Traditions in worship (specifically, I am thinking about worship services) are not inherently bad. They can often be helpful. It seems they often start from ways of doing things that worked well in some way. The problem comes when we see the tradition as necessary.
The New Testament church had, it seems, very few traditions like we have them, perhaps primarily because they didn’t have church buildings. They didn’t really have the luxury of developing traditions that couldn’t be easily moved around. I’m sure it is similar today in many countries that … aren’t friendly towards Christian gatherings.
We, however, have many traditions. Now, at this point, I think I would be thinking “you mean like the service order or organs or choir, right? We don’t have that, we have guitars and no liturgy! Tradition-free!” But I’m actually talking about things that are much more basic. Without further ado…
Pulpits. Would it feel like preaching from God’s Word if there were no pulpit? What about plexiglass? What about a music stand? What if the pastor was sitting down? Preaching has nothing to do with having a pulpit or what kind of pulpit you have… but it seems that we think, sometimes, that a pulpit is some sort of special symbol of good preaching. If your preacher can’t preach with a music stand or if you can’t listen to a preacher without a pulpit, that seems like a misplaced emphasis or reliance on a tradition.
Seating. Would it feel like “church” if there were tables? Would it feel like church if you were seated in circles or even on the floor? We talk a lot about an “audience” and “non-participation” type of service, and frequently the proposed culprit is the contemporary music band … and I think there is significant valid concern there. However, our seating is typically, basically, theater style seating where all focus is forward… just like an audience. If that was changed, would it not feel like a “church service” anymore to you?
Music. If there were no piano, no choir, no organ, no guitars… would it feel like church? Let’s say it was just singing and drums. (sounds fun, actually!) You might be surprised, though… in reading a variety of opinions and forums and blog posts and other forms of writing, there are many people who prefer a music style to the extent that they will outright say, in defense of a music style, that other music styles just “don’t feel like church, to me.” That’s fine, and preference is fine, but if it’s the music style that makes a church service feel like a church service, I am convinced that something is wrong.
The list could probably go on and on. We get comfortable and cozy in our traditions (announcements, how communion is taken/distributed, where things fall in the service, how long the service is, when it starts, what we wear) and I think we forget what “church service” really is. It’s not a gathering of nicely dressed people who come together to sit and listen to things. I’m sure there are better definitions… but it seems to me that a church service is a gathering of believers that are gathered to worship, glorify, and magnify Christ and to encourage each other in the faith through prayer, through partaking of communion, and through the Word of God (through its teaching, reading, and yes, singing). Pulpits, music style, seating arrangement, location, service order, communion bread type, etc., are all traditional elements that I think are sometimes what I think actually drives us to think it “feels” like “church.”