When I was a child, my family primarily celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. And in my house Christmas was no small thing. We CELEBRATED! As a matter of fact, we have continued many of the traditions my parents began when my three brothers and I were little. For example, my dad always read the Christmas story from Luke 2:1-20 before we opened any gifts. My brothers and I would all crowd around dad and his bible, often jockeying for the “best spot” on dad’s lap.
This tradition, although it may seem small, has stuck with me. Every year on Christmas Eve, Dad still gets out his bible and reads this familiar story. While some of the surrounding details have changed, the tradition still reminds us that we need to look at Jesus, the greatest gift ever given, before we even think about opening the gifts under the tree. And now I’m watching a whole new generation gather around Grandpa, the man I know as Dad, and hear about the Savior coming into the world.
As I reflect upon this simple tradition as an adult, I realize this is something many, if not all, of us need. It seems that if something is “traditional” we label it as outdated and unimportant. And this isn’t just something that’s happening “out there”, it’s also something that’s happening within the Church. However, this certainly shouldn’t be the case. Changing music styles, preaching styles, length of services, doctrinal stances and statements, or any other items, just because they are “traditional” or “old” isn’t the right way to approach things. I wouldn’t replace this childhood tradition for anything, not to mention that it is far from unimportant.
Does this mean that we should never deviate from tradition? Are we to blindly hold to the status quo without asking any questions?
NO! As a pastor of an evangelical church, I would be a blind fool if I was to answer in the affirmative. If the Reformation taught us anything, it is that the Church, at the very least needs to reflect on its traditions. And even before that, the New Testament is chock-full of examples where people rebelled against the religious establishment. In fact, Jesus himself was seen as a religious rebel.
That said, there is a reason that the establishment is the establishment. Our task isn’t to throw out all tradition, rather, it is to determine the nature of each individual tradition. We need to judge them based on a few simple criteria.
First, is the tradition biblical? The Bible supersedes all. If there is a clear biblical mandate on the issue, we fall in line (see Mark 7:1-13).
Second, is the traditions beneficial for me? There are those who practice certain traditions that are to their own detriment. Simply following a tradition at one’s own expense is not noble, it’s foolish. Some may say, “well the Bible doesn’t say NOT to do it.” This doesn’t mean that we throw caution to the wind and enjoy. Instead we need to reflect and determine the real effect of our actions; even on ourselves (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Third, is the tradition beneficial for those around me? Tradition at the expense of anyone’s personal growth should be avoided. Our traditions MUST reflect a desire to help others (see 1 Corinthians 10:23-24).
While these three simple questions are certainly not exhaustive, they at least give us the framework for challenging our traditions, both at Christmas time and those of the Church.
I would also like to remind everyone to approach these traditions with grace. There will inevitably be those traditions that need changing. An attempt to do so will result in numerous challenges, possibly even hurt feelings. So be gentle, and don’t try to do it alone. God gave us a family (biological and church) that loves us and desires good for us. With their help and God’s grace, we just may begin traditions that honor God for generations.