When it comes to this small, tightly-knit branch of the holiness movement, I’ve found that my friend Zack Hunt cares a great deal for his life-long denomination–enough to ask for several writing extensions lest he leave anything out. In the time that I’ve known Zack, he has consistently praised the Nazarenes for what they get right and quickly recognized what needs work. The fact that he remains so passionate about this tribe after all of these years is a good reason to read on.
I’ve been a Nazarene for longer than I can remember.
Except for a few years on loan as a youth pastor in the United Methodist Church, I’ve been a Nazarene since birth. And so has most of my family. Not long after the denomination was founded on the dusty plains of Pilot Point, TX in 1908, my great-grandfather Rufus left his small Methodist church in Blountstown, FL and became a Nazarene. His exodus wasn’t a rejection of Methodism, but an embrace of the American Holiness Movement, which sought to recapture and revive the biblical call to holiness.
As a product of the Holiness Movement, the Church of the Nazarene began in the hearts and minds of Methodist and other holiness minded ministers who believed that Methodism had neglected its distinctive emphasis on the call to holiness; a call which, in the eyes of John Wesley, was foundational not only to Methodism, but the Christian life in general. That perceived neglect, combined with disagreements over various social issues led these holiness minded ministers to bring their various congregations together to create the Church of the Nazarene in hopes of renewing the Church’s passion for holiness.
Though it was very much a group effort, one man in particular is often regarded as our founder, Phineas F. Bresee. Not only did he start the first congregation with the name “Church of the Nazarene” in Los Angeles in 1895, it was, in large part, his vision that helped shape the early mission of the Nazarene Church, specifically its focus on the poor. Serving the poor was critical to Bresee’s understanding of holiness, and he never missed a chance to remind his Nazarene brothers and sisters that “the poorest of the poor are entitled to a front seat at the Church of the Nazarene.” Needless to say, I’m a pretty big fan of our founder and it is because of that loving-the-least-of-these-understanding of holiness that I remain a Nazarene today.
But enough with the history lesson…
What do Nazarenes actually believe?
Well, contrary to any urban legends you may have heard, we don’t handle snakes. But, theologically, we are a bit quirky. I say that because while I think most outsiders and even a lot of folks within the Church of the Nazarene would consider us to be a pretty conservative lot due to our stances on various social issues, many of our other theological positions are, comparatively speaking, fairly progressive.
Now, it’s true that historically, Nazarenes didn’t drink, go the movies, play cards, or even dance. But while grape juice is still our beverage of choice at the communion table, these days, you’ll almost certainly find yourself sitting next to a Nazarene at the movie theater and you’ll probably play Uno with a Nazarene and never realize it. But you’ll definitely know when you’re dancing next to a Nazarene ‘cause we’ll be those awkward folks on the dance floor who clearly have no idea what they’re doing. Look, we’ve only been dancing for a few years now, cut us some slack.
But like I said, in contrast to some of our social stances, we’ve got several other theological convictions that don’t fit so neatly into the cliché conservative evangelical mold. For example, we’ve proudly ordained women since the founding of our denomination. While we certainly affirm that God is the ultimate creator of the universe, we don’t really care how you choose to believe God did the creating. In other words, we’re ok with evolution. And when it comes to the Bible, we don’t affirm the total inerrancy of scripture. Though we do believe the Bible does a perfectly good job of revealing all things necessary for our salvation, if you find a historical, scientific, or some other kind of similar error in the Bible, that doesn’t really bother us because we don’t believe the Bible was created to be a textbook.
That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t play a fundamental role in our tradition. It absolutely does. And so does the theology of John Wesley. It is through the lens of our theological forefather that we read the Bible and in doing so we find ourselves confronted with an inescapable call to holiness. As we interpret it, the call to holiness means that, as Christians, we aren’t simply called to be saved, but rather to go further and model our lives as best as possible after that carpenter from Nazareth who gives us our name. That call that gave birth to our denomination, and that call continues to unite the Church of the Nazarene today.
