Status quo is fact. This is the status quo – the state of things – the way things are. There is little emotional attachment to the status quo, other than the natural human inertia – the aversion to change – even change that is potentially positive.
Tradition is different! it is “the way we have always done it”, “the way they did it when I was young”, “the way Dad (or Mom) always did it”. It is imbued with nostalgia and emotion. People have an inherent tendency to view the familiar as correct, and unfamiliar as somehow less right. Perhaps “right” is not the correct word, perhaps it is “normal” vs. “abnormal”. Having watched my share of national geographic specials as a kid, I remember thinking over and over – how can those people be so weird? They simply were raised with different traditions.
During Jesus ministry on Earth, he consistently railed against the traditions of men, especially when those traditions were interfering with people having relationship with God. The Jewish people at that time, especially a party called the Pharisee’s, had established a system of legalism and ritual that portended to make it easier for people to figure out if they were following God’s law, while at the same time it masked the fact that all men are sinners and in need of God’s mercy. In the end, it was a system that created status for the Pharisees thus they were heavily invested in those traditions, because of the status afforded them.
So how do traditions manifest in ministry today?
Some traditions are involved with the worship service, the liturgy, the music, etc. Others have to do with kids programs: AWANA clubs or Pioneers. Some traditions manifest in attitudes towards christian education or home schooling. All of these traditions can be beneficial, but can limit fruitfulness. Perhaps one of the most insidious traditions has to do with legalism and behavior: the No drinking, No dancing, No movies approach. It leads to a judgemental spirit – and it tends to alienate those that we most seek to enter our fellowship – sinners. This tradition, so common in Baptist churches of the last two generations, is the reason that it is hard to find a church with Baptist in the name in any suburban community.
Traditions can become part of the ministry brand or identity – aspects of our ministry that “cannot be changed”. These are difficult to change because without them, “we wouldn’t be us”. If you think about ministry branding, our brand should be Jesus Christ, any distinctive we try to attain for our ministry is really in the end only differentiating ourselves from Him.
As the church membership dwindles, the remainder of parishoners strongly identify with the traditions, and threaten to leave if change is implemented. What is to be said about this?
Likely the traditions were established as new practices or methods at the time, replacing some older cherished tradition. They were innovative and effective at producing fruit. I think of “The Reformation” as a classic example of replacing traditions that had become unfruitful. Now, the culture around us has changed, the demographics of the community have changed, the demographics of our ministry participants have changed. Time for change – specifically to become more effective at producing fruit.
Ministry participants who care more about the traditions than about fruit need to be educated, indoctrinated, and re-purposed. If they think the purpose of the ministry is to please them – they are mistaken. It is not – it is to please God. It is to Make Disciples. It is to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. They either are willing to be re-purposed or not. It can either happen at their current church or somewhere else. When they leave the church, they will have much less authority or “say so” than they currently think they do, or are entitled to, especially if they have inhabited leadership positions in church.
A leader who threatens to leave your church is literally holding your ministry hostage. He or she is a terrorist. Do not negotiate with terrorists. If they are a large contributor, give them their last months contribution back.
Worst case scenario:
What about a church split. I think that most church leaders fear this more than anything. Church splits can be painful, dividing even families, and can hurt the ministry’s effectiveness.
Lemonade from lemons:
Maybe you should consider turning the split into a plant. If the difference of opinion is not over doctrine, but something less essential (tradition), rather than parting company in anger, support that leader and maintain a healthy relationship – plant a new church. Especially if the ministry overall is healthy, growing or maintaining and producing fruit. Let God find a way to make a problem into an opportunity to produce even more fruit.