Gobbled up by Tradition (Safiyah Fosua)

Several years ago, I figured out that you could sound remarkably like a turkey if you said “gobble-gobble-gobble” several times in rapid succession!  And so, I adopted the throaty “turkey gobble” as my signature telephone greeting on Thanksgiving Day.  It was not long before the holiday greeting became part of the holiday tradition for my friends and family.  Over the years, reactions have ranged from surprise to uncontrollable laughter to a four-year-old granddaughter’s “grandma’s got a turkey in her house!”  To my surprise, I discovered that close relations began to look forward to the greeting that began as a light-hearted way to spice up the day — more campy than prankish — and I thought temporary.  It has now been more than twenty years since that first gobble.

This year I found myself weighing whether or not I had outgrown the need to gobble until I got a “gobble call” from one of my adult sons, reminding me that the gobble was no longer just mine, it was ours!  It has become a tradition that reaches beyond our immediate family to friends in several states.  As I basked in the smile of my son’s gobble (not his first), thoughts quickly raced to worship and how traditions are formed or perpetuated.

New worship forms rarely emerge as an intentional effort to change the culture of worship; they are usually part of a search for transcendence and meaning.  The “traditional” music of some denominations was born in the relatively recent camp-meeting movement.  What we think of as contemporary worship today began decades ago as a Baby Boomer quest for more meaningful worship.

And, contemporary worship is no longer the new kid on the block.  In the arc of recent history, it seems that worship is always changing and morphing into new forms.  Emergent style worship, around for scarcely a decade, is quickly giving way to a variety of worship expressions.

Worship communities are also constantly creating and perpetuating their own traditions.  While we might apply style categories to a congregation like “traditional” or “contemporary,” “emergent” or “hip-hop,” within each of those communities you might find a number of local traditions that have emerged, like my turkey gobble, over time.

Several questions to ask as you evaluate the worship style and worship traditions of any congregation:

  1. When did this practice begin?  There are some old practices that have withstood the test of time.  There is something about singing Doxology that connects us with historical Christianity.  By contrast, there are some practices that have no connection to 21st Century worshippers and should be prayerfully examined.
  2. Why did this practice emerge?  Worship often loses meaning when a critical mass of people is no longer connected to the rationale for the practice.  I remember serving in church embroiled in conflict because the baptistery had been moved from its customary spot in the middle of the aisle near the front.  The old-timers remembered when a previous beloved pastor had placed it there during a sermon to symbolize the place where the two beams of the cross intersected.  More recent members, who were not present for that sermon years ago, wanted it moved for weddings and other worship activities.  Clearly the placement of this worship symbol was in danger of losing meaning.
  3. How does this practice connect us to God?  Take a notepad to worship with you for the next four Sundays and jot down the real order of worship – those things that actually take place during the worship hour.  At the end of the month ask of each entry:  did this take us closer to or further away from God?  If you find that the actual worship of God has been crowded out by other things like extended announcements, long pleas for programs and activities, tributes, special programs and other non-worship related items, it might be time to revision worship planning.
  4. Finally, do worshippers continue to find meaning in your present worship practices?    I do not know who began the practice of closing Christmas Eve services with lighted candles while singing Silent Night, but I do know that worship planners who tamper with that part of tradition do so at their own peril.  I hope you see this as a strong caution against change for change sake.  Ultimately, it does not matter if pastors and planners are bored with some traditions; the real question is does it continue to “make meaning” for worshippers.

This brings me back to the yearly gobble.  I had almost decided to abandon it; in fact I was late with my calls this year because I was tired from travel.  When I finally did crawl out and make those calls, my gobbles were met by a shower of affirmations that reminded me how much friends and family had come to associate the gobble with me and with the day.  As you prepare your congregations for Advent and Christmas this year, in all of your planning and innovation don’t forget the power of tradition.