Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

Forgive us, Lord, for we have sinned!

droughtThey’re triumphant words, a hymn I sang often as a child on Sunday nights:

‘Tis a glorious church, without spot or wrinkle, washed in the blood of the lamb.

You’d think that 123 years after Ralph Hudson penned those 1892 lyrics that we’d be much closer as the people of God to that vision. But when I look at the church today, I realize how dry like a desert we are, how broken, how guilty, how desperately in need of God’s forgiveness and cleansing. We have forgotten that 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 is addressed to a group of believers, the Thessalonians. God calls the church to be sanctified, to be pure in her culture and her systems, yet we have fallen pitifully short and the watching world has surely noticed that we are no different than they.

Forgive us, Lord, for we your people have sinned!

No denomination has a corner on the market on righteousness. Across the spectrum of churches, things are awry. There’s no need to make a laundry list of offenses. That list is added to every day in online newspaper articles or on social media, undercutting our sacred mission in the world.

Forgive us, Lord, for we your people have sinned!

We look around us at our culture and see it plummeting downward. Too quickly, we are ready to call down upon those who make no claim to Christian faith the fiery judgment of God. But have we forgotten that God’s judgment falls first upon us, the church? Peter reminded his readers:

For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV, italics added).

Acts 5:1-11 is the fearful story of Ananias and Sapphira. Because they misrepresented to Peter the price that they had received for selling their land, Peter warned Ananias: “You have not lied to men but to God” (v. 4). Later, to Sapphira he asked: “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (v. 9). Because of the cover-up – their complicity in lying – both fell down and died, first Ananias then later – playing dumb – Sapphira. If nothing else, doesn’t this story teach us that harboring known sin in our lives has negative physiological effects upon us? If that is true for individuals, what effect upon the overall health of our churches is there when corporately we look the other way when there has been wrongdoing? Shall we be surprised should God one day look at us, his people, and declare:

Ichabod! The glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:21)?

The Psalmist wrote: “”Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24, NIV).

My prayer first of all is for myself, that I will remain transparent before God, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict  me of sin, leading me to ongoing change in my heart and life. But can it stop there? As God’s people, the church, let us acknowledge where we have allowed wrong ecclesiastical practices to go unchallenged and unchanged. Only then can the spiritual revival we seek take hold and make us the holy people God wants us to be. Surely, only a transformed people can transform our world (Matthew 5:13).

Together, let us pray:

“Almighty God, we your people have merited nothing but your disdain. In word, thought and deed, we as your church have failed; we have sinned. Like a land in drought, we are spiritually dry. Again and again, we have sought to increase our power and wealth rather than lifting up the powerless and destitute. We have run after position and fame, forgetting that your son, Jesus, divested himself of his glory, becoming a humble servant. Grant that we your people may  see the sinful log in our own eye then trust you to remove it. Do not repay us, your church, according to our transgressions or we will surely be lost! Forgive us, cleanse us, and fill us anew with the love and presence of the Holy Spirit. Help us, we pray, as your church not to conduct business as this world does, but show us a different way, your higher way. Hear us, we pray, for it is in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that we with humble repentance offer this prayer, AMEN.”


Image credit: Life is Bigger









Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

Baptism: Confessions of a late bloomer

baptismI decided to follow Jesus at age 7 and was baptized at 22.

Yes, you read that right. There were 15 years between my coming to Christ and my sealing it publicly via water baptism.

How can that be when all those years my parents and family faithfully attended Nazarene congregations?

I love God and the Church of the Nazarene, in that order, but I have to admit: When it comes to my baptism story, it’s complicated.

My parents had me dedicated as a baby at the local Church of the Nazarene near Washington, D.C., where I was born. Dedication was the predominant practice in the Church of the Nazarene at the time and still is today, despite the fact that our Article of Faith # 12, “Baptism,” makes allowance for both believer and infant baptism. (Interestingly, baby dedication appears nowhere in our Articles of Faith, but does have a ritual at the back of the Nazarene Manual, along with an infant baptism ritual).

Our family later moved to central New Jersey where we attended two Nazarene congregations successively and finally to Rochester, New York. Like the D.C. area Nazarene congregation, none of these three church buildings had baptismal fonts or baptistries. In short, baptism was the nearly invisible sacrament during my early childhood – tucked away in neglected creedal statements in our church Manual – but never on the minds of architects who designed buildings for Nazarene worship.

