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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Denomination Derby: What Cara Strickland Loves about the ELCA

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This week Denomination Derby enters a new phase that will open it up for way more writers. While I’m still inviting ministers or volunteers (with a bit of expertise/experience) to share about their respective denominations, the series is now open to writers who want to share what they love about their denominations. Today my friend Cara Strickland kicks us off with her journey through a whole bunch of denominations (including a bit of time at the same college as myself!) that landed her in a very different church than the one where she first came to faith:

 

My childhood memories of church are fuzzy around the edges. Mostly, I remember how I felt as a five-year-old in the Vineyard Church of the early 90s in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. I felt secure. I knew that God loved me. God could do anything, and I rested in that.

My parents had been part of the movement almost from the beginning. I met John Wimber as a baby, before his unexpected death.

Sometimes during worship, people would dance in the aisles. Occasionally the order of service would change and people would come forward to be prayed over and anointed with oil. We always invited the Spirit to move, and to do what needed to be done, regardless of our plans.

It was there that I got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, received my first communion, and sang about breaking the mighty “yolks” (when you shout to the Lord).

I was six when we left the church. It’s a chapter of our family history that doesn’t open often, but I know that it was a hard one for my parents. I took our leaving, moving in with my grandparents for a time, and moving to the Pacific Northwest in stride, as six-year-olds do.

When we arrived in Spokane, Washington, we started attending a Presbyterian church. Then, over my middle and high school years, we went to a series of Foursquare churches. These were the places where I began to find the words to talk about faith. I became steeped in the evangelical culture of the 90s, writing in my PB&J (prayer, Bible and journaling) notebook every day, highlighting nearly every passage in my Bible, and affirming that True Love Waits.

The first time I left the church was in high school, just before my junior year. By then, I had spent years at church camp, youth group, winter retreats and church services. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but now I think I was tired of expecting so much of myself. I was already a check-box girl, and the church added further boxes to my list. I served in the nursery and made pancakes for the homeless on the weekends, I gave money, above and beyond my tithe, as I felt led. I had forgotten how it felt to be secure in the love of God. So I left.

I think of that time between sophomore year and graduation as my first desert season. I allowed myself to be held by God without agenda. I got the sense that I could rest under strong, powerful wings. I started to learn how to sing with conviction again, this time about breaking the heavy yokes.

I began attending a nondenominational church after I graduated from high school. Honestly, I think that I wanted to meet a nice Christian boy and start dating. Church seemed like a good place to do it.

Both in Spokane and in the little Midwest town I moved to for college, I attended big churches, largely filled with an ever-changing population. Every week, someone introduced themselves to me during the “say hi to someone” part of the worship service, asking if I was new. I joined small groups and volunteered. I came to events and made coffee dates, but somehow I couldn’t quite get connected (or plugged in, as the pastors were always saying). While people were friendly on the surface, they didn’t seem to be in the market for new friends.

Part of the way through college at a small conservative Christian university, I stopped going to church again. I had become tired again, and I didn’t have the energy to care about the odd looks I got in the cafeteria when I arrived for lunch in everyday clothes, my hair uncurled, on Sunday afternoons.

Along the way, I met people who seemed to understand my journey, and to be on one of their own. One of those people was my first roommate, and she gave me a copy of Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross. Immediately, I fell in love with liturgy. I soaked up the words, laden with meaning, spoken by so many on any given morning, around the world.

I went to a small Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday. I fumbled through the prayer book, and the hymnal, somewhat self-consciously. But there was something about the church that felt familiar. For the first time since the first church of my memory, I felt safe, secure, and loved. That church became my home until I graduated from college.

I moved back to Spokane after graduation and spent some years floundering between then and now. I went to the desert. I expect that I will return again, from time to time.

But now I drive to a small ELCA Lutheran church in a community you might call “challenged.” I walk past a brightly colored mural depicting trees, people of all races, and a communion table. I slide into my seat next to friends, and my pastor winks at me as she begins the service. She knows my roadblocks to believing in grace.

