Chapter Twelve – Tradition, Tradition
Some people call me a "new" Mennonite—although I’ve been a member of a Mennonite church for almost a decade. Some say I’m a "non-ethnic" Mennonite, as if I have no ethnic identity at all. Still others insist my name just can’t be Mennonite, as if the right family name is all it really takes to be one of the "in" group.
Sometimes such remarks annoy me. I want to go home and make faces in the mirror. Sometimes I think I’ll change my name to Yoder. But at other times, when sanity and good humor reign, I just shrug off the comments with a smile. I like to think of myself as a more-or-less Mennonite.
I’m more Mennonite, for I made an adult commitment to follow Christ and identify with the Mennonite church. I share Mennonite concerns for peace, simple living, discipleship, community.
I also feel less Mennonite. I’m a third-generation Canadian with a Chinese background. I’m married to a third-generation Canadian with a Japanese background. I grew up in the city. When I bake bread it isn’t zwieback but 100 percent stone-ground whole wheat. I don’t understand hymns in German. I wonder why other people with the "right" names are claimed as Mennonites when they have little or no personal connection with the Mennonite church.
So I’m a more-or-less Mennonite, not always sure where I fit in, not always sure I want to identify with everyone and everything that takes the name Mennonite. But the more I talk with people, the more I find others who feel the same way. There are many of us more-or-less Mennonites. We’re Christians from a variety of cultural backgrounds who identify with the Mennonite church.(note:1)
These are the words of April Yamasaki, reflecting on her experience of trying to fit into the centuries-old tradition of the Mennonite Church. As she notes, it’s not always easy to understand why things happen as they do in a church tradition.
It has been said that one can judge a church’s receptivity to new people by observing the size of the church cemetery. This implies that a church becomes less receptive to new people as the church ages. It becomes more and more difficult for new people to relate to existing members of the church. And since traditions form and harden over time, it also becomes harder to make changes which would help the church thrive and grow.
Consequently, it’s common for charismatic new leaders to form new churches and perhaps eventually a new denomination. But over time, what was once new and exciting simply becomes another tradition. In the Christian church, this has resulted in an increasing number of denominations.
Is there no other way to receive new members and implement new ideas? Are new churches the only ones that can receive new members?
No! While it’s true that new churches tend to receive new people more quickly than old churches, there is hope for old churches who want to grow.
Differences Between Newcomers and Long-term Members
There are significant differences between newcomers and long-term members. By recognizing these differences, churches can meet the unique needs of both new and old.
They have different reasons for being in the church. Newcomers generally come at the recommendation of a friend or in response to a special program. They may stay if they feel a personal need is being met.
Long-term members are there because they have formed a network of relationships in the church. They aren’t likely to leave, even if the church program or worship services are less than exciting.
They have a different sense of ownership in the church. Newcomers feel like "outsiders." They find it hard to understand why members wrangle with each other about nitty-gritty details of church life.
Long-term members feel ownership of what happens in the church. Subgroups within the church may defend their own interests with a vengeance that puts off newcomers, particularly in congregational forums or council meetings.
They have different approaches to past events. Most newcomers have little interest in the church’s history. Because they weren’t a part of that history, they can’t easily identify with it.
Long-term members, particularly those who have been deeply involved in the church, often have a deep interest in the past. They have likely invested both financially and spiritually in the life of the church. The stream of faces in the congregation’s history come alive as they recall significant moments in church life.
They have different orientations to change. Because new members have little attachment to the past, they aren’t likely to oppose change. If someone suggests an addition to the worship facility, they may well reason, "Why not? It will make room for more new people!"
Longtime members approach change more cautiously. They can recall the way it was done before. They may remember how things became the way they are now. Why change again? Moreover, long-term members know change may hurt. They may reason, "Why upset the harmony and balance that exists now by making unnecessary changes?"
They have different feelings toward the minister. Whether or not a newcomer stays after the first visit will often depend on the impression the minister makes. Unless the newcomer is attached to a small group within the church, the pastor and the worship service are the primary glue holding him or her to the church. The newcomer is likely to have strong positive feelings toward the pastor, particularly in a medium to large-sized church.
In contrast, the long-term member may or may not like the present minister. The present pastor may simply be the latest in a long string of pastors in the older member’s experience in the church. Instead of leaving the church, a dissatisfied older member may try to help the pastor to leave! This may be particularly true if the pastor doesn’t show appreciation for, and understanding of, the contributions made by long-term members.
They may have a different sense of enthusiasm in regard to church program.Newcomers are often excited about the church. If the church is meeting their needs, these "satisfied customers" may be the best advertisement for your church.
Many long-term members are also enthused. They are the people whose blood, sweat, and tears have built the church and sustained it. But some long-term members are less enthusiastic. Perhaps their hopes for the church have been dashed, their contributions have gone unnoticed, or their ideals haven’t been met. They may dampen the spirits of new people coming in.
