I am writing this E-pistle from Lake Junaluska, NC, where the active bishops of our United Methodist Church are gathering for a "Learning Forum." This is not a Council of Bishops meeting, because the retired bishops are not present, but it is a helpful time of continuing education and sharing among the active bishops from around the world.
Our focus is upon "adaptive leadership" in a changing and challenging world. One of our presenters is Dr. Greg Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School and a helpful theologian and thinker. Among the many great moments of his presentations to date (he is doing one more this morning) was his commentary about Tradition. As you probably know, our Wesley understanding of seeking truth is that we look to Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Greg had an excellent comment that Tradition is very different from Traditionalism. He differentiated it this way: "Tradition is the living faith of dead people; Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people."
His point is that Tradition, properly understood, is a living and on-going gathering of the wisdom of those who have gone before us – persons who recorded their own experiences with the Living Lord. As such, Tradition is ever-changing as new generations of experience with God are added to the layers of Tradition that inform us. By contrast, some persons want to define and stifle our experience of God into a rigid, never-changing set of beliefs (usually very much like their own personal beliefs) which leads to a Traditionalism which is dead and void of on-going learning.
I think his point is easily observed when some churches refuse to consider new ideas, new forms of worship, new ministries of outreach, new ways of organizing themselves, or even just new carpet in the sanctuary because, they say, "We've never done it that way before." Or equally painful is when a church says, "We've always done it this way," and thus no change and adaptation is needed. Such statements are the Traditionalism of living people whose faith is dead.
By contrast, I hear many people and many congregations say, "God has been with us in the past, and that gives us assurance for a future which seems to be changing and challenging us in new ways. Those who went before us tried new ways of ministry to adapt to their circumstances, so we can learn from them and trust God as we explore new options for ministry." What a difference! That attitude understands the living faith and power of Tradition, rather than being stuck in the Traditionalism of any one pattern of religion.
I remember one congregation I served as pastor where I proposed adding a second worship service, and – somewhat to my surprise – our oldest members responded enthusiastically by remembering that the church had added an English-speaking service to the regular German-speaking worship service when they were kids. They said, "The church changed to help us feel more included since we were no longer speaking German in our homes, so we should do the same with the next generation. These kids speak a 'different language' in terms of their music, so we have to find ways to reach them." Looking back, I realize that they were using Tradition is a most helpful way to make decisions for the future.
As we United Methodists deal with all manner of new situations and challenges in a world that is fast-paced and difficult, I pray that we will be guided by the Tradition of those faithful ones who went before us – without becoming stuck in the Traditionalism of our own familiar patterns.