Back to the Future: “Retraditioning” in the Church Today

Martin B. Copenhaver

A few years ago I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a young couple who had died in an auto accident.

The husband had been a member of our United Church of Christ congregation, and his wife was Jewish. The service was to take place in our church. I was particularly eager to learn more about Jewish customs around death and mourning so that I could design a service that incorporated elements of both traditions, where appropriate. So, in addition to consulting with the family, I also referred to a wonderful book, How to Be a Perfect Stranger, which describes various religious traditions and how one can participate in them as a guest.1

The funeral section of the book on Jewish practices is thick and explicit, reflecting a rich tradition. The book describes the shiva period in which the family sits in mourning for seven days after the funeral and receives guests. It outlines quite explicitly what guests should say and not say (“it is customary to sit quietly or talk to other callers, and wait to be spoken to by the principal mourners”). Then there is the explanation of the mourners’ kaddish, the prayer of praise that mourners repeat for eleven months following the funeral, as well as what is to be done on the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death. There are instructions about what to wear to the service, and what one might say to comfort the bereaved.

Then, out of curiosity, I turned to the page that deals with the traditions of my denomination. Under the heading of funeral practices there is this question: “Are there mourning customs to which a friend who is not a member of the United Church of Christ should be sensitive?” And this is the answer: “No. Local, ethnic, and cultural customs are more relevant than any particular religious tradition of the church.”2 That statement, although not entirely accurate, was just true enough to make me wince.

And it did not just apply to funeral practices, either. To be sure, our congregations had traditions related to worship and church life, but those traditions were mostly malleable to local custom, the preferences of the congregation, and the proclivities of the minister. Wider church traditions could be, and often were, ignored. So, fifteen years ago, when I arrived at the congregation I currently serve, a member asked, “Are we going to do Lent again this year?” as if that central liturgical season were just another programmatic choice.

Retraditioning Strategy: Fixed or Fluid?

Today that is beginning to change. In some respects, the change is dramatic. It is a movement toward what Diana Butler Bass has described as “retraditioning,” through which a congregation adopts, or reclaims, practices and understandings that have been part of the wider Christian tradition, but, for some reason, have been abandoned or diminished in importance. The deliberate reclaiming of Christian traditions looks now to be a central element of congregational identity and renewal in the twenty-first century. Within a wider culture that breathlessly pursues the next new thing, congregations are experiencing new vitality in old spiritual practices.

Bass is careful to distinguish between two forms of retraditioning that lead in quite different directions, one she terms “fixed” and the other “fluid.” She writes, “In its fixed forms, retraditioning translates into religious fundamentalism, sectarian isolationism, or resistance to all forms of change.”3 Fluid retraditioning is something very different, as she explains:

In its more fluid forms of rejuvenation, adaptation, and invention, retraditioning implies reaching back to the past, identifying practices that were an important part of that past, and bringing them to the present where they can reshape contemporary life. In this mode, congregations will tend toward reflexivity (willingness to change through engagement with tradition and an equal willingness to change the tradition through engagement), reflection (thoughtfulness about practice and belief), and risk-taking.4

This fluid form of retraditioning is a source of vitality in so-called “emergent” churches, in an in- creasing number of mainline congregations, and is evident in the congregation I serve.

Engaging All the Senses

Wellesley Congregational Church (UCC) in Wellesley, MA., is perched on a slight rise on the square of this leafy New England town, as if presiding over the whole village. And, indeed, it is the oldest institution in Wellesley, actually older than the municipality itself. The steeple of the church, the highest point in town, can seem to pierce the clouds. We worship in a space that is characterized by the clear windows and stark, dignified lines of a New England Meeting House. A generation ago, the pulpit was obviously central, both literally and figuratively. It fact, preaching was so central that all other elements of worship could seem like little more than the opening acts that warm up the crowd for the main event. Except when the choir processed or the congregation stood for a hymn, no one seemed to move. Communion was celebrated, at most, once a month (in those days, anything more frequent might have been dismissed as “too Catholic”), and the elements were brought to worshippers in the pews. It was worship from the neck up, a largely cerebral engagement with the divine.

Today much of that has changed. Our fastest growing worship service is not something that our forebears would recognize – at least, not our Congregational forebears. At this service, each week we have: symbols and colors that immediately situate the worship within the flow of the liturgical year (no one has to ask if we are “doing Lent this year”); a renewal of baptismal vows, including aspersion of worshippers with water from the baptismal font; worshippers of all ages who gather around the table to receive communion; members of the congregation who line up to light prayer candles; those who stay to walk the labyrinth that is embedded in the floor. There is a sermon, of course, but it is set within dynamic liturgical practices in which all of the senses are engaged.