They may have differing attitudes towards the facility. Newer members are seldom drawn to the church because of the worship facility. Consequently, they’re less attached to the worship facility or furnishings. They may even disrespect things that seem sacred to others.
Long-term members are more likely to be attached to the facility. It may be the place where they and/or their children were married and will be buried. The sights, sounds, and smells of the facility evoke good memories. Altering the facility and furniture may threaten older members who have "sweat equity" in the building.
People come to like a building for its very presence and the feelings it evokes. One pastor compared the church building to his wife’s frying pan. It works better after a period of seasoning. This explains the disappointment people may feel in a new building. Although the architecture may be just right, it’s not yet seasoned with memories.
For the newcomer, the church building isn’t seasoned with those memories which may be powerful for the older member. It takes time for the newcomer to appreciate the artifacts so meaningful to the old-timer.
They may have differing attitudes toward denominational affiliation. Christians today are less loyal to denominations than they were earlier this century. The rising influence of nondenominational publishing houses, interdenominational Christian conferences, and contemporary Christian songbooks has eroded denominational differences.
Nevertheless, many new Christians remain in the denomination or fellowship of churches where they first found spiritual life. They may become strong denominational supporters.
However, long-term members born into a denomination will probably reserve the right to call themselves the true _____ (you supply the denominational name). They may not take kindly to an outsider or newcomer defining what it means to belong to their denomination.
Old and New Members Are Both Important
The church can be enriched by the contribution of both old and new. Growing churches recognize the ministry and meet the needs of both. What implications can we draw from the above study of the differences between older and newer members? I would suggest the following:
Both newer and older members have strengths and weaknesses. Newcomers may have visible weaknesses, particularly if they’re new Christians. They may be sporadic in worship attendance. They may make promises they don’t keep. Their lives may be an embarrassment to the name of the church. They may be insensitive to the feelings of people in the church. They may make seemingly irreverent comments about practices in the church.
Newcomers are also an important asset. New Christians represent the growing edge of the kingdom of God. Without new people, a church eventually dies. Their vibrant testimonies and newfound enthusiasm for following Christ can bring new life to the church.
Long-term members may also have weaknesses. An assertive pastor may resent some older members because of their seeming complacency and unwillingness to change. But treating older members as liabilities is a mistake. They may have good reasons for their opinions. Their counsel is important.
Long-term members bring stability. They follow through on promises. And while they may not be quick to affirm a new direction the pastor believes right, they won’t quickly accept a wrong direction either.
Churches on the growing edge will find ways to help newer and older members appreciate one another’s strengths and accept one another’s weaknesses.
New Christians should be encouraged to give testimonies of what Christ has done in their lives. Especially at baptismal services, older members should be urged to either repeat the baptismal vows with the person being baptized, or make some other form of recommitment to Christ. Baptism needn’t be simply a spectacle for people to observe. It can be a time for recommitment.
Older members should be lauded for their unique contributions. Public appreciation should be offered people who give time, energy, and money to the church. In this way, newer members will come to value the contributions of older members. When proposing changes, the leadership team should recognize those who have contributed to the present program, as well as those who have helped foster change. Recognition for a job well done or long service rendered will help older members open up to new ideas.
Older and newer members can both serve effectively in the church. In growing churches, there are many roles and tasks for members. Some are best done by older members or by mature Christians. Some can be done by either. The important thing is to see that both have a ministry.
New members should serve on a pastoral review or evaluation committee, if the church has one. Their positive feelings can be a real encouragement to the pastor.
It is helpful to have a mix of newer and older people on the church board. Since newer and older members have different strengths and weaknesses, both should be represented on church boards or committees. Congregations which have reached a plateau often wait too long to invite newer members to serve and offer new enthusiasm. Well-qualified new people may discover it takes years to have any influence in the church. They may then leave for a church where their gifts can be used.
Older members bring stability, a sense of the past, and a feel for the congregation. If the board has too many new members, some older members may begin to feel that they are no longer being represented in church decision-making.
Who Adapts to Whom?
What happens when a new person can’t easily fit into the cultural and traditional patterns in the church? Who should make the changes? Who determines the best pattern? I pondered these questions after receiving a letter from a friend of mine. She wrote:
I have noticed the term assimilate used frequently in relation to helping new believers become a part of our community of faith. I would like to suggest that another term may be more appropriate.
To me, assimilate has a fairly negative connotation, maybe because I think of the scientific sense of the word, as when an organism assimilates something as food for its system! I noticed the dictionary also lists "to absorb into the cultural tradition of a population or group" as another definition.
Do we really want to "absorb" people into our cultural group? This implies a sort of arrogance that what we have is bigger and better than any culture they may have. It suggests their own culture will be lost in ours. We should be aiming to encourage persons to become part of God’s family without losing their own cultural identity. The lordship of Christ, not culture or tradition, should be our goal.
