Happenings

Pass it on: Tradition is a verb

Mar 2007    

HAS the song, “Pass it on”, become a tradition?

The question was brought home to me during an opening praise time as the worship leader was vamping up to the song. Speaking over sentimental guitar strumming, he recalled how the song had especially touched him as a youth. He went on to lead the congregation in a sweet, nostalgic rendition.

“Pass it on”, the concluding song in the 1969 rock musical “Tell it like it is”, by Ralph Carmichael and Kurt Kaiser, was hardly nostalgic in its day. Even as the musical sky-rocketed in popularity with youth in those days, many church leaders objected to its apparent rebellious nature.

However, given the fact that the song was included in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal (not to mention many other denominational hymnals), you could say that it has indeed entered the domain of “traditional worship”.

More significantly, “Pass it on” reminds us of an important aspect of Christian tradition. People sometimes call an activity “traditional”, meaning that it is an outdated style that was preferred by an older generation. For example, when you go to church, do you want to attend the contemporary or the traditional worship service?

In fact, the Christian tradition is always “fresh like spring” because it has the capacity of being renewed and passed on from one generation to the next.

The apostle Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to “pass it on” when he wrote: “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2).

The NIV word, “teachings”, translates the Greek noun “paradoseis”, which in some cases is rendered “tradition” in English. The verb form of the same word translates “passed on”.

A footnote in the New International Version offers “traditions” as an alternative reading, following the King James and the “Vulgate”, the 5th century Latin translation. “Tradition” derives from a Latin word that literally means “pass on” or “hand over”.

Hence, Paul was praising the Corinthian church for sticking with the traditions.

What traditions? Was it not the traditions that he had passed on to them; that is, the body of teachings and important symbols that he had received from the Lord Himself (1 Corinthians 11:23)?

Recently the noun “tradition” has been turned back into an action word to address the biblical connection between the teachings that we have received and the necessity to “pass it on”.

Think of tradition as a verb.

‘The church needs to be “traditioning” the faith; that is, we need to be about the task of passing on the faith, both to non-Christians outside the church and also the next generation. The task may take the form of teaching and preaching, or singing, or enacting the sacraments, or engaging in outreach ministries to experience the compassion of Christ. But it is essentially a communicative task that is given to the church. Our job, as the song says, is to “pass it on”.’

A problem occurs, however, when we let our grace-filled Christian terms become filled with marketing meaning. While the church can and probably should be in the market place, we ought to be clear that the church is not the same thing as the market place.

Nevertheless, many of us were brought up to think that “traditional” must refer to the past only. Since business marketing has taught us that what was good for one generation cannot be sold to the next, we are compelled to change the script for each new generation. In the early 70s, when “Tell it like it is” sold nearly a million recordings, churches on the cutting edge were talking about being “contemporary”. But now even the word “contemporary” has lost its edge, as the next generations look for new concepts.

New trends may well reflect honest efforts to live out the Christian life in the present. Yet the task of “traditioning” is a communicative task that requires people, at some point, to be in the same space and to speak at least a similar language with similar stories. Otherwise, the only way that our children will know about the deposit of faith is by reading it in a textbook. But the Gospel is not a dead relic to be studied, but a living tradition to be celebrated.

According to Paul, there is only one Christian Tradition, just as there is only one true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the Tradition that we repeat whenever we come together around the Lord’s Table – “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!” Because of history and geography there are many traditional variations, but only one Christian Tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6).

Instead of talking about styles of worship (a very Western concept, by the way!), we need to be talking about our corporate activities – worship, fellowship, discipleship, missions, etc – in terms of formation.

Faith formation, or discipleship, is concerned not just about how worship feels, or how much knowledge we have gained through Bible study. We must be concerned ultimately about how our corporate actions both live out the Gospel in the present and communicate it (pass it on) to our children and our contemporaries. Hence, no matter what your stylistic preferences – rock, classical, dress or casual – we are all called to participate in the one Christian Tradition. Pass it on!

The Rev George Martzen is Minister Attached to the Bishop’s Office.

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