There was one Sunday when I was living in Rochester that a visiting family showed up. Our pastor baptized their infant by sprinkling, but – strangely enough – we never saw that family again.

Fast-forward to age 13. I was a teen Bible quizzer studying the Gospel according to Matthew. I couldn’t get away from Matthew 3:13-17, where Jesus submitted himself to baptism by John. My logic was simple:

1) Jesus was baptized;

2) I’m supposed to be like Jesus.

3) Therefore, I should be baptized.

So I talked to the pastor and asked to be baptized. He looked at me, and with a kind but firm voice intoned: “Greg, we don’t believe that baptism saves you.” End of conversation.

Three years later, at age 16, God called me to preach, and in the Fall of 1981, I enrolled as a freshman religion major at Eastern Nazarene College. For four years, I successively attended two more Nazarene congregations in the Boston area and – during that time – witnessed several baby dedications but no baptisms of any kind, of any age candidate. Midway through my time at ENC, I received my first district license with my home District. I filled out the form that asked lots of good questions about my spiritual experience. “Have you been born again?” Check. “Had you been entirely sanctified?” Check. The form allowed for me to expand on my answers to those questions, describing my spiritual journey and my call to preach. But one question was conspicuously absent: “Have you been baptized?” I never noticed at the time that it was missing, not having thought about it since my very short conversation with my pastor at age 13.

Graduation, marriage, honeymoon, a move to Kansas City for Seminary in the summer of 1985 – Upon arrival, we visited several Nazarene congregations in the Kansas City area, and finally settled at the Grandview church, south of KC. The second Sunday there, the pastor announced that there would be a baptism class the next Sunday night and – one week later – a baptism service. This was my chance, my first Nazarene baptism service where adults would be immersed. I was happy to sign my name to the list of candidates. Nine years after my first request to be baptized, I was awakening from my sacramental slumber.

Since the Grandview church had been built without a baptistry, we joined forces with a nearby Nazarene congregation that had one. I remember the words of my pastor, Rev. Richard “Dick” Neiderhiser, as I walked up the steps to the baptistry. He playfully dubbed me the “late bloomer,” then plunged me under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Fifteen years after my decision to follow Jesus, I was now officially initiated into the Body of Christ.

There’s one other curious side-note. When I was 12, our church in Rochester held a class using a book that took a bunch of us 6th graders through a simple catechism. When we were done, I joined the Church of the Nazarene. So, from age 12 to age 22 – for ten years – I was a member of the Church of the Nazarene even though I had never been initiated by baptism into the Church universal.

Apparently I’m not the only one who considers this backward order strange. For at least the past two General Assemblies, there have been resolutions presented that would require anyone uniting with the membership of the Church of the Nazarene to have first been baptized in some Christian community of faith. Importantly, the resolutions did not mandate so-called “re-baptism” in order to join Nazarene ranks, just baptism in a recognized Christian church. Twice, the resolution has been defeated.

Some Nazarene congregations are not waiting around for the denomination to officially change its polity. In 2004, my two teenage sons joined the Church of the Nazarene while we attended the Nampa College congregation in Nampa, Idaho. Though the Manual has not changed, I was thrilled when their youth pastor asked them whether they had been baptized. They had been, some years before. He explained that baptism was a first step – initiation into the larger Body of Christ – that precedes joining that part of the family called “Nazarene.” God bless that youth pastor! I have hope that this practice will spread and that – as sometimes happens in our tribe – our official statement of practice in the Manual will eventually catch-up with our longstanding practice on-the-ground.

But back to my baptism odyssey.

All told, I held 8 district licenses on two districts. During all eight annual interviews prior to being ordained in 1991, I was asked many questions by ministerial credentials boards, yet not once did anyone ever ask me whether I had been baptized. So, I was ordained as a Nazarene elder – as my ordination certificate says, in “the Church of God” i.e. Church universal – without anyone inquiring about my status in the Church universal, the broader community of faith. No one was interested in knowing if I had ever been initiated by baptism into the Church that Jesus the Nazarene founded, against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail (Matthew 16:18).

