We’d been told the service started at 11 a.m., but it actually started thirty minutes later. No problem — That gave us the time we needed to find a spot in the very crowded parking lot. As we waited on the porch for the 9:30 a.m. service to conclude, I poked my head inside. There wasn’t a space to be had in the spacious cathedral! The congregation sang “In Christ Alone, My Hope is Found” as words were projected on multiple T.V. monitors mounted on the stone support columns. All the words were correctly spelled in English, and scrolled in time with the music. A large choir in colorful robes sang, as robed clergy distributed Eucharist by intinction to believers filing by the communion table.
Soon, the service ended, and the crowd dispersed at 11:25 a.m. When they’d cleared, we walked in and found places to sit in pews made of old polished wood. We’d received a program at the door, four pages carefully typed, clearly laying out the order of worship. Three pages of announcements testified to a congregation deeply involved in community life: relief for the poor, care for the aged, baptism courses for new believers. Between old hymns, we recited responsive readings and read prayers. Two women participated as Scripture readers, one reading the O.T. passage from Genesis, and another the N.T. Epistles passage from Galatians. The words from the Bible were projected on the monitors which most followed, though a smattering of churchgoers read from Bibles they had brought to church.
The pastor smiled in his white and green robe, later leading an extemporaneous prayer of intercession. Afterward, he invited a team of young people to come to the front. They carried a banner they promised to plant on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro when they trek there next week. Hikers solicited sponsors as a fund-raiser to finish construction of the church’s youth center. When they’d returned to their seats, we all stood again to share the “peace of Christ,” greeting each other with handshakes. At the instructions of the pastor, all who were not there for the first time sat down, and visitors (like us) he asked to remain standing. They then officially welcomed us as a group, and applauded. “That’s a nice twist,” I thought. “It’s much easier to have the regular attenders sit down than to have the newcomers stand up.” I made a mental note to tell my pastor when I see him next.
The theme of the day was harvest, and the service revolved around praise to God for rain, crops, and bounty. A Kenyan T.V. station was present, as this service kicked off the week-long Nairobi trade fair, which begins tomorrow. The “message” (not a sermon, the speaker insisted) came from a Baptist pastor from the other side of town. It was refreshing to see that kind of ecumenism on display. The preacher had us laughing with stories from his past, punctuated with phrases that underscored his evangelical credentials. When he finished, I realized I could have listened for longer. He was anointed.
After the offering, the clergy and choir recessed down the middle aisle. Though there had not been a single “chorus” or contemporary song, a quick glance around at those in attendance revealed a broad age range, from the early 20s upward. (Children and teens had their own services in a separate location). It got me thinking about whether young people will reject a service format that only has hymns. Obviously, they were passing a legacy on to the next generation and at least two lengthy Sunday morning services were packed to the hilt with seekers of all ages, coming to the spiritual feast.
Whither Nazarene ecclesiology?
As a Nazarene, I am aware of our denomination’s search for an ecclesiology, a doctrine of the church and a self-identify of who we are as a community of faith. The late William Greathouse in a theology conference underscored this task as a priority for our church. At times, we seem to be an empty vessel filled by whatever the dominant way of doing church is in a given country. If that dominant mode is Pentecostal, then we act like Pentecostals (minus the tongues, mind you). If it is Baptist, then we are de facto Baptists. The revivalism in which Nazarenes were born in early 20th century America has worn thin. In Africa, it can seem like a foreign plant trying to take root. (For example, the altar has been dutifully constructed in many Nazarene buildings, but its use has been less than effective. Does it fit?)
Because I find the Pentecostal way of doing church shallow, participating in deep and carefully planned worship like we experienced today was a breath of fresh air. What’s more, our own forebears, at least some of them, trace their roots back through Methodism and — via the Wesley brothers — to Anglicanism. An evangelical Anglicanism like that on display at All Saint’s Church would appear to provide a meatier model for how worship could be effectively done in the Church of the Nazarene. The Holy Spirit can move hearts through structure, and such carefully conceived and well-executed times of celebration could be just what we need.