Does Tradition Matter? What hipster coffee culture has taught me about Church

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Those who know me, will know that I really like coffee. I can appreciate a good cup of coffee, and do so on a daily basis.

But, one thing I really struggle with is that every time I visit what one might call a “Hipster Coffee Shop” I get the feeling that I’m stepping into a place where everyone knows a secret, and I’m the only one who doesn’t.

What began as a love for coffee and its experience has now transformed into complete arrogance and exclusivism. And heaven forbid you mention the “S” word (Starbucks). For the first and greatest commandment of coffee drinkers is, Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks. Which interestingly, is one of the main contributors to the coffee culture boom in North America.

I believe there are two major reasons why coffee culture seems to have taken such a sharp turn from it’s original intention:

  1. They forgot they are primarily there to serve.
  2. They forgot where they came from.

My church background is fairly diverse. I’ve spent a lot of time in different church denominations, which has really influenced my perspective on many of the traditions that other Christians practice. What I find so interesting about this coffee culture phenomenon is how closely it resembles where some of our churches are at.

Every once in a while I find myself in a church that has all the latest gadgets and all the cool, well-dressed, middle class people seem to go there. Under the banner of progressivism, they roll their eyes at the old way of doing things. They look upon the churches who sing from hymnals and dress up fancy as legalistic. And in many instances, instead of serving, they seem inconvenienced by those that come through their doors that don’t fit in their scene.

But, here’s the truth: if your church doesn’t practice humility, and sacrificial love that puts others above yourself; if your church doesn’t follow in the steps of Jesus, then it’s going to turn into something it was never intended it to be. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hipster church or a traditional one, the spirit and posture of those in your community has the power to turn everything sideways.

Like the coffee shops, we often forget one of the most important missions that Jesus left us with was to serve. And we often forget that no matter how innovative or powerful the current move of God is in our churches, those who came before us played a huge role in getting us to that point.

G.K. Chesterton has a parable the describes this perfectly:

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” 

Sadly, we can often find ourselves more closely resembling the modern reformer saying, “I don’t see the point of this. Let’s get rid of it!” We make fun of those who have come before us, we call them traditional, and we roll our eyes at the way they do things without realizing that we are standing on their shoulders. Christianity at its very core, is built upon humility; recognizing that God is God and we are not. And essential to this humility is our shared experience; understanding where we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going.

When I look at church communities, both old and new, this is the criteria I judge them upon. Of course no-one gets a perfect grade. But, the health of any church is heavily dependent upon the humility of those in leadership and more importantly, its members. I believe this is essential to understanding whether or not tradition matters.

Paul gives us an excellent example of what a community without humility looks like:

 “Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that’s not the way of Christ. Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you, too. His power extends over everything.” – Colossians 2:8-10

A community without humility does not point to God. “Everything of God get’s expressed in Him.” We don’t need prayer books, guitars, choirs, projectors, or iphones. Sure they can help. But, reliance on them diverts our focus from the prize. If it’s don’t not helping us grow in Christ, personally or communally, then it’s hurting more than its helping.

I really don’t care for denominations. Theology aside, I firmly believe that at the end of the day, we are all on the same team. But, for many, the reason why one stays in a certain church or another is not because of what the community has or does, but who they are. A coffee shop can have the best coffee in the world. But, if the people are exclusive and arrogant, no one will come. And those who are there will fade away, along with the business. And so it is with the church.

We can pray and sing about sacrificial love, service, and humility. But, if it doesn’t translate into action, we’re just making noise. We become as faithful as the Pharisees Jesus condemns. When you find a community that practices what they preach, and they inspire you to do the same; a people who practice tradition, but hold it loosely; giving priority to Christ. Those are the ones who will stand the test of time.

So does tradition matter? I would say yes. It matters deeply, where we’ve come from, because it helps us understand where we are going, and our place in that journey. Tradition matters because, without it we’re just a blip in history and we end up looking like Chesterton’s first reformer; wanting to tear everything apart, without understanding the reason why it’s there. But, tradition only matters when it is Christ-centred; embodying sacrificial love, service and humility.
For as Jesus says:

“Every tree that wasn’t planted by my Father in heaven will be pulled up by its roots. They are the blind leading the blind. When the blind lead the blind, they both end up in the ditch.” – Matthew 15:13-14

Jefferson Bethke has a great article on this subject. Which served as an inspiration for this message.

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