Am I alone in this strange baptismal journey, or have things changed? Tell me about your Nazarene baptism experience.



If you want to read excellent teaching on the meaning of baptism, I highly recommend two books:

– Rob Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Beacon Hill, 1991), available here at Amazon.

– Michael Green, Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987). An updated version of the book (2010) is available here at Amazon.


Image credit: Crossbridge Community

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

Direction: 3 questions every church must answer

compassMy younger son, Brad, and I were having lots of trouble on our canoe trip. I would pull my paddle in one direction and he would pull his in another. Instead of making forward progress, we just turned around in circles. It was great fun for others to watch, but super frustrating for us. Finally, the two of us started communicating about the direction we wanted to go, coordinating our efforts. The circling stopped; slowly, we moved downriver then with greater speed as we got the hang of it, working together instead of at cross-purposes. After a few hours, we had finished the river float – success!

What is true for canoeing is true for churches. There are three questions regarding direction that every church must answer:

1) What is our destination?

2) What must we do to get there?

3) How will we know when we’ve arrived?

Let’s look at these questions one at a time.

What is our destination?

I love  the “Horatio Hornblower” series. In dramatic fashion, Captain Hornblower would announce the heading of the ship, and everyone replied: “Aye, sir!”

Some seem to think the church is a Navy vessel. The Captain (Pastor) gives the orders, and everyone obeys. But things are changing, even in the West. We have moved to a collaborative model, much closer to the villagers in rural Africa gathered under the mango tree. From oldest to youngest, everyone has a word to say and direction emerges based on consensus. In the digital age, the “mango tree” can be a FaceBook page where everyone is encouraged to speak up. Either way – whether in person or through social media – listening happens, making it more likely that we move forward together, in common purpose.

What is it that we want to accomplish together? This is another way of articulating the question of destination. Once we have listened to each other and consensus on direction has emerged, it is time to sum it up in a single sentence. Here’s an example of a guiding statement:

“Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.”

We’ll talk about that statement more below.

What must we do to get there?

Sometimes in evangelical circles we have thought that we must first believe, then we can belong. In fact, most have experienced the opposite. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again (Abingdon, 2000, 2010). George Hunter III maintains that “belonging comes before believing” (location 795).  Share stories with each other. How did you come to be committed to the church and to Christ? Every activity of the church must foster that sense of belonging, that each of us are loved and that this community of faith has a place for me. If an activity (or program) does nothing to help build that sense of community – the belonging preliminary to believing – then it is not leading you toward your goal as a church. It is a paddle in the water steering the canoe in the wrong direction.

How will we know when we’ve arrived?

The five words I love most from my GPS are these:

“You have reached your destination.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if church work were so clear cut, to know that we have “reached our destination”? In fact, it is rarely so obvious. Still, there are indicators that we are heading in the right direction.

Let’s take a look again at the guiding statement, “Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.” What are some of the key words?

“building” – This speaks of the atmosphere of a church. Do we encourage each other, building one another up, celebrating our strengths and graciously forbearing the weaknesses of others, as they put up with ours? People have plenty of chances to be torn down by the words of others outside the church. Inside, each of us needs affirmation that we are a person of worth and deeply loved by God and others. Our pastor has fostered what I call the “holy hug,” a variation of the “holy kiss” Paul talks about in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20 and elsewhere.

“deep” – Churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition sometimes speak of the “deeper life.” We recognize that the decision to follow Christ is only the first step in a lifelong journey of discipleship. The Holy Spirit can cleanse us at a deep level, filling us with God’s love and a desire to serve Him.

“community” – To be in community is to do life together. Is is the spirit of Ubuntu, to recognize that “I am because we are.” In our disconnected day-and-age, to foster connectedness is one of the key strengths that the church offers. Former General Superintendent Nina Gunter once said:

In the church, there are only two categories of people: participants and critics.

Communities grow stronger and more united when members of the community are given service opportunities, using their God-given talents. Those who are fenced-off from meaningful service will either speak up (criticizing) or will leave.

“faith” – As important as the value of connectedness is, unity in the church goes deeper than the connectedness created in clubs based upon common interests only, such as bicycling or photography. Our unity is based upon Christian faith, our common confession that Christ died, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. We believe that life has purpose because we – as the People of God – are part of a larger Story, the Story of God, and that story is life-changing. The preaching of the Word and the observance of the Sacraments (Eucharist and Baptism) are ways that we tell the Story.

