Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples of all nations, and John Wesley claimed that all the world was his parish. The church belongs in every part of the world, whether urban, suburban, or rural—but it originated in the city.
Cities drive economic, cultural, and social change.
Cities are the refuge of the poor and marginalized.
Cities are mission fields ready to be sown and harvested.
Yet many churches have left the city to pursue other ministry opportunities. In his seminal work, The City, David Busic traces the Wesleyan-Holiness history of ministry to, in, and from the urban core, and calls church leaders to remember and honor ancient visions for ministry by returning our faith communities to the city.
Here is an excerpt from The Foundry’s new title, The City by Dr. David Busic.
“It had been my long-cherished desire to have a place in the heart of the city, which could be a center of holy fire, and where the gospel could be preached to the poor.”
The Church of the Nazarene originated in 1895 in Los Angeles, California, under the leadership of Phineas F. Bresee, who is widely considered to be the denomination’s founder. Bresee left a prominent position in the Methodist Episcopal Church to work with the poor and addicted on Skid Row in the urban core of Los Angeles. One of his journal entries read, “It had been my long-cherished desire to have a place in the heart of the city, which could be made a center of holy fire, and where the gospel could be preached to the poor.”
After an all-night session of prayer by the founding leaders, a layperson named J. P. Widney (second president of the University of Southern California) suggested the name “Church of the Nazarene.” The name would be a symbolic witness that the fledgling church would be identified with that aspect of Jesus’s ministry devoted to those who were underserved and who had been pushed to the margins—and so the church received its name. The minutes of the organizational meeting for the First Church of the Nazarene of Los Angeles, California—dated October 30, 1895—state the following:
Feeling clearly called of God to the carrying on of his work in the conversion of sinners, the sanctification of believers and the building up in holiness of those who may be committed to our care we associate ourselves together as a church of God under the name of the Church of the Nazarene. . . . The field of labor to which we feel especially called is in the neglected quarters of the cities and wherever also may be found waste places and souls seeking pardon and cleansing from sin. . . . [This work we aim to do through the agency of] city missions, evangelistic services, house-to-house visitation, caring for the poor, comforting the dying.
With this statement, Bresee—and the other Nazarenes who joined him on this quest—launched an urban movement.
The commitment of the Church of the Nazarene to the cities brought a resurgence of interest in the masses by many other groups and churches and was a viable motivation through the early years of the new denomination. It was both theologically and socially motivated. However, as time went by, the church-growth concept of “redemption and lift” brought about a developing tendency for city churches to relocate to the suburbs, where their members were moving.
Paul Benefiel, a former district superintendent of the Los Angeles District Church of the Nazarene and a sociologist by training, suggested the Church of the Nazarene may have been moving away from Bresee’s original purpose as early as 1901. This supposition is supported by a statement Bresee wrote in the Nazarene Messenger dated December 31, 1901: “The evidence of the presence of Jesus in our midst is that we bear the gospel, particularly to the poor. This must be genuine; it is more than sentiment; it cannot be simulated nor successfully imitated.” Two months earlier, in October 1901, Bresee wrote, “The first miracle after the baptism with the Holy Ghost was wrought upon a beggar. It means that the first service of a Holy Ghost-baptized church is to the poor; its ministry is to those who need them the most. As the Spirit was upon Jesus to preach the gospel to the poor, so his Spirit is upon his servants for the same purpose.”
Again, Paul Benefiel affirms, “Although the founding fathers of the Church of the Nazarene saw that their primary ministry was to the poor and to the cities, it is also apparent that the churches of this denomination were generally moving away from the poor and out of the cities. Most churches were not able to cope with the turmoil, the tension, and the frustrations of the inner city.” Both internal and external forces changed the original trajectory of emphasis on the urban poor and the welfare of cities.
In addition to these early beginnings, another vision was emerging, according to Timothy L. Smith, a historian from Johns Hopkins University who wrote the preeminent history of the Church of the Nazarene. Masterfully weaving the denominational story, Smith maintained that the early years of the Church of the Nazarene were forged out of compromise between two similar—but slightly different—visions of the Christian life. The resulting outcome alternated between a creative tension and a source of conflict. In Smith’s words, “Neither the origin nor the subsequent history of the Church of the Nazarene can be understood without a knowledge of the two holiness traditions, urban and rural.”
