions and worship practices of the past. I wanted the heavier stuff. I began investigating “liturgy.”
My evangelical psyche told me to beware of tradition. For me, however, the deeper I got, the more I realized that there didn’t have to be a competition between tradition and Scripture; that the Reformers themselves, along with the biblical doctrines they re-emphasized for the Church (like sola scriptura), were not jeopardized.
Great Books Cast Out Fear
I’ve been reading D. H. Williams’ Evangelicals and Tradition. Williams is a Baylor prof and stands within the free church tradition of Baptists (part of my own heritage). If you find tradition a tough pill to swallow and have grave concerns for how any appreciation of tradition might creep into tainting fundamental doctrines of evangelicalism, look no further than this book. It parses the issues well and speaks to the free church evangelical. Its goal is to address the concerns of the skeptical evangelical and then encourage an appreciation and appropriation of historic, small-c “catholic” Christianity, largely through an engagement with the patristics (the church fathers who learned from and immediately followed the New Testament apostles). It’s heavy, relatively thorough, and, to me, convincing. It honestly makes me want to buy the entire 38-volume set of the works of the Early Church Fathers, but I’ll refrain because I’m already under enough investigation with my wife regarding my book-buying addiction.
I would commend it as a tool to guide pastors, worship leaders, and worshipers into greater depths of faith by re-training our ears to listen to Christians from the past that we’ve been subliminally told we shouldn’t listen to. The best part of Williams’ book is that it doesn’t require you to sell your doctrinal soul. You can still hang on to all the powerful correctives that the Reformers championed (the Reformers, by the way–especially Calvin–were strong advocates and practitioners of listening to the voice of the early church).
Where the Rubber Meets the Road for Worship Leaders
Evangelicals in the modern age do a lot of talk about being missional, which usually leads to conversations about contextualization–making the timeless truths of our faith apprehensible in a twenty-first-century context. It is sometimes the case, though, that in our efforts to contextualize, we drop all reflection on and appropriation of precisely that which we’re supposed to translate. In other words, our quest toward hyper-relevance causes us to lose sight of tradition.
So many worship leaders out there have no grounding. Experience drives their practice, and theology and tradition are appropriated in a very tertiary way. But one day, nearly all of them (so I’ve experienced) come to a “What in the world am I doing?” moment. Many respond to that moment by thinking they’ve “aged out” of usefulness in our youth-obsessed culture. Others go through a full-blown existential crisis, doubting the very faith that they once led others in.
I can’t tell you how beneficial it’s been for me, when those waves come, to be grounded in my traditional, small-c catholic Christian heritage. I can’t tell you how much the historic worship practices of the Church (even as I seek to contextualize them to my city, region, and time period) speak and minister to me. I can’t tell you how much the objective faith of and in Christ as it is embodied in the rooted, trans-denominational elements of truly Christian worship (outlined well by Bryan Chapell in Christ-Centered Worship…see my review summary) has ministered to me in my time of need.
If we really do believe, as the Apostles’ Creed states, in the “holy catholic church [and] the communion of saints” we should begin to cultivate in our souls a respect, appreciation, and deference for what the Church of the past has to teach us now. And, once again, the beauty of all this (as argued by Williams) is that it doesn’t have to come at the expense of how highly we view the authority of Scripture.