“500 strong” – The Book of Acts reports that following Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost, about 3,000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41). Likewise, Jesus tells the parable of 100 sheep and how the shepherd cared for all 100, both the 99 that he left safely behind and the one he searched for in the wilderness (Luke 15:1-7). Well has it been said: “We count people because people count.”

Though some are qualitative and some quantitative, each of these words in the guiding statement can to a degree be assessed. Are we a church that encourages each other? Are we going deeper in our faith, nurturing each other in the life of discipleship? Do those who attend feel like they belong, finding a place of meaningful service? Do we point our people back to the Story of faith that holds us together? Finally, have we set growth goals that are realistic, realizing that numbers – while not the only measure of our impact – are one important indicator of a church’s health?

The three questions of destination, how to get there, and knowing when we’ve arrived are crucial to the success of the church. Guiding statements – developed not unilaterally but collaboratively – help everyone know where the “canoe” is headed. With a Spirit-inspired vision clearly in-mind, we can joyously pull together, making progress toward where God wants us to go.


Image creditNexus Mods

Posted in African theology, ecclesiology & sacraments

Strong theological education, strong church

Dr Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley's theology to students in Benin
Dr. Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley’s theology to students in Benin

Though my calling is to vocational Christian ministry, there have been transition times when I was very glad for my bank teller skills. It was honest work, and it provided for my family.

Working as a bank teller required specialized training. Tellers must know how to process deposits, withdrawals, account inquiries, loan payments, and more. Banks hire trainers who show new recruits what to do and how to do it.

Like banks, the church also recognizes the value of training. God-called pastors require certain skills. They must know what to do and how to do it. This includes the preparation and delivery of a sermon, baptizing those of all ages, serving the Lord’s Supper, making hospital visits, conducting funerals and weddings, providing pastoral counseling, and a dozen other tasks. These are vital skills for any pastor to be effective, and local churches expect that their pastor is able to perform them to an acceptable level, knowing that with time they will become more adept. In short, training is important.

Regarding business products, Simon Sinek observed:

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.*

What is true for business is true for Christian ministry in all of its forms. It is not sufficient for a member of the clergy to know what to do and how to do it; he or she must also know why they believe what they believe. This belief, owned through long study and sometimes even spiritual anguish, will in-turn inform why they do what they do in ministry, helping them stay-the-course when difficulties mount, critics are many, and friends are few.

Are we as a church effectively addressing this more advanced aspect of purpose?

When it comes to pastors, do we recognize the need to move beyond the “what” and “how” of training to the “why” of theological education? Churches need not only pastors who are trained to perform ecclesiastical tasks. Churches desperately need pastors who love learning of all kinds, deep women and men capable of theological reflection in the midst of the task, letting that prayerful reflection modify how they practice ministry.

The dangers of only training pastors and not educating them to think critically are real. Some years ago, a conservative Christian mission agency based in the United States sent missionaries to a West African nation. The mission agency equipped local leaders to plant churches throughout the country, in big cities and small villages. Within 15 years, their members numbered nearly 50,000. Over time, the mission’s priorities shifted, so they re-assigned the missionaries to other countries, leaving leadership of the churches in the hands of one of the local leaders who had proven himself capable. One day, he came across an attractive pamphlet about Jesus Christ. He read how Jesus is not God, but the first and highest being created by God. The leader began teaching what he had read inside. The growth of the church stalled and began to decline as 1/3 of its pastors left the denomination, not wishing to be part of a group that had unwittingly begun to promote a false belief. A key leader had been trained for a task but had apparently not received adequate theological education. Consequently, he was unprepared to critically engage with a contemporary manifestation of the ancient heresy of Arianism.

