For three days in February, Kansas City was teeming with more than three thousand Nazarenes gathered together for M19, a mid-quadrennial conference held by the Church of the Nazarene. Our conference schedule was loaded with inspiring plenary speakers, worship sets, and workshops by pastors and leaders from all over the U.S. and Canada.
Albert and I had the honor of speaking at the opening plenary session. It is difficult to describe what it has meant to me, as a woman of color, that our denomination would give us a platform to preach God’s Word at such a venue. It is with the same gratitude that I listened to Dr. Carla Sunberg and Dr. Filimao Chambo, our two newest general superintendents for the Church of the Nazarene, during their plenary sessions. Our denomination is truly becoming more intentional about reflecting the full diversity of the body of Christ.
The feedback we heard after our message was evidence for me that many others had the same sentiments. Some commented that just the optics alone—having two pastors, who happened to be husband and wife, sharing space together—were significant. It communicated equality, partnership, and the importance of making room at the table.
We received a lot of encouraging responses after our message. There were two comments, however, echoed by several, that were surprising to us.
“Your message was prophetic.”
“Your message was courageous.”
This was unexpected. We were not trying to be either prophetic or courageous. I was perplexed and then a little nervous—for prophets are stoned, and to be courageous means there is something to be feared. Courageous? No. Ignorant? Likely.
Neither Albert nor I have deep family roots in the Church of the Nazarene. We fell in love with our beloved denomination later in life. We only learned of its existence in our early thirties, and when we did, we were deeply moved by the history of the Church of the Nazarene, which has a pervasive culture and spirit of mission, compassion, equality, and holiness. We have not experienced firsthand any particularities of our Nazarene background that would have made us hesitate to speak as freely as we did.
I wanted to learn more. What was it about our message that made Northwest Nazarene University professor and theologian Dr. Diane Leclerc go so far as to post on social media, “Tonight was a watershed moment”? I approached some of our respected denominational leaders with questions about the content of our message. Their profound insights have taught me so much about the kinds of questions that many of our pastors and churches are wrestling with. Here are the four most impactful conclusions about the church that I drew from their responses.
1. We need to give space for narratives of failure and weakness for the sake of clarity and growth. Albert began our sermon by describing the state of decline on our district. By traditional statistical measures, we’re not doing well. The total number of baptisms, average worship attendance, and new people received into membership are about the lowest they’ve ever been. We were honest about our deficiencies and failures. Apparently, admitting these sorts of things is not common in our denomination.
A pastor on our district explained to me why this was such a big deal. In the past, our holiness doctrine drove our churches to become legalistic. Our emphasis on entire sanctification inadvertently contributed to an oppressive climate where we couldn’t be transparent about our weaknesses or failures. Anything less than sinless perfection was an indication that we were not filled with the Holy Spirit. At least, that’s how it felt for many. “Holiness or hell” is what we used to say. We have since learned to speak about holiness in more nuanced ways, but the residual effects remain.
Dr. Ron Benefiel, the lead consultant at the Center for Pastoral Leadership at Point Loma Nazarene University and former president of Nazarene Theological Seminary, said, “The message was not one that tried to set an example for everyone else to work hard to achieve. (We do that a lot.) Rather, in sort of an incarnational way, the speakers were identifying with the rest of those who are doing their very best but are still not experiencing great success.”
It is important to take a sober look at where we are now. Only with an accurate diagnosis of our circumstances can we start to create change and adopt a growth mindset. Do we have the courage to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our denomination and reveal to us the ways we need sanctifying?
It is also important that we create a culture where there is room to fail—especially because innovation is so vital to helping the church move forward. If we allow no margin for error, whether through our teaching, policies, or internal culture, people will hesitate to take the risks and exercise the imagination needed to reach the unchurched. Fear and shame will debilitate our people and prevent us from growing.
2. We need to revisit old paradigms and discern what is no longer effective. We invited the church to explore three questions that might draw us deeper into the heart of God and our mission: What is the gospel? What is the church? What is evangelism?
Dr. Scott Daniels, the lead pastor of College Church of the Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho, said that even though the questions seemed to be simple ones that God’s people ought to be able to answer easily, that is not always the case. “We have allowed the good news of the gospel to be eclipsed by other narratives like individualism, nationalism, or consumerism. The good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand. And that is good news for everyone.”
Dr. Jeff Stark, associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Theological Leadership at Olivet Nazarene University, remarked, “What we heard on Monday night was a call to the church to return to the ‘whole gospel.’ One that isn’t afraid of the proclamation or even the use of the word evangelism, but one that roots the proclamation in the specific contexts of everyday engagement, the recognition of the systemic ills that often bind people from the reception of that proclamation, and the rapidly shifting multiethnic, multicultural, post-Christian context that requires a creativity and cultural expression that can in no way make assumptions about language and familiarity with the gospel.”
