Traditions in Non-Traditional Worship

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A wise person once told me that when you get married, you not only marry your spouse, but you marry an entire family. Your new family has its own traditions.  Sometimes you don’t find out about those traditions until you’ve been married for six months. All of a sudden you’re playing Dirty Santa with competitive aunts and uncles and you never saw it coming!

But as families grow and change, so do their traditions. They begin incorporating special days of new family members and altering traditions when parents sell a house or a grandparent dies.

Traditions in the Church

Being part of a local church can be the same way. As you become more involved, you realize there is a set of traditions of which you’ve become a part. As pastors and people come and go, some of the traditions grow and change.  Maybe they take on new forms but the meanings are the same.

I’ve found that to be the case in my local church setting.  I’ve realized my local church observed some traditions shared by other churches and had a few of her own.

Then, nearly five years ago, our church launched an offsite worship service. This service is hosted at the auditorium of a local university and is entirely portable. It’s intentionally less traditional than the sanctuary services at our main campus.  As we’ve planned worship at this offsite service, we’ve considered the traditions of our sanctuary services and considered how they could grow and change to fit our offsite setting. Should we incorporate them in the same manner they are observed in the sanctuary?  Should we leave them behind in favor of something new?  How or would the formal traditions fit in an intentionally non-traditional setting?

Here’s how we’ve answered those questions: we asked more questions.

Is this a ritual or tradition that helps people engage with God, or is its value tied to sentimental reasons?  In other words, is this something that long-time attenders value because they have memories attached to it?  If a guest walked in the room would they understand the tradition? Would it help them engage with God?

Is this a ritual or tradition that can be adapted to a new setting?  Could it grow and change to fit in a new place with new people while still conveying the same power and meaning to help people engage with God?

Is this a ritual or tradition which has to happen annually? Could we incorporate it some years and not others?

In answering these questions, we keep this idea in mind: traditions are a means to an end, not the end themselves.  The purpose of a tradition is to help us engage in worshiping God.  Traditions are servants of worship that lead us to our Master. The moment a tradition becomes the master of worship rather than the servant of worship, we must evaluate our motives.

Getting Practical

Here’s an example of how we’ve incorporated our church’s traditions in our offsite service. In the sanctuary services at our main campus, we observed the tradition of lighting candles on an Advent Wreath. On each of the four Sunday’s leading up to Christmas, a family from the church is invited to lead the congregation in a responsive reading and then light a candle on the Advent Wreath. This was a very formal tradition, each word spoken scripted for the family.

We considered the set of questions listed above, and decided that there were some sentimental reasons for continuing the tradition of The Advent Wreath, because some families who were long-time attendees remembered when they were asked to do the reading.  But, for a guest walking in, listening to someone read scripture and talk about the meaning of the candles is an easy thing to do, and it has potential to help them engage with God.

We also recognized that in our new setting, how we observed the Advent Wreath needed to change in order to work.  We considered how we could make it feel more conversational and less formal.   We invited a family to read an explanation of the candle’s theme and a passage from the Bible to our congregation.  Then they’d light the candle and lead a prayer.  But rather than just walking onstage and scripting every word, we took the opportunity to interview each family and get to know them before they jumped into reading.  We asked them questions like, “What is your family’s favorite Christmas tradition?” We also asked them to share what was meaningful to them about our worship service or “What does joy (peace, hope, or love) mean to your family?”  We found this to be a helpful and conversational introduction to a formal tradition.  By adapting this tradition we leveraged something that was already valuable to some people and used it to help all kinds of people engage with God.

We’ve also decided that, as valuable as the Advent Wreath tradition is, it’s not something that has to happen annually.  Of course it could, and we’ve used it more years than we haven’t, but by making it an optional tradition rather than a required one, we’re reminding ourselves that it’s a means to worship, and not the end itself.

What are the traditions of your local church? I hope you find these questions helpful as you consider how those traditions grow and change.

Image attribution: itsmejust / Thinkstock

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Emily lives in Long Beach, Mississippi with her husband, Ben, and their three kids, Sadie, Joe, and Lizzie. Together they serve at The Well, an offsite service of First United Methodist Church in Long Beach. Ben is the pastor for The Well. Emily volunteers as the leader for the Worship Planning Team and helps with the spiritual formation of The Well’s band. Emily graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary in 2006. She loves learning more about planning and leading people in worship. When she’s not working on something for The Well, Emily’s probably telling her kids stories about growing up in Kentucky. You can find her on Twitter (@emilyhbarlow) but she mostly live tweets University of Kentucky basketball games.

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