Over the last six months I’ve had several experiences that all point to a similar phenomenon. First, let me set the stages:

Scene One: Chicago

When tickets for “Hamilton” went on sale one of my best friends spent eight hours online until she snagged us a pair so that we could see the show for my birthday. She traveled from Indiana and I traveled from Minneapolis and we met in Chicago for a weekend of amazing food, sightseeing, and, of course, “Hamilton.”

The night arrived and we joined the mass of people waiting outside the theatre to get in. It was a packed house. Finally the doors opened and we found our way to our seats. The show was amazing and the audience was involved and enthused, but it was different from other Broadway shows I had seen. There was a woman sitting next to us who spent the entire show on her phone, playing games and texting. There were people several rows in front of us who were dressed in elaborate costumes like it was a midnight showing of a long awaited movie. And then, as the curtain call happened, some people started to stream out of the theatre, turning their backs on the actors still on stage.

Scene Two: The Orchestra

I had never been to an orchestra concert before. I wasn’t sure how to dress or what to expect. My friend told me, “Don’t clap between the movements. Some people will. But don’t.” I decided that I would dress up. I put on my three piece suit and wore a bow tie. 

The audience was a mix of ages. Most people were fairly dressed up, but there were some folks there in jeans and hoodies. Sure enough some people did clap between the movements.

Throughout the night it was clear there was a tradition happening here. Tradition of who the conductor greeted, how the musicians took their bows, and what the audience response was when it came to encores.

Scene Three: The Monastery

As you walk in to the church, unless you’ve been there before, you might not be sure where to go. For daily prayers you are invited into the guest section of the choir stalls. Thankfully there is a sign telling you which side to sit on. 

There is a call board with a bunch of numbers and you are faced with nine different books in the space in front of you. You have to figure out which books you need, which section of which book, and how to shift between them.

Scene Four: Mass

There is a Mass setting listed and so I turn to it. I don’t have all of the responses memorized yet. The priest starts and I quickly realize that not everything I’m supposed to say or do is printed in the book. The priest skips sections, or changes the language in other sections. I watch the people seated in front of me so I make sure I don’t miss a gesture or response. I feel completely out of place even though this is the tradition I belong to.

I’m sure we’ve all had experiences like these; times when we’ve gone into a new situation and haven’t been quite sure what was expected of us. It can be frustrating and anxiety producing (or worse, depending on the stakes of the encounter). 

There are all sorts of traditions around us. From the rituals of sports fans to the rituals of Mass. The rituals serve a purpose for the people who attend to them; they serve as markers of belonging, of comfort, of inspiration. But what about for people who are new to the situation? 

What if it’s your first time going to a baseball game? Or to Mass? Or to a Broadway show?

A lot of the time a first timer attends with a friend or a family member. Someone who can initiate them in to the new experience. A dad takes his son to his first baseball game and explains the rituals. He walks the child through when to stand, when to cheer. He explains the intricacies of all of the rules. And the son is initiated.

A friend takes another friend to church. She shows which books to read from and where to find the responses. A gentle nudge might be used to show when to stand or when to kneel. And so the friend is initiated.

But what about the situations and times where you don’t have someone to initiate you? Or the experiences like “Hamilton” where there is such an influx of new people that the traditions don’t hold?

And what about the people for whom the traditions have no meaning? Maybe dressing up for the Orchestra concert doesn’t hold the same meaning it once did. Or dressing up for church.

The way I see it we have three options:

One: We can force people to mold to our traditions by shaming them when they mess up. You don’t know the right responses? We’ll give you a dirty look. You wear jeans and a hoodie to church on Sunday? We’ll show you that it’s not okay with our disapproving glances and by steering clear of you. You clap in the wrong place? We’ll shush you loudly.

These things might work to curb the behavior but the greater likelihood is that the person will just never come back. They’ll figure the Orchestra or Broadway or Church isn’t for them and they’ll go somewhere they feel more comfortable.

Two: We abandon the traditions. After all, does it really matter what someone wears to the Orchestra or to church on Sunday? Is it that big of a deal for someone to clap between a movement or after a musician plays the offertory? Maybe not. But there are other traditions: the responses during the Mass, not leaving during the curtain call that actually do matter. Option two only works for things that are non-essentials.

Three: And this is probably the most complex answer: We figure out how to both initiate the uninitiated and also to let go of what no longer matters. So maybe we get rid of dress codes for church understanding that dressing up means something different to different people (or is simply not an option because of finances. I’ve written before about how clothing is a class issue). Maybe we don’t shush someone who feels moved to applaud after a moving solo. Groups need to figure out what the non-essentials are and not just count anything that is considered “tradition” as an essential. Essentials are things that are so vital that without them the reason we exist disappears. The Orchestra is always going to play music. If it stops playing music it ceases to be an Orchestra. But clothing? Probably a non-essential.

At the monastery one of the brothers is assigned as a host to the guest section. It is this brother’s job to help guests figure out which books they need, where the prayers are, and how to understand the board with all of the numbers on it. This simple gesture lets guests know that they are not intruding, that they are welcome into the prayers, and allows them to have a sense of relief that they aren’t expected to figure it all out on their own.

When I was a priest I made sure that every single response was projected on the screen. We projected it because it made it easier; no one had to juggle prayer books and hymnbooks and figure out the order of the service. And I included everything, every prayer, every response, even what physical gesture went with it. I wanted anyone walking in for the first time to be able to participate as fully as they wanted to.

There are lots of ways that we can solve these problems, and the resolutions will look different for every community, but the bottom line is that we need to figure out ways to do two main things: differentiate between the essential and non-essential and figure out ways to explain the essentials.

At the end of the day the things you and your community consider essential might not resonate with the person visiting. You can’t force them to care about the curtain call after all. You can’t pin people in their seats until it’s over. So what do you do then? 

You either need to figure out a way to explain what makes the behavior essential in a way that is so compelling that it changes people’s behavior or you have to be prepared to let it go, or to see your numbers be smaller. There’s no right answer there; if you honestly can’t explain it in a compelling way then it might be the case that that behavior or even entire experience won’t last much longer (we’re seeing this in great numbers in the church). But I do believe that if you can make a compelling case, then people will be persuaded.

If you can make the case that the curtain call is actually still part of the performance; that it’s an exchange of gratitude between a cast an an audience, it’s the recognition that we, as a community, have just been a part of something incredible, it’s the recognition of the shared humanity of performers and spectators. It’s part of what it means to do theatre. And when you make that case and people really understand it they’ll stay without you having to enforce anything.

Traditions are only worthwhile then people understand the meanings behind them and when they are still life giving. When a tradition ceases to become life giving, or is unable to be explained any longer, or serves to isolate or alienate people then that tradition has become worse than useless, it’s become harmful.

If we want things like church and theatre and the orchestra to continue, we have to continually be translating our traditions to new generations so that they continue to bring life.

And maybe the biggest takeaway of all; as our traditions grow and change, maybe the influx of newcomers will breathe the new life we need and keep our traditions going for the next hundred years. But that will only happen if we are willing to let ourselves be changed. So what’s more important? Everything staying the same or surviving and thriving into the future?

Photo Credit: Alan Light Flickr via Compfight cc