A student was once asked whether ignorance or apathy was worse, to which he answered, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Within the last few months I have visited a “non-traditional” church, watched a promotional video from another “non-traditional” church, and read web sites from other “non-traditional” churches (not to mention various articles, books, etc.). My observation is that the “virtues” of the non-traditional church are usually manifestly accepted while the “vices” of the traditional are quickly believed without experience or investigation.
The common argument of the non-traditionalists seems to be that lost people don’t like traditional churches. For this reason traditional churches are no longer effective in reaching the lost. Unless church is exciting and enticing, the unchurched are not convinced of its usefulness or truthfulness.
Well, a tornado may cause a lot of excitement, but is not very effective for the farmer’s purpose. In my experiences, non-traditional churches are often popular with the wrong people and can easily be filled for the wrong reasons.
I am using the description “non-traditional” because I want to defend the “traditional” church from general accusations. I could use the terms progressive, or contemporary as well. All of these terms have their denotations, but their connotations are well known to most church attenders. In all of the defenses of the non-traditional churches, “traditional” seems to be fair game for blame, accusation, ridicule and the like. I have spent a number of issues in this paper defending the traditional (I would also say normal) church from such accusations. I am not defending the High-Church denominational traditionalism, in which countless souls never heard the gospel, but rather the traditional local church that generations have known and loved and where they came to Christ.
Without doubt, the traditional church is a struggle for the lost or backslidden person. His mind and heart are not on the things of God, and there is no reason why he would enjoy what spirit-filled Christians enjoy. The normal church service is so different from what he experiences daily in the world that he must be convicted and led by the Holy Spirit to want to stay around. The singing is Christ-centered; the teaching is authoritative; the praying is humbling and the conversation is spiritual! Why would a lost person want to remain there?
D.L. Moody once wrote, “But, some say, if we take the standard and lift it up high, it will drive away a great many members from our churches. I believe it, and I think the quicker they are gone the better.”1 Today, we do not understand what Moody meant by such a statement. It was not a lack of concern, but a burden for the lost that we have seldom seen that made Moody say such a thing—a burden we desperately need again.
Churches adopt certain patterns because they believe those patterns conform to biblical standards and therefore allow the Spirit of God to change people. Here are five characteristics of traditional churches that have been patterned from biblical conviction.
Anchored in Providence
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2 Thes 2:15). The local churches have a two thousand year history drawn from a two thousand year-old Bible. They have songs born from spirit-led hearts that have satisfied the souls of believers for hundreds of years. They have built buildings, sent missionaries, suffered persecution, sat reverently under the teaching of God’s Word, observed the ordinances with Godly fear and passed on their faith to others with rejoicing.
When T.S. Eliot said that “a religion requires not only a body of [ministers] who know what they are doing, but a body of worshippers who know what is being done,”2 he could have been speaking of any generation of believers. But few church-shoppers today even care what a church believes much less how they practice and are not much concerned with making a commitment to those things! They seem to think, “A rolling stone gathers no moss!” Yes, and the stone is dead, carried about by the current while the moss is alive and clinging to the immoveable foundation.
Traditional churches help people get their feet on solid, immoveable ground. They help people look back and anchor themselves to a truthful history while encouraging them to look beyond the present to a heavenly reward. C.S. Lewis referred to his own atheistic past as “‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”3 In such a time as the present, we cannot afford to disconnect our churches from their own Christian history.
Forward with its Message
Traditional churches do not use stealth tactics to lure people into their services. That is more cultic than evangelistic. Paul’s prayer for Philemon was, That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus (Phile 6). The most effective means for gospel witness is to “acknowledge” the “good thing” we have that the world does not have. Too often churches are busy trying to win themselves to the world rather than winning the world to Christ.
Os Guinness wrote, “The very reason why penny loafers speak better to other penny loafers than to Air Jordans and wingtips is the reason why a penny-loafer gospel will never be the whole counsel of God.”4 It is not our business to convince the world that they should like us, or that they will enjoy our worship, or that Christianity will fit their busy life-style. God desires to change them and change them drastically! And the way He wants to do this is by believers displaying their faith in a visible, unapologetic manner.