I think the word integrate more accurately describes the ideal process of a new believer becoming part of our church family. One of Webster’s definitions of integrate is as follows: "to end the segregation of and bring into common and equal membership in society or an organization." Isn’t that ideally what we are attempting to do, to "bring into common and equal membership"?
We can learn from new believers, just as they can learn from us. I see this idea of "common and equal membership" as crucial to our understanding of evangelism. If I were joining a group I would much prefer to be integrated than assimilated.
How about you? Which would you prefer?
When Tradition Is the Most Important Thing
Without tradition, most of us would find ourselves afloat on a sea of change, without a place to anchor our beliefs. But difficulties arise when traditions become too important in the life of the church. What are the dangers of tradition? More particularly, in what ways can an overemphasis on tradition or culture put up barriers against new people?
It’s common to find the word Ebenezer in church names. It has a biblical origin, deriving from an experience in the life of Samuel the prophet. After the Lord miraculously delivered the Israelites from their Philistine oppressors, he erected a stone marker to commemorate the spot, which he named Ebenezer, meaning (in Hebrew) "the stone of help" (1 Sam. 7:12). It was to remind the people that God had helped them come to that place. They couldn’t claim to have done it on their own.
Every individual and church needs these Ebenezer markers to commemorate what God has done. It can be a great source of encouragement to see how far we’ve come, with the help of the Lord. But there is also danger here. It’s possible to spend too much time looking back instead of ahead. The living God is still going ahead, leading the way to new places where more Ebenezers can be erected for God’s glory.
Any church that spends too much time looking back will find it hard to keep the interest of new believers. They don’t share the memories. By focusing too much on the past, we may lose sight of what God is doing now. Fixating on God’s past action may prevent our openness to God’s future action.
The problem of the third generation
When a church is new, membership may be carefully guarded. Those who join do so voluntarily. This is the situation depicted in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters.
By the third generation of a church’s life, many members may have joined as children of the original members. If they hadn’t joined, they would have been considered disloyal. Thus children of members generally find it easier to get into the church than do those from outside.
Bobb Biehl tells of going to the circus as an adult. He looked forward to seeing the sights and feeling the thrills he experienced as a boy. This time, however, he saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Full-grown elephants, capable of pulling huge logs through the forest, were tied to relatively small wooden stakes.
Bobb asked the keeper how it was possible to secure a huge beast to such a small stake. The keeper told him:
It’s easy when you know two things: elephants really do have great memories, but they really aren’t very smart. When they are babies, we stake them down. They try to tug away from the stake maybe 10/000 times before they realize that they can’t possibly get away. At that point, their "elephant memory" takes over and they remember for the rest of their lives that they can’t get away from the stake.(note:2)
Those elephant stakes are like tradition. When a person comes to Christ and the church, she may be linked to a helpful tradition. But the memory of that tradition, and trying unsuccessfully to get away, may produce a bondage difficult to break. Perhaps the person should be freed from that stake for God’s glory.
In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, a small band of Anabaptists were fleeing to a place of greater religious tolerance. They traveled with little means of financial support, having left many of their possessions behind. Their leader, Jacob Hutter, is said to have spread out a garment, inviting everyone to pool their meager resources.
From that time on, the group lived communally, taking as their biblical inspiration the example of the early church in Jerusalem. Communal living became a strong tradition and is now a defining characteristic of the Hutterites. One can’t oe a Hutterite without living in one of their colonies. They’re tied to that tradition, which is like a stake. Young people who grow up in a Hutterite family must accept the tradition or leave the colony.
This isn’t to argue against communal living, Hutterites, or tradition. It’s simply to say that traditions can bind people. Let’s be careful about tying new believers to traditions which may bind them for a lifetime, unless the tradition is essential and freely chosen.
Forging a great tradition
The Christian tradition is rich with the stories of God’s acts in history. It grows richer each day as people around the world respond to God’s saving grace and follow God in obedience. The greatest tradition a church can develop is to continually walk in God’s ways, open to the new things God is doing. Part of that tradition is to gladly receive the new people that God entrusts to our churches.
For Review, Study, and Action
- In what way can you identify with April Yamasaki’s feelings about trying to fit into a church tradition?
- Review the significant differences between older and newer members in a church. Which ones seem to be the most significant to your church?
- How have the strengths and weaknesses of newer and older members affected your church?
- What kind of word best describes the process by which new people are brought into your fellowship? Assimilation, integration, incorporation, fitting in, joining, or absorbed?
- How can we tell when tradition is becoming too important in the church?
- Think of several Ebenezers in the life of your church. Does your church primarily look back to those times, or forward to future Ebenezers?
- Discuss the problem of the third generation. Can it be avoided? Has it been a problem in your church fellowship?
- Ponder the idea of elephants and stakes. Are there any stakes in your church life which should be pulled out?
For Further Help
Liberating the Church: The Ecology of Church and Kingdom, by Howard A. Snyder (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1983). This helpful volume looks at the church in light of Christ’s kingdom. It’s practical as well as theologically stimulating.