Here in this place, I have begun to heal from the check boxes of my youth group days. I pass the peace, take in the nourishing Eucharistic feast, and when I allow myself to relax I feel secure. I know that God loves me. I am confident that God can do anything (and that I don’t have to do anything), and I rest in that.

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About Today’s Guest Blogger

CaraStricklandAuthorCara Strickland is a writer, editor, and food critic in Spokane, Washington. She writes about singleness, food, feminism, and the way faith intersects life (among other things) on her blog Little Did She Know.

Come say hi to her on Twitter or Facebook. She likes making new friends.

 

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.

email-rss-subscribe

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.

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join The Churches of Christ

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Today’s guest post is by my friend Adam Ellis, a pastor and theologian I always look to for perspective and sanity on the most difficult theological topics. He’s also my number one source of Buechner quotes, and I always hold it over him that I met Buechner once but unfortunately startled him during the encounter because he was having a hard time carrying something and I came from out of his line of vision to help him. Back to Adam, he pastors a congregation in the Church of Christ denomination and offers some compelling reasons to join him (provided you don’t mind moving to South Carolina!): 

 

Frederick Buechner says most theology is essentially autobiography. I’d argue the same is true of ecclesiology. That being the case, there are a few things you should know going into this. I’m the preaching minister for a small congregation affiliated with the churches of Christ. I’m also the son of a Church of Christ preacher. I was a youth minister for various churches of Christ for over a decade, and I have a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from a school associated with the churches of Christ. My point is, when it comes to churches of Christ, I’m about as dyed-in-the-wool as they come.

Have you ever enthusiastically agreed to do something that you thought would be easy and fun, only to discover that it was more challenging than you originally thought it would be? That’s me…writing this post. The whole undertaking is fraught with difficulty for someone like me presuming to talk about people like us. It’s a little like trying to explain what you love so much about your family. For everything you love, there are faces and relationships that cannot be reduced to bullet-points. There are embarrassing moments that you either try not to think about or you learn to laugh at yourselves.

My first impulse is to talk about the obvious distinctives one might notice if they attended a church of Christ worship gathering. I could talk to you about our tradition of a cappella worship. Some congregations in our tradition are beginning to use instrumental music in their worship services, but even in these cases there is still a certain reverence for the beauty of four-part harmony. I could talk to you about our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (Communion/Eucharist). I could (and many might think I should) spend some time talking to you about how we practice believer’s baptism. However, I don’t really want to talk about those things here. These are much longer and more nuanced conversations than the task at hand allows for. I’ve been asked to tell you what I love about churches of Christ and why you might want to be a part of this tradition, and that’s a different conversation altogether.

Churches of Christ have their roots in the American Restoration Movement, which also gave birth to Independent Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ. The movement began primarily as a unity movement in response to the rampant bickering, division and in-fighting many saw among the different denominations (sects) in the early 1800’s. Two early leaders in the movement (arguably it’s “founders”) were Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander. Thomas was a minister for the “Old Lights, Anti-Burgher, Associate/Seceder National Presbyterian Church of Scotland”, and Alexander was in training to follow in his father’s vocational footsteps. You read that right, by the way. It was a sect of a sect of a sect of a sect. Both essentially broke official ties with this group over the group’s closed and exclusionary communion (eucharist) practices. However, their intention was not to break off and start another sect. Their intention was to draw the circle wider, not smaller.

They practiced open communion. In a revolutionary document titled The Declaration and Address, Thomas declared that division was a horrid evil. He said that the church could give no new command where scripture was silent, and that while creeds may be useful, they must not be used as tests of fellowship. His son Alexander concurred. Alexander was an incredible communicator and helped the movement to spread. Although they were often referred to by others as “Campbellites”, they refused to take sectarian names for their churches, preferring terms intended to be merely descriptive like “christians”, “disciples”, or “churches of Christ”. The sentiment is probably best summed up by another early leader named Barton Stone in a document known as The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery:

We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling…”

It’s easy to get confused, so sometimes you’ll catch some of us forgetting about all of this and perpetuating exactly the same kind of sectarianism we were intended to transcend. However, I believe unity is woven deep in the DNA of who we are as a people and when we lose our way, we eventually tend to find it again.