It is particularly in this post-Christian context that we need to ask these questions once again. In northern California, this is exactly where we find ourselves. Benefiel acknowledged, “Whether or not everyone picked up on the significance of this, the Bay Area is a look into the future of the country, especially with regard to diversity and cultural, political, and religious norms.” Regarding these cultural changes, Benefiel went on to say, “What all this means, of course, is that the assumptions that the church has had in the past, and for the most part, continues to embrace regarding the essentials of ministry, aren’t going to be as effective in the future as they have been in the past.”
Leclerc shared her frustration regarding the lack of processes in the church that might allow us to discern and retire models that have lost their effectiveness. She said, “The world has changed right out from under us. Your three simple questions revealed this to anyone who had ears to hear it.”
3. We must leave our comfort zones, both regarding what we talk about and whom we spend time with. We must be willing to be the stranger. In our plenary session, we covered many topics that preachers in our denomination might shy away from. I can honestly say it was not our intent to be controversial or divisive. Our engagement with the God revealed in Scripture has led us to embrace and proclaim a gospel that is truly good news, even—and perhaps especially—to the poor, the hurting, the oppressed, and the powerless, both sinners and those who have been sinned against.
Benefiel said, “In speaking to the issue of what it means to be the church in our changing world, you included topics that are politically controversial—abortion, homosexuality, and diversity—but that are necessary to be addressed from a holiness perspective of love and compassion if the church is going to have any chance of moving beyond a particular sociopolitical orientation and re-engage a mission that looks and feels and acts like the kingdom of God.”
Rev. Jason Smith, associate pastor at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene, agreed. “The careful and courageous words about how the church is viewed mostly as anti-gay were so good for us to hear in a sermon at a significant conference. It’s true, and it’s tragic. The statement about being pro-life meaning more than just anti-abortion was so encouraging to hear.”
Albert and I are trying to get to know our neighbors in a community where 70 percent of the residents are South Asian and mostly Hindu. In our message, we shared about what it looks like when we step into the role of the stranger. One of our neighbors invited us to join in a Vedic chanting session in their home. We had never been to such a gathering before, but we felt God prompting us to accept this gesture of welcome and hospitality. When we arrived, Albert and I asked many questions about the Hindu faith and listened carefully as our friends explained their beliefs and practices. After they shared their hopes and needs, we asked if they would mind if we prayed to the God we know and worship, Jesus Christ, while they chanted. They were more than happy for us to do so. What a joy it was to spend the next hour praying for our neighbors and their children in their living room! Afterward, we sat down to a meal together and shared our stories with each other. We don’t know where these conversations will lead. But we are grateful to be invited into our friends’ lives, even as we invite them into ours. As we said in our talk at M19, sometimes our role is to welcome the stranger. Other times, our role is to be the stranger.
Dr. Keith Newman, president of Southern Nazarene University, told us, “We have been reminded that the longer the perspective, the better our decisions. If we determine that we will be intentional and incarnational in our approach to telling others the good news of Jesus, then we are opting for a journey that in many ways can only be described as difficult. The story of choosing to participate (as Christians) in a neighborhood Hindu prayer gathering beautifully illustrates both the discomfort and the dynamics of the gospel unleashed. May we all choose to deny ourselves and live as people sent with the best news anyone can ever know.”
Mount Vernon Nazarene University student and associate pastor at The Shepherd’s House Bailey Phillips resonated deeply with this call to incarnational living. She said, “There are people being left out of the kingdom of heaven, and it’s time to change. We can only change if we are living, eating, talking, and walking with them. It is as simple as being with others. No mission to change them or ‘show them their sin,’ but rather a mission to show them the gospel.”
4. We need to seek ways to bridge our generations in thought and practice, or we will lose our young people. There is a generational divide in our Nazarene family, and that divide is affecting our ability to move forward into the future together. Albert and I have had numerous conversations with younger clergy and students about their struggle to find a place in the Church of the Nazarene. Many have shared that they feel misunderstood, unheard, and disconnected.
Phillips said about her peers, “I honestly don’t know one young person who is not cynical toward the church in some way. But seeing both of you as leaders who are multicultural, and one who is a woman, gives everyone who has been left behind hope. When you see people who look like you and can identify with you, it helps you recognize the possibility that we can rise up and lead too. There is a place for us here. There is a place for all of us.”
Dr. Stark acknowledged the same. “I believe this message at M19 was a catalytic moment. There was the possibility of unity among what often becomes unnecessary factions in the church. I find in this message the seeds of a fruit that will be matured in the lives of a number of young people who on Monday night said, ‘If this is the Church of the Nazarene, I can make my home here.’” Stark added, “My son, a freshman at Olivet Nazarene University and the son of a pastor for his entire life—who is very much trying to find a place in the Church of the Nazarene and wondering if there is a place for him—sent me a text during the message stating how ‘at home’ in the message he found himself.”
Albert and I were grateful for the opportunity to speak at a venue like M19. But we are even more grateful for the many conversations that have begun in the days since. We are praying that these conversations will continue—seasoned with grace, truth, and humility—in your homes, your classrooms, and your churches.