This being a place for confessions, I thought that I would bring one today: I can’t stand the word “traditional.” While we’re at it, I don’t think I can much tolerate the word “contemporary” either. Over the fifteen years that I have been in full-time vocational ministry, I can only think of a handful of other words that have generated and evoked the same amount of emotion, vitriol, and downright hate as these two words.
If you want to go into a church and stir things up, you probably want to use these two words in your conversation.
While I appreciate our need to define and label things in order to give an honest description of who we are and what we do in our various churches, the definitions of these words are moving targets, defined by a specific context, not only geographically, but also individually. You could probably poll one hundred people and get one hundred separate definitions of these two words.
I was hanging out in my local coffee shop the other day and as I was having a conversation with my friends there, I said that I was not a very traditional person. One of my friends laughed and said something to the equivalent of, “Tell us something we don’t know.” His reply sort of surprised me and I wondered what was underneath it.
As I thought about it more, I realized how broadly my statement could be taken. What was I not traditional about? Politics? Marriage? Relationships? Music? Gender roles? What? It was a stark reminder that in this day and age of constantly changing definitions, we need to be as clear as possible explaining what we mean when we say something, even when we think that our definition is clear, chances are that we may be speaking with someone whose definition differs in some way from ours.
When I’ve heard the word “traditional” thrown around, some have meant it as if to say, “old and tired.” Others have meant it to mean, “tried and true.” Still other will interpret it as saying, “outdated and bigoted.”
As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I realize more and more just how much clarity I need to bring to my terms and definitions. I need to assume less and explain more. I need to do more than just lay down blanket and broad generalizing terms, both for myself and for others. When I generalize, I have to realize that I’m probably selling someone short in one way or another.
I’m doing my best to look past terms and see to the person behind them. Who are they? What does their heart beat for? What are they passionate about? After all, I would hope that they would do the same with me. I’ve been so frustrated in the past by people painting with their broad brush strokes all over me, I better not do the same to others.
No, I don’t think that “traditional” is always a helpful word to use. Like so many words, it’s definition has been distorted. At the same time, I’m not into abandoning words simply because they’ve been hijacked by others. I’m much more comfortable trying to redeem things and I think the best way to redeem them is to actually have a conversation about what we mean when we use them.