Now, I have to be honest with you. As much as holiness unites us, what it means to be holy and how one becomes holy (especially how quickly one becomes holy, if at all in this life) is a matter of great debate in the Church of the Nazarene. Unfortunately, some folks’ understanding of holiness has led to legalism. But at its best, holiness has been defined by folks like our founder Phineas Bresee who declared that the mission of the Church of the Nazarene is “not great and elegant buildings; but to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and wipe away the tears of sorrowing, and gather jewels for His diadem.” In other words, for those of us in the Nazarene Church who follow in our founder’s footsteps, we believe that holiness is not found primarily in a list of do’s and don’ts, but in loving and caring for the least of these.
So, what is a worship service like in the Church of the Nazarene?
Our style of worship is pretty diverse. Depending on what Nazarene Church you’re visiting and what part of the world you find yourself in, the worship might be more on the traditional side with hymns and a little gospel music mixed in for good measure. Or the service might be extremely contemporary with more Hillsong music than this guy can handle. You might even find yourself in a Nazarene church that’s really sacramental and feels almost, not quite, but a little bit like a high church service. And if you’re really lucky – and it’s summer time – you might just end up in a good old-fashioned camp meeting revival.
Personally, I love our diversity of worship styles. I think it reflects the big tent spirit of our church that you can also see in some of the statements of faith I mentioned before. But what I really love, and what I think what a lot of my fellow Nazarenes love about the Church of the Nazarene is the sense of family we have whenever and wherever Nazarenes get together.
You see, we’re not a terribly large denomination. There are a little over two million Nazarenes in the world today, with more of us living outside the United States than within. But that relatively small size creates a wonderful sense of family. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you’re talking to; if you meet another Nazarene it’s just about guaranteed that within 5 minutes you’ll discover you both know some of the same people – or that you actually know each other somehow and just didn’t realize it. For example, when my wife and I were looking for a new church home after we moved to Connecticut, we naturally decided to visit one of the local Nazarene churches. All we really knew about the church was that it was Nazarene, and it was in Connecticut. As it turned out, after talking to the pastor we discovered not only that he was the one who had rushed my wife to the hospital at church camp when she was in middle school, but he was also her stepdad’s roommate in college.
Like I said, it’s a small Nazarene world.
But I love that about the Nazarene church because it means even when you move halfway across the country, you can walk into a Nazarene church you’ve never set foot in before and yet somehow it still feels a bit like coming home.
Now, at this point, I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, you guys sound awesome! You love the poor, you empower women, and if I get hurt at church camp I can count on my future pastor to rush me to the hospital. It’s almost too good to be true! How do I sign up??”
Well, I wish I could tell you that we’re as perfect and wonderful as I make us sound. But I would be lying to you if I said we always live up to the Christian perfection we preach about. There are corners of our church that are still plagued by legalism. While we’ve always ordained women in the Church of the Nazarene, we don’t always do such a great job of finding them churches to pastor. We’ve got a lot of work to do in regards to our relationship with the LGBT community. And even the familiarity and sense of family aspect I love so much, can be problematic when they result in positions of leadership being perpetually filled by the same biologically related families with familiar last names, thus stifling the critical infusion of fresh perspectives and new ideas that every church needs.
In other words, we’ve been around for more than a century, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
And yet, in spite of our flaws, I am still deeply proud to call myself a Nazarene. I believe in Bresee’s vision of a church dedicated to serving the poor. I believe the call to holiness is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. And I am incredibly grateful for a church family that has shaped my faith in profound ways and helped me become the person I am today.
About Today’s Guest Blogger
Zack Hunt is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene and graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University. He blogs at ZackHunt.net. You can follow him on Twitter at @zaackhunt and keep up with his blog through his Facebook page.
About Denomination Derby
This series invites ministers or volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout their denominations. We’re also accepting posts where anyone can share what they love about their denomination. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.
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