As I read through David James Duncan’s book, The Brothers K, I remember my anger gradually increasing towards the mother in the story. The mother is trying to raise this hectic and chaotic family of mostly boys and part of her child-raising involves beating them (sometimes literally) to go to church. And as you can imagine, this does not end well for her; most of her children rebel against her and her church. This storyline upset me because I’ve seen in real life the damage done by people like this mother. I’ve seen people completely reject the faith because they were berated again and again to go to church, but were rarely engaged in an honest conversation about why they should go to church. In the end my anger towards the mother changes to pity as the the book reveals (spoiler alert!) that the reason why she was so passionate about the church was because when she was young and had nowhere to turn the church took her in and took care of her. She never told her children what was most precious to her and as a result the kids thought it was completely pointless. Often tradition does more harm than good because the purpose gets lost behind the activity. We cling to tradition even when it is not good for anyone because we love what we have nurtured and will only change by making a conscious choice and discipline.
Sherry Turkle, who is the professor of social studies in science and technology at MIT, writes, “We are psychologically programmed not only to nurture what we love but to love what we nurture.” One implication of this truth is that a tradition can continue long after it is meeting the original purpose for which it was created because people have begun to love the tradition. For example, imagine parents who love taking their kids trick-or-treating. The year will come when the kids will no longer want to go trick-or-treating with their parents. The tradition (trick-or-treating) is no longer fulfilling the purpose (spending quality time together as a family). Ideally parents would recognize this and grieve the end of the family tradition and have a conversation with their kids about other traditions they can do as a family to fulfill the greater purpose of spending quality time together. Obviously this isn’t easy, but it can happen.
Local churches also need to examine their traditions (read habitual activities, not belief systems) to decide if the traditions are still fulfilling a meaningful purpose in line with the mission of the church. Many churches will cling to an activity long after it has been effective at fulfilling its purpose regardless of the cost.
The importance of this examination process is two-fold. First, if a tradition is not completing some significant purpose in the organization then the organization is using up precious commodities (people’s time, energy, and money) to succeed at something not important. Second, a tradition out of line with the overall mission of a church is a significant turn-off to potential new members. The disconnect between any activity and the church’s mission shows that a church doesn’t actually intend to do what it says it will do or to value what it says it values.
My encouragement to the people of Cobblestone is to consider what traditions have served their time, and what new traditions could we now begin that would better enable us to fulfill our mission to be a Christian community working together for the good of all people.
My encouragement to those considering or wrestling with Christianity is to accept my apology on behalf of the Church for the times that you’ve been burned and hurt by people demanding that you adhere to pointless tradition. Also I want to invite you to look past the sometime pointless activity of the Church and to see Jesus, the King and Savior of this world, who offers you love, grace, and comfort in the midst of your world. If you have questions about Christianity, or Cobblestone Church, I’m always available to try to answer them.