Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Nazarenes

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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.

Literally.

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 the Defender of the NazarenesZack 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.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Disciples of Christ

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I know a surprising number of people in the Disciples of Christ denomination these days, especially considering that I hadn’t heard of it until I read the fantastic memoir Any Day a Beautiful Change by Katherine Willis Pershey a few years ago. I love how the Disciples of Christ folks I know are both committed Jesus-followers while also being incredibly diverse and generous. It’s a hard group to pin down in a single blog post, but Rev. Erin Wathen does a great job sharing what she loves about her denomination: 

 

It pays to have a great conversion story. Some fantastic burning bush moment when God turned your doubt upside down with unavoidable, cosmic certainty; or a drawn-back-from-the-brink story, wherein you abandoned a life of crime/addiction/certain doom for—wait for it—Jesus! If you’re a pastor and you have THAT story, then every sermon for the rest of your life has found its starting point, its center, and/or its conclusion…with your own story.

Too bad I don’t have that story. My story goes more like this: I grew up in a mainline protestant church in small town America. I did Sunday school, vacation Bible school, church camp, mission trips, and youth group, without complaint or resentment. Then I went to college and felt no impulse, whatsoever, to go to church on the weekends. When I got out of college, I started going to church again—different town, same denomination. And like, 5 minutes later, I found myself in seminary classes going, ‘what the hell…?’ I mean, I loved church. I had always loved church. But how it got me on the hook for life, I’ll never know. Maybe it was the Bible school cookies? Or the Pension Fund. Whatever it was, it was no flaming conversion.

The church of my raising was the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, and that’s where I’ve served a decade-plus of ordained ministry. The Disciples grew out of the Stone Campbell movement in the early 1800’s. The early founders sought an alternative to the divisive denominationalism of that time. They wanted a way to live faith in community without “tests of fellowship,” and with “no creed but Christ.” It was a frontier journey, in more ways than one. Most literally, it was a fellowship that grew out of rural, Central Kentucky—which was the very edge of all that lie ‘west’ of civilized America. But it was also a wilderness outside of polity and strict doctrine. This was to be a place where all were welcome to receive communion; all would be received in baptism; and all could worship together, even if they did not entirely agree on the letter of the law.

How we measure the success of that original movement, these days, is highly subjective. On the one-hand, 200 years of shifting social paradigms have led to several splits. What started as a single, unified church is now 3 different denominations; sometimes we’re speaking to each other, sometimes not. Depends on the day (and what part of the country you’re in). At the same time, the Disciples of Christ, on the whole, can still point to those founding tenets of unity in Christ and freedom of belief at the heart of who we are as church together.

But with all that freedom comes the occasional identity crisis. And what, really, has been a centuries-long marketing nightmare.

“What does your church believe?” a newcomer might ask. “Well…” we venture… “Depends on who you’re talking to. And where you are on the map. And who made the coffee this morning, among other things.”

Most of our congregations affirm and empower women for leadership; but a few still don’t. Some are welcoming of LGBT people; some aren’t. Some embrace a progressive understanding of scripture; but not all. Some of our churches use gender-inclusive language for God, avoid violent imagery of crosses and blood, and are comfortable hearing about social issues from the pulpit. Others… you see where I’m going with this.

When everybody is welcome, doubt is affirmed, questions are encouraged and nobody wants to tell anybody else what to believe… then what in the world do you put on the brochure?? The website? The t-shirt?

True to those ideals of our founders, authority lies within the local congregation. We handle our own money, own our property, hire (and fire) our pastors, select our own leaders, and are not bound by the demands of any hierarchy. Our mission is expressed from the ‘bottom up,’ in that churches support the larger structure for ministry—and not the other way around. That means the local church can hone its own mission statement, set its own vision, find its own way to serve and establish presence in the community… We are guided by the same basic principles, but not bound by them.

It is both wonderful and maddening, all this freedom.

It means we don’t always know how to sit together when we disagree. It means we struggle to navigate the racial tensions, present in the world outside our walls, when we come together within. It means we don’t always know how to share our message ‘out’ there, when we can’t always get it together ‘in’ here. It means it can be hard to focus our energy and our resources to affect real change in the world… when everybody’s idea of ‘change’ is broadly varied, but deeply valued.

Oh, and worship music. Don’t get me started.

The current Disciples identity statement says that “we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” And the world, as we know it, is indeed fragmented. It is complicated. And the not having of easy answers is, yes, a marketing problem. Because easy answers, proven growth models, and colorful packaged programming is what most folks are in the market for.

Disciples really suck at all that. We always have.

But what we do offer—and always have—is a safe place to live with all that ambiguity. A place where people worship together (however imperfectly) and try to organize for good. A place where ‘movement’ of the collective body, and the Spirit, are valued over any statement of faith; and where the communion table, at the center of worship and community, calls us back to a shared belief in Christ’s love: embodied within us, and made flesh for the world.

