Taking the Road More Traveled By: The Benefit of Tradition in the Church

I grew up over-singing ''Just As I Am'' and watching folks get drenched from head to toe in their baptisms. There was something of a rhythm and rhyme to our Southern Baptist services; it certainly wasn't a charismatic free-for-all. The hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call all fell into place. But it had little akin to what I was to discover in my late teens when I began my pilgrimage into a liturgical church. There, I encountered psalm chanting, creedal confessions, vested clergy, an altar with real wine (!) atop it, worshipers making the sign of the cross, the rare but occasional smoke of incense, and plenty of other practices that sent my non-traditional sensitivities into shock. Some might suppose that, awed by the reverence imbuing the service, wooed by its sacred antiquity, it was love at first sight. But, no, to be honest, I didn't like it, not one little bit.

Twenty five years later, having written a Eucharistic hymn that is sung in the liturgy, presided as celebrant and deacon at various altars in the Lutheran Church, and contributed regularly to a journal devoted to the traditional divine service, I guess you could safely say that my first impressions of traditional worship were not my lasting ones. Like an arranged marriage, it took me years to get to know this heretofore unknown liturgical bride, to delve into her past, learn her eccentricities, and eventually fall in love with her. Now, a quarter century after our initial meeting, I can't imagine life without her.

What Good is Tradition?

Devotees of various faiths, Christian and otherwise, have their distinctive traditions and their reasons for perpetuating them. Some like the way these practices are transhistorical, providing an unbroken ritual link with prior generations of the faithful. Others appreciate how traditions tend to concretize doctrine, embodying religious teachings in religious rites, so that the eyes and ears and other senses participate fully in what a faith teaches, rescuing it from becoming a bloodless religion of the mind. Still others embrace tradition as the communal expression of the faith, the participation of all in a shared rite, thereby bonding them, and avoiding the tyranny of individualism or clerical whim. And there are some who simply enjoy the artistry of religious rites, how they lift the common to new heights of aesthetic beauty. My own gradual appreciation of Christian rites involved all of these. Ultimately, however, I fell in love with traditions—and specifically, traditional worship—for a single, overarching reason: its components, to varying degrees, are all in the service of the Gospel.

Tradition in the Service of the Gospel

What you'll encounter in a traditional worship service is a framework of readings, creeds, confessions, hymns, and prayers that pulsate with the language of Scripture, with Christ Jesus at the heart of it all. By the repetition of these, with new elements circulating every week, truths seep into the hearts and minds of worshipers, steeping them in vivifying words. Every element of worship flows toward, into, and from the altar, where Jesus sits as Lamb, Priest, King, and Man, all rolled into one, giving his blood and body into his people and thereby literally embodying them with God. Cognizant of the fact that Jesus came to save not only the soul, but also the body, the body participates fully in this worship. Knees bow before the regal Lord; hands trace the sign of the saving cross upon themselves; mouths dine at his feast; eyes soak in the portrayal of his Passion in crucifix, icons, stained-glass windows; and noses spell the aromatic incense wafting prayers up toward God's throne. Moreover, just as the world operates according to a calendar, so the church follows a calendar of her own, with seasons and festivals that punctuate the year, each in one way or another preaching the mystery of Christ crucified and resurrected for us.  Though some of the elements of this worship are mandated by Christ--the preaching of his Word, baptism, his Supper--others are not, but are part of the heritage of prior generations, who bequeathed to us rites and ceremonies which glorify God, beautify worship, and work in concert with the Gospel.  All is claimed for Jesus—time, art, movement, architecture, music—so that in everything he may be glorified, and his people receive him and his gifts for their salvation.

Interest in the Traditional Liturgy Among Baptists

Though my own participation in liturgical worship happened after I left the church of my upbringing, I was surprised and delighted to read that in the Baptist church there has recently been a groundswell of interest, especially among young believers, in such worship. In a CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans, writes, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions– Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.” Whether this is merely a passing fad or a change of more substance and longevity remains to be seen. Needless to say, I hope it is the latter. If so, I pray that their spiritual odyssey may leave them not deeper into tradition but that tradition may leave them deeper into Christ.  For if tradition is not in the service of the Gospel, it is fool's gold, worthless and void.  But if it is in Christ's service, it is gold worthy of becoming a receptacle for heaven's blessings.

The Road More Traveled By

The poet Robert Frost famously spoke of taking "the road less traveled by" when he came to where "two roads diverged in a yellow wood." Perhaps in some aspects of life, that is sage advice. But when I came to where two roads diverged in the church, I took the road more traveled by, smoothed by the feet of the faithful for centuries, tried and tested by time, a path free of the pitfalls of modernity and the quicksands of fads, which leads always to the God crucified and risen for us. And that has made all the difference.