One might characterize this development as appropriating traditions from other parts of the church, particularly those with a richer liturgical tradition than is evident in many Reformed churches. And, in ways, that might be an accurate description. But it is also true that we are learning how to claim wider church traditions as our own. In this sense, “our” tradition reaches back before the Congregational church in colonial New England, back before even the Protestant Reformation. Yet we consider this to be “fluid retraditioning” in action: these liturgical practices are not merely adopted, they are also adapted to our time and circumstance. It is also an example of what Becky Garrison (in this Reflections) calls “an ancient-future faith,” which searches the storehouse of Christian tradition for spiritual treasures, while seeking to interpret these traditions faithfully into new contexts.

The movement toward retraditioning can be seen as well in the increased emphasis on distinctive spiritual practices, as championed in the work of theologian Dorothy Bass and the Lilly Endowment’s Vice President for Religion, Craig Dykstra, and a growing literature on the subject. The focus on spiritual practices seems ubiquitous in church life these days, so it should be no surprise that it is reflected in these pages as well. Lillian Daniel makes a compel- ling case for recovering the practice of testimony, and Peter Marty is determined to rescue the practice of hospitality from confusion with mere friendliness. Even Kimberly Knight’s description of a church that meets in cyberspace shows commitment to the spiritual practice of living in community. Though some of us might want to protest that a meeting of avatars is not quite the same as a meeting of fleshly creatures, it is concern for community that drives many of the innovations Knight describes.

Repositioning the Bible

The preaching we hear today also reflects this movement toward retraditioning. A few years ago, on the sixtieth anniversary of the journal Pulpit Digest, I was invited to reflect on the changes in preaching that have taken place during that dramatic time span. In preparation, I read many back issues from each decade. Amid the points of continuity, and the occasional faddish excursion, I noticed one epochal change. Until about twenty-five years ago, the sermons were largely topical, and generously sprinkled with quotes from virtually every human endeavor. The preacher might cite the words of a poet, the findings of a sociologist, the research of a scientist, and the observations of a contemporary journalist to support the sermon’s point. References to Scripture often were made as if they were little more than a summary of all that had gone before. The gospel was treated as the capstone of human experience. A curmudgeonly friend once summarized this musty style of mainline preaching: “You hear what the psychologist says, what the historian says, what The New York Times editorial writer says, and then the sermon concludes with, ‘And perhaps Jesus said it best…’ ”

Since the 1980s, preaching and worship-planning have readjusted themselves around the Bible. Today sermons, often based on the lectionary texts of the day, are not as likely to wander out of earshot of the Biblical text, and scriptural imagery tends to ripple through the liturgies as well.

This development might sound surprising at a time when our culture seems no longer to be even vestigially Christian. Yet Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has observed that it was during times of exile that Israel became a textual community. Living as strangers in a strange land, Israel’s very identity as a people was threatened, so they read and listened to stories to remind them of who they were and where their true home was. The novelist Flannery O’Connor made a similar point when she observed that Southern storytelling began to flourish only after defeat in the Civil War. When a community of people is no longer in charge, when the sources of identity are vanishing, the community turns to its texts and stories as the wellsprings of life. Surely this is part of what we are observing in our churches today.

One of the reasons that Jewish funeral traditions could be described in such minute detail in that book, while the traditions of the United Church of Christ could be described briefly in an almost off- hand manner, relates to the cultural place of the two traditions. Jews, living in exile and in diasporas, have clearly defined traditions, in part at least, because the expressions of their faith are not supported by the culture at large. Jews never could assume that a child growing up in this country will learn to be a good Jew simply by growing up as an American. If a child is to become a faithful Jew, it was only by being intentionally brought up in the tradition. By contrast, at least during the era of Christendom, when the secular and religious institutions seemed to be shoring up different ends of the same civic project, distinctive expressions of a specifically Christian tradition did not seem as necessary.

The movement toward retraditioning is one indication that all of that is changing – and fast. For those of us who have found retraditioning to be a source of great vitality for our churches, this is good news indeed. Søren Kierkegaard compared the moribund church of his own time to a family that had inherited a grand mansion, but chose to live in a mere tent in the front yard. To me, the movement toward retraditioning feels an awful lot like moving back into the mansion.

The Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver ’80 M.Div. served churches in Phoenix, AZ, Burlington, VT, and Westport, CT, before becoming senior pastor of Wellesley (MA) Congregational Church in 1994. His five books include To Begin at the Beginning: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Pilgrim Press, 1994, 2002) and Words for the Journey: Letters to Our Teenagers About Life and Faith, with Anthony B. Robinson (Pilgrim Press, 2003). His latest is This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, co-written with Lillian Daniel (Eerdmans, 2009).


  1. How to Be a Perfect Stranger, edited by Arthur J. Magida & Stuart M. Matlins (Skylight Paths Publishing, 1999).

  2. Ibid, p. 411.

  3. Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Alban Institute, 2004), p. 50.

  4. Bass, p. 50.