I’ll always remember the words of one of my professors from grad school. He said, “Here’s the thing about our people: If you can show it to them in the Bible, they can go there.” I’ve found this to be true and life giving. We always assume that there is more to learn. We assume scripture always has more to teach us. When I was growing up, I remember my Father telling me over and over again, “Don’t take my word for it,” when it came to matters of faith. I also remember him telling me that if I found that something he believed wasn’t right or true, I should move on. This is the prevalent attitude I have found in churches of Christ. Ideally, we try not to just believe a thing simply because it is the “Church of Christ” thing to believe. The question, “What do WE believe about that,” doesn’t really make sense in our context.

Each of our congregations is autonomous, and is ideally led by lay-leaders called “Elders” in partnership with a minister or ministry staff. There is no over-arching power structure to which we answer. There are pros and cons to this arrangement. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom to follow our consciences in the pursuit of truth, or, as a friend and mentor from another tradition once told me, “Churches of Christ are great, because you don’t have to turn the whole ship.”   On the other hand, I’m typing this post with the full knowledge that there will be some from churches of Christ who will feel quite strongly that what I have written is not representative of them at all.

Even so, I love these people. I love them like the quirky, complicated, wonderful family they are. They taught me to study scripture like it mattered…to try to speak where the Bible speaks, and to allow for difference, nuance, and ambiguity where the Bible is silent. They taught me to keep digging, to keep searching, to never be complacent or merely prop up the status quo. They gave me the space to grow. If any of that sounds appealing, maybe they could do the same for you.

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

AEAdam Ellis is the husband of Dana and the father of Emma & Chloe. He has a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from David Lipscomb University, and he worked for over a decade in youth ministry in various congregations across the south eastern United States. For the past 6 years he has been employed as the preaching minister for a congregation in South Carolina, and he’s been working on the side as an adjunct university Bible instructor. Frankly, he’s kind of a geek about theology and pop-culture, but his wife and daughters love him, so he’s ok with it.

 

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.

 

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

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If you think you’re busy, you should talk to Emily Heitzman. She’s been serving as the youth pastor for… wait for it… THREE lutheran congregations in the Chicago area. Emily was one of the first people I thought of for this series because she did an amazing job of explaining what she appreciated about the ELCA to an outsider such as myself since she is originally from the UMC and then ordained in the PC USA. I hope you didn’t get too cozy with the Anglican Church from our last post…

 

I’m a Presbyterian (USA) pastor who serves three ELCA congregations. Though I’ve only been in the ELCA for three years, there is so much that I love about it!

 

The Work of the People

While ELCA congregations vary is worship musical style, most are highly liturgical. The definition of “liturgy” is “the work of the people,” and this is exactly what you will experience in worship at an ELCA congregation.

The ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands.” We use our minds, hearts, mouths, ears, hands, and feet to experience God’s love and grace and share God’s love and grace to our neighbors. When God created us, we were made in God’s image and therefore our whole selves – including our bodies – were made good and are loved by God. For this reason, worship requires the full body and all the senses. We sit to prepare ourselves for what is to come. We stand (as we are able) when the Gospel is read as a sign of respect. We might kneel out of humility during confession and use ancient prayer gestures with our hands. We may bow toward the cross as a reminder of Jesus’ humble acts.

As Christ offers us peace, we pass that peace of Christ to one another through handshakes or hugs. We might process with the cross as a sign that Jesus is constantly journeying with us and leading us. We may walk toward the altar to receive the bread and wine in response to Jesus’ invitation to come to his Table. And we may trace the sign of the cross over our upper bodies as a reminder and sign of our baptism. As a reminder that Jesus died and rose from the dead for us so that we might live.