"History and Faith of the Biblical Communities," at Mount Vernon Nazarene University
“History and Faith of the Biblical Communities,” at Mount Vernon Nazarene University

The “what” and “how” of training are not sufficient. Pastors must understand why they do what they do, itself a natural outgrowth of studying and determining over time why they believe what they believe. Africa is awash in a sea of quasi-Christian teaching that has at-times incorporated elements of African Traditional Religion (ATR) into its thinking, particularly in how it presents the work of “prophets” who end up serving the same function as shamans. We need more than just a handful of theologians capable of separating theological wheat from chaff. Every individual – male or female – who expresses a call to ordained ministry must be given both training and theological education. They must be taught not only the content of faith but how to reflect theologically in-light of both what Scripture says and what the church has historically understood Scripture to mean. Only then can the church stay on-course through the rough seas and high winds of false doctrine. In-turn, pastors – effectively trained and theologically educated – must equip lay leaders in the church in the “what” and “how” of ministry, all the while carefully helping them to understand the “why” of our practice and belief. Orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct practice) go hand-in-hand.

The training only model, however well-intentioned, is inadequate. One of my supervisors told me soon after I took up my missionary teaching task: “Just give your students the information and make sure they give it back to you correctly on the exam. That’s all they need to do.” At the time, it seemed like good advice, but was it? An African teacher lamented: “The first missionaries came and gave us a book. We learned everything inside and began to teach it. Later, other missionaries came and gave us a second book that said different things than the first. So, we want you missionaries to tell us: Which book is correct?” Though the teacher was well-trained to do the work of a pastor, he was not able to critically reflect for himself and arrive at his own conclusions. He was helpless in the face of contradictory ideas advanced by writers of equal academic qualification. No amount of training could make up for the absence of critically reflective theological education.

Denominations that are growing and stable have understood that education – both in theology and the other academic disciplines – is not an enemy of faith but its enabler. Bertha Munro, the late long-time Dean of Eastern Nazarene College, was fond of telling her students: “There is no conflict between the best in education and the best of our Christian faith.” A tradesman teaches an apprentice what to do and how to do it. That is admirable and needed, yet education delves deeper, helping the student understand the rationale for belief and practice, no matter the field of service, creating a strong foundation on which a solid building can be erected.

Those who think that training ministers is enough may misunderstand the rationale behind theological education. For a student to construct a theology that is his or her own, sometimes he or she – under the gentle probing of a Seminary or University teacher – must set aside long-held beliefs that do not hold up under the closer scrutiny of a more careful reading of Scripture. To construct a durable and biblically faithful theology, some deconstruction often has to take place. This can be a painful, confusing time, but the student who perseveres will come away knowing not only what to do as a pastor and how to do it, but also why they believe what they do. That strong belief, hard-won through prayer and the wrestling of careful reflection, will undergird a ministry that lasts a life-time. Like a weight-lifter, muscle must be broken down before it can be built back up, stronger and more resilient in the process. When applied to Christian faith, this is the sacred task of theological education, a task that is sometimes called “constructive theology.”

Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC
Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC

Though theological educators walk alongside students who are coming to understand what they believe and why, the process is not without boundaries. Dr. Thomas Noble has noted that theologians are first and foremost “theologians in service to the church” (Global Nazarene Theology Conference, Guatemala, 2002). They hold in-trust the church’s doctrinal heritage, helping reproduce it in the next generation of its clergy. For this reason, teachers of Bible, theology, church history, Christian ethics and related disciplines are carefully vetted and continually responsible to both fellow educators and church leaders who offer guidance and (when necessary) censure. Well has it been said: “While orthodoxy is not a straight line, it is a fenced-in area.” At the same time, the church must give leeway and space to theological educators, allowing them the academic freedom to carry out their calling in creative ways, always adjusting their methods to fit the changing needs of changing times, yet simultaneously maintaining the underlying integrity of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3, NIV).

Now more than ever, when it comes to raising up the next generation of leaders in the church, we need both training and theological education. Our pastors must know what to do and how to do it, but let us also remember the “why.” Only when we give students space – exercising patience and trusting God the Holy Spirit to guide them as they make the Christian faith their own both in heart and mind – will we reap the long-term benefit of strong clergy equipped to lead a strong church into an uncertain future.


* Thank you to Anita Henck, for pointing me to Simon Sinek’s idea.

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, reflections

District Assembly Line? Why we need District Conference instead

assemblyHenry Ford invented the assembly line. His efficiency experts determined that to produce the maximum number of quality cars, workers should be stationed along the line, each one performing a given task.