Traditional churches do what they do because they believe that is what God wants them to do, not because they think that is what the world is looking for. Jean-Paul Sartre once criticized Christianity by saying, “I did not recognize in the fashionable God who was taught me, Him who was waiting for my soul. I needed a Creator; I was given a big businessman!”5 A Japanese businessman similarly said, “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager.”6 What the world needs to meet are Christians who are going about worship because God is there, not because they are there!
Separated from the World
Though everyone feels his view of biblical separation is biblical, traditional churches have made this a priority because they know it reflects God’s character. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, 18 And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty (2 Cor 17-18). This command is still in the Old and New Testaments of our Bible!
Yes, traditional churches have their hypocrites but hypocrisy is hypocrisy. It always imitates the real thing. The Apostle John wrote, Love not the world, neither the things in the world (1 Jn 2:15), and said of false teachers in the church, They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them (1 Jn 4:5). Jesus said, Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets (Lk 6:26).
We will not win the world by loving everything about the world and affirming that to the world. G.C. Morgan wrote, “I am often told today—told seriously—that what the Church of God needs in order to succeed is to catch the spirit of the age. I reply that the Church of God only succeeds in proportion as she corrects the spirit of the age.”7 The primary reason for separation from the world is the Lord’s command to be holy because He is holy. The next reason is so that being holy, we might be filled with the Spirit of God and have power for witnessing and preaching.
Available to its People
Contrary to what many are saying, traditional churches are more available to people for teaching, fellowship, discipling and worship than non-traditional churches. We still have Sunday School (Bible study) graded for all ages, Sunday night services and Wednesday night prayer and Bible study, and all of these with fully staffed child-care! These are not times when people merely “go through the motions.” They are well prepared, taught by qualified teachers, done in comfortable (and neutral!) settings and, most of all, this all takes place when and where the brethren have agreed to meet.
I, for one, am not buying the tired old line that Christians, because they happen to be teens, college age, or busy professionals, cannot come to where the saints are when they should. They do everything else they want to! John wrote, They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us (1 Jn 2:19). Why don’t professing Christians love the brethren enough to meet with them? Because they have more pressing needs? John the apostle didn’t buy that excuse. He called it not loving the brethren!
Traditional churches offer services for all believers, regardless of age, race or status. I find that they offer more time to be with the brethren than any other kind of church. These churches, rather than catering to exclusive attitudes, honor the elderly who have no one to visit with or care for them; accept families who can use some help with their kids for an hour; encourage the young people to broaden their social horizons; don’t target specialized groups of people; and promote body unity for all of the church.
Insistent on Results
Traditional churches expect sinners to change when they come to Christ and are comfortable showing that change in the church service. They expect the gospel and the Holy Spirit to change a person immediately upon placing his/her faith in Jesus Christ. Invitations are still given with that end in mind. They are not willing to change that doctrine to a more gradual view of conversion. Too often today, the sinners are simply being called righteous, rather than being called to repentance. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Cor 5:17).
The reason most surveys show that unbelievers (or “unchurched”) do not like traditional churches is that something is being asked of them: some effort, some struggle, some patience, even some blessed quietness. For all of the talk of traditional churches being unwilling to change, the fact is, they have changed—when they believed—and it is the critics who are unwilling to give up their own life-style and change into the image of Christ.
And So . . .
Traditional churches are what they are. It is not a show or a stage where anyone performs for anyone else. It is plain people, forgiven in Christ, doing what they would be doing whether you or I or a complete stranger were or were not there.Notes: 1. D.L. Moody, Spiritual Power (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997) 120. 2. T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: HB, 1949) 96. 3. C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955) 207. 4. Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993) 28. 5. Quoted by A.W. Tozer, Whatever Happened To Worship? (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publishers, 1985) 10. 6. Guinness, 49. 7. G.C. Morgan, Commentary on Matthew, 179.