As a reminder of who we are and whose we are.

Worship is not a place for us to just observe and consume – like when we attend a concert. It is a place where we fully participate as members of the body of Christ so that we might be formed and nourished by our loving God. And every ancient practice we partake in connects us with the Church universal… with Christians throughout all times, traditions, and places.

If you worship with the ELCA, you will likely spend some time in silence. We live in a busy and noisy world. Yet, God calls out to us: “Be still and know that I am God.” God not only calls out to us through words and music, but God also calls out to us and meets us in the silence. We need to be still sometimes. And making space for silence on Sundays helps shape us for how we are to make space for God during the rest of the week.

Most ELCA congregations follow the liturgical calendar (church calendar) and use the Revised Common Lectionary (set readings for each Sunday that covers almost the entire Bible in three years), which connect us with the larger universal Church and enable us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and relive his life and ministry every year.

In ELCA congregations, the Word is proclaimed in numerous forms and is not just the work of the pastor. God calls each of us to use our gifts to proclaim the Word both in the Church and in the world. In most congregations, the Holy Communion is celebrated every Sunday. We believe that both the Word and Sacraments are a means of grace. Through them, God’s presence is made known and God touches us, forms us, and nourishes us so that we might have the strength to go out into the world to share God’s love with others.

Confessing the creeds (Nicene or Apostle’s) every week is an important means for connecting us to the universal Church and shaping us in our theology in ways we don’t always recognize. During youth group discussions, my youth continue to amaze me when they explain important parts of our Christian theology that they know because they confess the creeds every week. The repetition of communion liturgy – which is often chanted – also shapes us in important ways. Just a few months ago, I saw a facebook post from another Lutheran pastor. He wrote: “This week I got a note from a family who heard their young one (age 4) singing Frozen songs, and then breaking into our communion liturgy.” This is the wonderful thing about liturgy: it provides God’s children – both young and old – with words to express praise to God through the every day joys in life… like Disney songs!

 

Living Out Our Baptisms

In the ELCA, we talk a lot about being called to live out our baptismal covenant. We do this by proclaiming the good news of God who came into the flesh, died on the cross, and rose from the dead for each one of us. We proclaim this good news by learning about the story of God’s presence and work in and through us and by hearing about the story of God at work in the lives of others. We are in God’s story and we are called to recognize that others are in God’s story, as well.

We are called to live out that story daily in word and in deed. We live out that story when we worship together on Sunday, when we care for our children, when we visit someone who is ill. We live out that story when we sit with a grieving friend, when we bring a meal to our homeless neighbors, when we stand with others in our communities to call out injustice.

Through us, God is at work in the world: “God’s work, our hands.”

As someone who is new to the ELCA, the more I have been a part of it, the more I’ve grown to love it. There is a place for newbies, myself included. And there is a place for you, as well. So, if you are searching for a new church home, check it out! I think you might grow to love it!

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

unnamedRev. Emily Heitzman is a graduate from a United Methodist seminary and an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor who serves as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households for three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago. Prior to her current call, she has served in Evangelical Covenant, Congregational, and American Baptist churches… Her colleagues call her an ecumenical bricolage. Emily loves hiking in the mountains, attending indie and bluegrass concerts, biking along Lake Michigan, and singing opera and musical theatre. She has a heart for youth, justice, and the Huskers, and can often been seen with coffee or a Guinness. You can find more of her reflections, sermons, and youth ministry ideas on her blog at http://musingsfromabricolage.wordpress.com.

 

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.

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Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Vineyard Movement

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Today’s guest post for Denomination Derby is by Amanda Nash of the Columbus Vineyard. If you’re ever in Columbus, OH, it’s referred to as, “The Big Vineyard.”

 

I didn’t grow up in the Vineyard. I came in to the movement as a college student and a new Christian looking for a place to grow and serve with my fresh faith. I had no idea that the first church I visited would become such a major part of my history for the last 17 years. In fact, I was a slow “convert” to the Vineyard. I went through a very critical process where I explored whether this was truly the place I wanted to call my church home.