The distinguishing characteristics that Smith saw in the urban-holiness leavening of the church, primarily from the northern influence, included an inclination to education with an understanding of and empathy for original Wesleyanism as found in the theological teachings and social reforms of John Wesley. The northern centers of ecclesiastical strength were primarily in cities or closely outlying suburbs. By contrast, the southern group was predominantly rural and took a rigorous stand against formality and worldliness. Their propensity was more focused on aggressive evangelism, the personal crisis of entire sanctification in a believer’s life, and a strong influence of the camp meeting ethos from the nineteenth-century Holiness Movement.
This tenuous union between the urban and rural Holiness traditions was considered a miracle by many and, as Smith observes, was key to understanding Nazarene DNA. However, it has continued to be a persistent tension through the years within the structure, polity, and strategy of the denomination. While the emphases from northern and southern Nazarenes were not wrong, the polarity shift had a profound impact on the urban movement of the Church of the Nazarene. By the second generation, the Nazarene missional focus had shifted almost exclusively to suburban and rural areas.
The Church of the Nazarene has greatly evolved from those early days, but the divergent paths in the denomination’s beginnings remain. Can a new path be forged for an urban-minded church to coexist with a revivalistic, church-growth-minded church? Can a rural-minded church reorient itself to reach the great urban centers of the world? If the Church of the Nazarene was formed by the merging of two distinct Holiness traditions—urban and rural—then the Lord of the church can also help disparate traditions rediscover a healthy tension going forward.
The purpose of this book is to develop new ways of thinking about missional strategies for church planting, development, and renewal in the urban context. Though the predominant worldview focuses on the Church of the Nazarene, this book considers how a robust missional theology, rooted in the best of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, can take shape in a rapidly growing urban context of diverse ecclesial traditions and denominational structures. Additionally, a review of Nazarene experiences and behaviors—some exceptional and some deficient—will aid us in examining how theological practices can nourish and promote a vibrant church-planting movement for those who are Wesleyan at heart.
The World Health Organization projects that by 2030, six out of ten people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to seven out of ten people. These projections almost double the global urban population to 6.4 billion people. Leigh Gallagher reports that, according to census data, the largest American cities “grew at a faster rate [from 2010 to 2011] than their suburbs for the first time in one hundred years.”
As the Church of the Nazarene has become more affluent and has risen in socioeconomic status in the past few decades, it has become effective in reaching suburban and rural areas. While urban-suburban lines are blurred in some locales, ministry to city cores has not fared well. This is a troubling reality, especially in light of the recent predictions of urban growth that do not bode well for the future mission of the Church of the Nazarene if current trends are not reversed. If Nazarenes still believe they are called to the “neglected quarters of the cities,” as declared in those local church minutes from L.A. in 1895, and if the census predictions and projections are correct about the impending resurgence of urban life in the near future, then the Church of the Nazarene can position itself to take advantage of a significant opportunity for mission by reclaiming the founding members’ mission of engagement in and with the city.
Cities are centers of cultural diversity. Cities drive regional and global economies. Cities are the educational, artistic, and technological shapers of society.
Cities are centers of cultural diversity. Cities drive regional and global economies. Cities are the educational, artistic, and technological shapers of society. If globalization means, as Soong-Chan Rah puts it, “that one nation’s cultural values and paradigms now have the capacity to infiltrate and affect the entire global community,” then cities are the framework for it. But cities remain a challenge for many churches because they are expensive, complex, and secularized. For these and other reasons, the majority of the world’s great cities are vastly under-churched today.
The most significant Nazarene works that remain in the urban context are focused primarily on compassionate ministry and ethnic congregations. While these continue to be important areas of concentration for those in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, other important methodological approaches are needed to address the additional intricacies of city centers. The urban world has become more than those who live within the city limits—it is an environment by which we are all affected, regardless of one’s address.
The City: Urban Churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness Tradition, by Dr. David Busic is available for purchase on TheFoundryPublishing.com