Trendy Tradition

Written by Brandon O'Brien on July 19th, 2013

A couple of articles discussing the appeal of tradition among younger evangelicals have circulated the web this week. One of them, by Andrea Palpant Dilley, encourages traditional churches to be slow to abandon their traditional worship style and values if their primary motivation is attracting young people. Not all young folks want a contemporary worship experience. Or as she so eloquently expressed the matter:

Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

Dilley is telling her own story; she avoids making any sweeping claims about trends toward tradition. The other article, “Young Evangelicals Are Getting High”, explains that young evangelical Christians “are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves.” And here’s why:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. … theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. … They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

I’m glad this discussion is still getting attention. You can’t talk about tradition for long before you start talking about history, and that makes this church historian very happy. But it’s not a new discussion, and the trend toward tradition isn’t new either. It was Robert Webber, back in 1999, who pointed out in Ancient-Future Faith that young evangelicals seem hungry for deep roots. (That’s when I joined the conversation.) Chris Armstrong reported for Christianity Today on the appeal of the early church for twenty-first century Christians in 2008. And I helped put together an issue of Leadership Journal called “Rediscovered Roots” in 2009.

The story of movement away from low-church worship to liturgy is definitely a popular story. It’s my story (another day, perhaps). But it’s important to remember that the movement runs both ways. Lots of folks I know who now worship in low-church, nondenominational congregations grew up in Roman Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise liturgical churches. For them, what some outsiders consider rich tradition they themselves consider dead formalism. Many of my community college students grew up in Roman Catholic or Orthodox (Greek, Russian, you name it) churches and left having no idea what was going on in the worship services. These students are attracted to contemporary, nondenominational, informal worship experiences. (See this, for example.)

What is really fascinating to me is that it’s not only young evangelicals that are returning to tradition. Judaism and Islam are also encountering flocks of young faithful who want to recovery ancient practices—more Hebrew in the synagogue and more interest in sharia law, and so on. (See this great article for more.) It makes me wonder: is there anything in particular about our tradition, Christian tradition that appeals to young people? Or does my generation simply long for some connection, any connection, to the past?

Sometimes I wonder just how deep my generation’s appreciation for tradition runs. Sometimes I feel like we want to adopt the parts of tradition that seem meaningful to us, that give us that sense of connection we long for. But we are slow to submit to tradition; we don’t want to be burdened by it. I hope this interest in tradition ultimately sparks an interest not just in liturgical worship but also in the actual facts and faith and practice of Christianity past. I’d hate to see the trend for the contemporary replaced by trendy tradition.


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