I am immensely glad that I did make that decision. Over time, I have found so many things that I love about the Vineyard. Though I know that we are far from perfect, the more I am a part of it I simply love the heart of our movement. Here are four reasons why I love the Vineyard, out of the many I could list:

 

The Vineyard and the Kingdom of God

The Vineyard movement has at the core of its theological DNA the central teaching of Jesus: The Kingdom of God. Everything we do is seen through this lens of the Kingdom, i.e. the rule and reign of God. We want to be a part of the Story of God, which is the story of His Kingdom breaking in on Earth as it already exists in Heaven. While we have the future hope of his Kingdom coming in full, that is not the end of the story. In the now we can still ask, “what would this place look like if God were the King, if he were really in charge?” We want to be a part of seeing His Kingdom in this world and at work within ourselves, by the power of his Spirit.

I resonate with the picture that N.T. Wright puts forward regarding the whole of the gospel. That is, that in Jesus, God has inaugurated His Kingdom – the long awaited putting-to-right of creation (and everything that entails). I find that concept right at the heart of my own movement. I am so encouraged to be living out the theme that was at the forefront of Jesus’ own ministry.

 

The Vineyard’s Both/And Theology

The Vineyard movement has a Both/And Theology. There are many areas that we in the Vineyard try to hold in tension. We often say we want the best of both worlds. We want to be evangelical and charismatic; we are committed to scripture and to hearing a fresh word from God’s Spirit; we want mercy and justice; we believe in the spiritual realm of healing and warfare and that the world God created includes a deep appreciation of the sciences; we want to be connected to the historical and traditional church and explore new and contextualized expressions of faith.

This tension brings many people of different backgrounds together. I love that the Vineyard movement gets to bless a lot of other traditions by virtue of holding them in tension. And in reality, we are the ones who are blessed in doing so. It means that so many people who think very differently end up calling the Vineyard their home; I love the growth and vibrancy that comes from that reality.

 

“Everyone Gets to Play” in the Vineyard

The Vineyard movement believes Everyone Gets to Play. We don’t present pastors as the religious elite that no normal person can aspire to become or be called to. The church is functioning at its best when people are released to operate in their gifts. This means that no matter how old you are, no matter what your gender is, no matter your background, we want people to operate based on faithfulness, calling, and gifting.

This means that as a young woman – 19 years old – and fairly new to the Vineyard, I was able to jump into leadership opportunities. As I have responded to a call on my life to be a pastor, there is no limit to me as a woman to how much leadership I am allowed to have. The Vineyard has promoted me as a woman and as a young person and has encouraged me to respond to the call of leadership on my life.

 

The Vineyard Gives Away Our Best

Finally, in the Vineyard movement we Give Away our Best. The Vineyard is an international church planting movement. We are constantly developing leaders and giving them away to continue the increase of the local church all over the world. This means that we fully embrace the notion that nothing is ours. Everything is for His Kingdom. Even though it hurts, we say goodbye to people for the sake of His Kingdom.

I was serving here in Vineyard Columbus (Ohio) for almost 10 years when our church decided to send a plant to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Even though I was an influential leader in our 20something community, our church sent me and my husband and 8-month-old son to be a part of the church plant team along with 5 other significant leaders in our church. I love the culture of being open-handed and making lots of space for new people to rise up.

 

I didn’t know what the Vineyard was 17 years ago, but I am so glad I stumbled into this incredible Kingdom-centered movement that has helped me to grow, challenged me to risk and promoted me in the call God has on my life, while giving me space to be imperfect. I am truly honored to call it my family.

 

photo 2About Today’s Guest Blogger

Amanda Nash is a wife and momma of three. She has worked at Vineyard Columbus for over 10 years with three years off church planting in Amsterdam. She has a BA in Religion and English Lit and is currently pursuing her MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary.

 

 

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.

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