My own faith story was no flaming conversion… But it was a slow, steady certainty that I belonged at that table. At the center of everything, I had a place, and I had people. And for all that we embody different expressions of faith; for all the places I have moved; and for all the turns our collective journey has taken; that table, and the people around it, are the same wherever you go.

Put that on the brochure. It’s the best thing we’ve got.

 

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

profileRev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in the Kansas City area. She is originally from Kentucky, and also served a church in Phoenix, Arizona for 7 years. She and her husband, Jeremy, have two kids, ages 4 and 6. Erin blogs for the Patheos interfaith network. Read more at  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/irreverin/

 

 

 

 

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 the church. 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.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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Why You Should Join the United Methodist Church

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If you know anything about the United Methodist Church lately, it’s that conservative and liberal factions have been hotly debating several topics and may be on the brink of dividing. However, Morgan Guyton, a campus minister, has consistently shown me the best of the UMC by both asking hard questions and reaching out to humble reconcile with those who disagree with him. He is firm in his convictions without painting others as enemies. While this is a rough time for the UMC, I asked Morgan what he loves about it and why he would suggest others should join him:

 

United Methodism: A Messy House Filled with God’s Love

We live in a world in which ideological tribes are increasingly siloing themselves in isolation from each other. We like mouthing off on social media about the hot-button issues of our idea, but it feels oppressive to see somebody from the opposite side mouth off so we unfollow and defriend them. There are very few spaces in our society anymore where people of differing ideologies congregate and build community together voluntarily. One such space is my denomination, the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodists may be the only major big-tent Protestant denomination left. Every other Protestant denomination has split into a conservative faction and a liberal faction usually along the fault-line of either female ordination or homosexuality. It hasn’t been easy, but United Methodists have stuck together. I actually did not realize there were conservative United Methodists for the first half-decade that I was a United Methodist. I had grown up in a moderately conservative Southern Baptist home. I always thought the fundamentalists were probably right and I was just an immature rebel.

 

But over time, after drifting through Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Unitarian phases, I found myself in a mostly LGBT United Methodist congregation in Toledo, Ohio.

It was in this congregation where I discovered the gospel that I believe today. I had never really believed in the gospel that told me that Jesus’ purpose was to save me from his angry father who was eager to torture me in hell forever. But I’d never discovered a viable alternative to that awful caricature of the Christian story. It was in a church book club that I attended with mostly lesbians where I discovered Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved in which Nouwen argues that our greatest challenge is to actually live as though God loves us infinitely. Nouwen contends that the reason we sin and hurt other people is because we haven’t accepted God’s unconditional love. The process of accepting God’s love is a lifelong journey toward salvation.

To me, Nouwen’s account of the gospel was a much more compelling piece of good news than the angry God gospel I’d received from my evangelical upbringing. I learned years later that Nouwen was touching upon a core definitive doctrine within United Methodism: prevenient grace. Whereas some Christians believe that God has decided who to send to heaven and who to send to hell before the beginning of time, the doctrine of prevenient grace describes the premise that God offers his grace to everybody and is constantly pursuing us and seeking to win us with his love long before we are even aware of God’s presence in our lives.

I’ve discovered that there are many United Methodists out there who haven’t had their most formative spiritual experiences in book clubs they attended with mostly lesbians. Particularly in the Deep South, there are many United Methodists who disapprove of the very people who gave me the gospel that saved me from the ugly caricatures of God that had kept me from fully trusting in him. This has been a very difficult thing for me to discover. If queer Christians are an abomination, then I am an abomination even though I’m straight because they have been such a decisive influence in my journey.

It’s painful being part of a big-tent denomination. And yet, the pain is absolutely worth it. I totally understand and respect the need for LGBT people to find Christian communities where they are accepted and their gifts are appreciated and utilized completely, even if that means leaving the contested battleground of United Methodism. As for me personally, I have been richly blessed by being in a community with people who have very different ideological perspectives from me. It’s obvious to me that they genuinely love Jesus and they genuinely want for people to know how much Jesus loves them. Though our disagreements are real and painful, our shared belief in prevenient grace does give us a powerful common theological foundation.

Though at times I would much prefer to be surrounded by people who agree with me, my experience in United Methodism loving and working side by side with people who have different beliefs has given me a lot of hope. If you try finding your place in an ideologically diverse denomination like United Methodism, you will definitely find people who are completely on the same wavelength with you. You will also find people who aren’t but are willing to accept you and build community with you anyway. Our denomination may be a messy house, but it’s a messy house filled with God’s love.

 

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

morgan-guyton-methodist-umcMorgan Guyton is the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA. His wife Cheryl is a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church as well. Both Cheryl and Morgan attended Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC, where they met. Cheryl has served as a hospital chaplain in the past, but is currently taking some time off to stay home with their two boys Matthew (8) and Isaiah (5).