But what works well for putting together cars is a failure when it comes to people. Having attended many District Assemblies in both the United States and in Africa, I wonder:

Do we now have District Assembly Lines?

Assemblies have become efficient, but less-and-less relational. The focus is on getting the church’s business accomplished in just a few short hours – a morning or an afternoon – but in the efficiency, have we surrender relational effectiveness?

It wasn’t always this way. We used to have District Assembly, which really were District Conferences. When I was boy on the Upstate New York District, we used to have a full two days given to Assembly. Pastors reported at-length on both victories and struggles. We took time to pray for each other. Resolutions were made from the floor, and we took the time to listen to both sides before going forward together.

Part of the problem is a good problem. In my life-time, we have more than doubled in number, from under 1 million to 2.3 million. This means that General Superintendents now are jetting around the world to hold District Assemblies. Since they are the only ones authorized to ordain elders and deacons, necessarily their stays are shorter.

Yet our sense of connection as local Nazarene churches is weakening. To reverse this decline, it’s time for us to get creative at the district level, and maybe the regional conference can guide us.

We have just finished a 5 day regional conference in South Africa. The incredible joy that I’ve seen on the faces of our delegates from southern Africa and lusophone Africa has done my heart good. We had time for each other. Around the breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables, we laughed and cried, renewed friendships and made new ones. In extended sessions, we discussed challenges in the church and shared possible solutions. Because it was a longer period, we had time for three nights of holiness preaching. Helpful workshops were the order of the day. We finished the week united in our common mission and feeling connected.

Singing during evening worship, Africa Regional Conference (Johannesburg)
Singing during evening worship, Africa Regional Conference (Johannesburg)

Yet the regional conference is expensive. We come from long distances, and these are just representatives. Many more who would have profited from the relationship building could not attend, and even if they had been available, what venue is large enough? Further, the regional conference is only every four years, hardly frequent enough for most.

The question is:

How can the relational emphasis of the regional conference be brought to the district level on an every year basis?

1. Take time together, several days annually, to build connection. The word Conference has a rich heritage within Wesleyan-Holiness circles. It was John Wesley (1703-91) who convened in London the very first Methodist Conference in 1744. John Wesley reported regarding this Conference:

In June 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those who heard us. After some time, I invited the lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days and were much comforted and strengthened thereby.

Wesley noted that they were “comforted” and “strengthened.” It also did not happen in a half day of hurried business. Rather, they were together for “several days.” It takes time to bond and build a team. What was true in 18th century England is no less true for human beings today, no matter their cultural background. Have we forgotten this relational truth?

2. Change our language from “Assembly” to “Conference.” Words matter, and the term “Assembly” has come to be associated only with church business. Let’s get back to our Wesleyan roots and speak of Conference. If need be, we can carve out three hours from the Conference and call it “district church business session,” but let it not be the primary focus. Our main purpose should be connecting.

3. Remind the District Superintendent and his or her team that they have great freedom to organize this annual event and to use their creativity. District Conference could be the most anticipated event of the year. As it currently stands, districts seem to feel like they cannot do much without the presence of the outside church higher-up, whether that’s the General Superintendent or whoever may have been appointed to preside in his or her place. If the “district business meeting” and the ordination service are the only two events requiring the presence of the G.S., then there is great latitude to plan other events around those times, events more conducive to team-building and making connections between local churches on the district.

4. Don’t forget the children, teens and twenty-somethings. On the planning team, there should be representation from teens and those in their twenties. Inter-generational events should be the norm and space given to participation in both planning and on the platform by these three often forgotten age categories. Let us enfranchise all ages at the District Conference, including children. Only then can we reverse the lamentable trend where the average age at what we now call District Assembly is certainly above 50 and perhaps higher.

In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” the character played by actor Tom Hanks comes in to the neighborhood and builds a “big box” location of his chain book store. When the home-grown bookshop owner complains, he remarks:

“It’s not personal, it’s business.”

And that’s the problem with our current District Assembly Lines. They’re not personal, they’re just business. Assembly lines in the auto industry make for high efficiency, but in the church they’re destructive. It’s time to disassemble our annual District Assembly Lines and move to an annual District Conference, fostering over several days greater levels of connection while still accomplishing the church business that we must. 


