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Heritage vs Tradition

On the back page of my resume (which I know is too long, by the way) I have a list of things that I like and thinks I do not like. One of those pairings reads like this. “I like heritage, not tradition.”

Now, I know words are often “pregnant with meaning” and that words often conjure up different images for different people, so let me explain. In the world I work and relate to – a strange place I refer to as Church World – traditions can kill you. Baptist Church World in particular loves tradition. We have a joke that if you do something three times it becomes a tradition and can only be discontinued by a church vote.

In my mind, tradition is the practice of continuing to do things simply because we have always done those things, whether those things advance our current mission or not. The Baptist church I am serving as Transitional Pastor has some great traditions that have been a huge blessing to the community around them for many years and continue to be so. They have other traditions that were effective in the 1950’s, or 1960’s or even in the early 2000’s but they are no longer effective. Yet, because it is our norm, no one ever questions whether this tradition has outlived its usefulness. We just continue to do it because we have always done it. The challenge for us and any organization is discerning which is which.

Let me add one disclaimer. Traditions that have outlived their original purpose can be useful to an organization to remind them of past successes. Remember, the shepherd boy, David, looked back into his past to remind himself that God could use him to defeat Goliath. He said, “I have fought lions and I have fought bears so surely the Lord will deliver this giant into my hands.” Celebrating the past gave him courage for the future and that can be true in the life of an organization as well.

I am not fond of the word, tradition, because it comes with so much baggage. On the other hand, I do like the word, heritage. Every organization has a heritage that is worth celebrating. It is the personality or DNA of the organization. It is typically less about stuff we do and more about the defining moments in the life of an organization. Heritage is the story of the journey that makes up the foundation upon which future successes are built.

We do well to examine closely the usefulness of our traditions, keeping the ones that are still useful to our purpose and disposing of those that have outlived their usefulness. However, we must never discard our heritage. Who we have been in the past is a significant part of who we are today and who we will become in the future.

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