What does it mean to be “post-traditional”


Okay, I was one of the early “post” boys to the United Methodist table, thinking about our place in a “postmodern” world, moving to thinking about “postcolonialism,” and even thinking about post-evangelicalism, post-liberalism, yada, yada, yada, and the list goes on.

However tonight I was asked by a friend and member of my congregation about what it means to be “post-traditional.” This person holds a position at Infoserv and shared that they had received a question from someone wanting a definition of “post-traditional,” as there were United Methodist congregations that they were checking out that identified themselves in that way, and these folks were wanting to make sense of what these churches believed as “post-traditionalists.”

I confess that I was stumped for a minute to give a definition. I mean, I have been around the emerging church “post-er” boys for quite a while, but I can’t say that “post-traditional” is a descriptor that I have heard often.

I assume (and yes, I know what that does….) that these congregations (which seem to be either new church plants or in an active revitalization process) are trying to identify themselves as somehow different than a “traditional” church (which of course, in itself, is a problematic descriptor).  The problem is that “post” really doesn’t mean anything other than “after.” Thus, to call one’s congregation “post-traditional” is to suggest that you are doing something “after traditionalism” . . .  but that could be anything! A post-traditional church might be offering seeker sensitive “contemporary” worship, OR some sort of ancient future liturgy. A post-traditional church might be saying that they are re-appropriating the old tradition for a new time and place, OR it might be saying that the old traditional stuff that is part of our denomination, things like the Book of Discipline or a consistent theology of grace, is being discarded in favor of something else.

My fear is that the claim of post-traditionalism is one that fails to recognize the power of tradition in telling us who we are and where we have come from as we move into the future. We don’t create new structures or ways of being in a vacuum. The one’s that have staying power are always created with an understanding of where we have come from as we move into the future. “Tradition” is not an evil thing that keeps us from changing. No tradition is simply the story of where we have come from. Tradition only become stale and monolithic when we allow it to overwhelm the need and desire for change.

So, what does it mean to be post-traditional? Am I missing something here, or is this simply another example of trying to be hip with “post” words with little thought about what is behind those descriptors?

3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be “post-traditional”

  1. I’m wondering if “post-traditional” is primarily in reference to liturgy, or another way of saying a church is “non-liturgical”. Whenever I hear that, the speaker means they don’t have “high” liturgy, a la Catholics and Anglicans. But everybody has some form of liturgy, whether it be from the Book of Common Prayer or 45 min of music, an hour long sermon, and announcements. Along the same lines, everyone has traditions. Even if you’re a new church plant you’re in the midst of forming and defining new traditions. I’m willing to hear the case for the term, but at the moment I’m thinking it’s another smokescreen.

  2. Jay,
    Post-traditional seems to be the term for a theological critique of church culture that has stalled and become stale. Some might use it to critique Orthodoxy of a variety of forms, but I’ve seen it more widely used in terms of vitality and passion, or lack thereof. I believe the critique itself stalls when it becomes
    too intellectual, ahistorical or unsacramental. I wonder if it is a struggle for what IMAGE magazine calls
    a deeper Christian humanism?

  3. Jay, I have no idea what the term means, but I share your thought about wanting to avoid stances that say tradition is to be ignored or discarded.

    For one, we cannot do either. Tradition was here before us. Even if we reject it, we are reacting to it.

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