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry 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 the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

email-rss-subscribe

 

Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Episcopal Church

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I’m welcoming my friend Holly Rankin Zaher to Denomination Derby this week to write about her love for the Episcopal Church. Holly is a theologian and youth minister whose perspective I’ve long respected. If you’ve never thought of yourself as the “high church” type, she’ll open your eyes to whole other way to approach worship on Sunday morning. 

 

Last Sunday I was distracted. My to-do list begged me to be at home, chipping away at the items left. Frankly, I didn’t want to be at church. Sit in a pew, no thanks.

But I walked in, dipping my fingers in the font of holy water right inside. Crossing myself, I recalled this deep part of my identity – as Christ’s own or one who walks with God. I looked up – I always look up. Was it the architecture? A sense of something spiritual? I paused, remembering the ways in the past the liturgy provided language for my life – the joys and frustrations – in the past.

Even on days when the sermon is lackluster or I obviously was not consulted about the music, I can count on the rhythm of the structure of the liturgy. Liturgy, literally the work of the people. The liturgy invites me into the work, to do the work of reflection, of sifting my life through the ancient scriptures, of recognizing my need, of listening for the call to live an intentional life with God in the world.

The Liturgy of the Word allows me to see the big story, repeating the majority of the scriptures over the course of three years with the psalms and the gospels repeated even more. These stories of God’s activity in the world, the retelling of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the interactions of the early church and their struggles are part of my own story as a follower of Jesus. The Liturgy of the Sacrament calls on some of the oldest written communion liturgies that are known and invites us into this practice of sharing a meal. Regardless of social status, racial privilege, or views on politics, we all come to the same place for the bread we need for today. Every gathered Christian community has a liturgy – we Episcopalians just happen to be very explicit about ours.

The Episcopal Church, despite our less than auspicious beginnings with King Henry VIII, has these beautiful moments of reform. One of our founding documents, the thirty-nine articles, called for liturgy to be said in the language of the people, a revolutionary departure from the then current practice of the Catholic mass in Latin. The 34th article still has implications today as we continue to translate, rewrite and rework liturgy. We have a history of working for social justice in response to the gospel: the Episcopal Church ordained Absalom Jones, an African-American, in 1801 – before the Civil War and the Anglican Church ordained Florence Li Tim-Oi way before women’s ordination was approved.

People often ask me what the Episcopal Church believes. This is like a trick question for Episcopalians. While we have a written catechism that illustrates some aspects of doctrine, different Episcopalians give our historical documents varying amounts of weight. How can that be? Well, we don’t base our relationships or community on a checklist of beliefs. Rather we base our commonality on common worship and relationship.

In our age of partisan politics and entrenched positions, hope and life break in with an invitation to break bread and work toward bringing about the goodness of God around me with people who are different from me, believe different things than me and look different than me.

While that worship looks different in various Episcopal settings, it follows a basic form. Sometimes this form is couched in high church organ and choir complete with incense and more pomp than comes with hosting the president of the United States while other times it is a small group gathered around a table, offering each other bread and wine, food for the journey of life.

The liturgies for both baptism and marriage include vows for the congregation to take, illustrating the communal nature of faith. We commit to each other, to support, love and care for each other. Life is not easy and we need each other.

In fact, the Episcopal Church makes up the American portion of the Anglican Communion – we are part of an international community. To be Anglican basically means to be in relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC), to have the ABC in your friend list or in your feed.

This dual focus of worship and relationship frame our life as Episcopalians.

These are the beautiful parts of my church. They give me hope when I come across them. But, as much as I love my church, there are downsides. We can be too hung up on liturgy. We have factions within the church on just how liturgy should be done. Change comes slowing for an Episcopalian. We have a reputation for being the church of the establishment – ever looked up how many presidents and members of the establishment have been Episcopalians? For every move we make to advance social challenges in response to the good news of the gospel, we take steps back like stripping Florence Li Tim-Oi of her ordination (her story: http://www.ittakesonewoman.org/public/litimoi.php). And being held together by common worship can seem quite tenuous in today’s climate.

In those moments like last Sunday I remembered my Christian identity. I dipped my fingers into the font of holy water, listened to the scriptures, prayed prayers for the world, received the bread I needed for my journey, and was reminded of my call to live an intentional life with God in the world. And that I’m not alone. For me, being an Episcopalian, following the Anglican Way, makes the most sense to me to live out my faith in Jesus.

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

imageHolly Rankin Zaher, MDiv

Holly Rankin Zaher lives in Nashville with her fun family, inspiring people to think and reflect, whether it is about faith, education, cultural studies, or how fiber crafting grounds thinking and reflection. She has spent twenty years in professional ministry in the Episcopal Church, doing youth ministry, church planting and teaching on the seminary level. These days she teaches at a public high school. A champion for young people and women, she spends way too much time on social media, reads too much dystopian literature, and loves the conversations that happen alongside beverages.

 

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry 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 the church.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

email-rss-subscribe