UPDATE:  Twenty-four hours after posting it, this article has been viewed almost 400 times, which is more than 4x my usual traffic. Thank you to Dr. Eugenio Duarte for his comments at Africa Regional Conference this week, about connection really being our fourth Nazarene Core Value, i.e. Christian, holiness, misssional, and connectional. My essay is nothing more than reflecting on what he said and attempting to apply that principle in a particular case. I’m late to the party, as conversation on FaceBook shows some districts have already been re-thinking District Assembly in creative ways to combine it with other events (NMI, NYI, camp meeting) to make it longer and more relational. May this trend take hold. 


Image credit: F.R. Milovan Blog

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, missions & evangelism, reflections

Changing the world the Wesleyan way
John Wesley, 1703-91

John Wesley’s message was simple, just like Jesus’. Is ours?

He insisted in his 1746 The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained:

I have again and again, with all the plainness I could, declared what our constant doctrines are; whereby we are distinguished only from Heathens, or nominal Christians; not from any that worship God in spirit and in truth. Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, — that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself (Works, 8:521-22, CCEL digital edition).

Jesus was once asked to sum up all the Law and the Prophets, the heart of the message of what Christians now call the Old Testament. He answered by saying that we should love God and love our neighbor (Mark 12:28-34). These are the two Great Commandments, and they are the very marrow of what it means to be a Christlike disciple.

What does the religion of loving God and others look like, particularly as worked-out socially? In Principles Farther Explained, Wesley continued:

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men…this religion we long to see established in the world, a religion of love, joy, and peace, having its seat in the heart, but every showing itself by its fruits, continually spring forth, not only in all innocence, (for love worketh no ill to his neighbor), but likewise in every kind of beneficence, spreading virtue and happiness all around it (p. 524).

Continue reading “Changing the world the Wesleyan way”

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Disciplined community: light from St Benedict

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia

John and Charles Wesley were the 18th century co-founders of Methodism. Their young lives were ones of moral striving, extreme fastidiousness in their approach to the Christian faith, an emphasis on the merit accrued by good works. This went on well into adulthood until the brothers – through a series of providential events – received greater light. They came to understand that we do not perform good works in order to be saved. Rather, because God in Christ has graciously saved us, we as a result perform good works. In theological terms, justification (divine pardon of sins) comes first, followed by sanctification (God’s cleansing, leading to holiness of heart and life).

For three decades, the Wesleys had the order backwards, wrongly placing sanctification prior to justification. Once God corrected this error in their thinking and spiritual experience, the brothers – no longer preoccupied with saving themselves – devoted their full energies to announcing the glorious message of saving and sanctifying grace, both the free gift of a loving God, a provision of Christ’s atonement. Their initial error was one they inherited from their father, Samuel – a Church of England clergyman – and their mother, Susanna, but was larger than their upbringing. Moralism was the default message of the Church of England and had been for the second half of the 17th century right up to the Wesley brothers’ arrival on the scene in the early 1700s.

Centuries earlier, Benedict of Nursia (480-543 AD) had devised a rule that served as the organizing principle of a monastery he founded in Monte Cassino, an austere covenant of conduct by which monks agreed to abide. In 53 short chapters, the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict (1) lays out the Abbot’s expectations in every area of life together in the monastery, from eating and sleeping to manual labor, reading of books, and the “Work of God,” the 7 daily worship times that form the backbone of the Benedictine system. What was the ultimate purpose of the 72 “Instruments of Good Works” detailed in Chapter IV? Benedict clarified (p. 8):

Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they have been applied without ceasing day and night and approved on judgment day, will merit us from the Lord the reward which He hath promised.

As a theological heir of the Wesleys – knowing their early struggles to find the assurance of salvation – my radar is tuned to detect anything akin to salvation by human effort. The above quote betrays what is undoubtedly the greatest weakness of The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, a moral stretching-and-straining that is admirable but devoid of grace.

Yet shall we cast aside as worthless the entirety of a treatise just because Benedict made the same mistake as the early Wesleys? To do so would be foolish, and we would only be cutting off our nose to spite our face. For those open to light from diverse sources, the Holy Rule has much to teach about practical discipleship, including the high place given to the memorization of Scripture, especially the Psalms. Among other matters, Benedict underscored humility as conducive to spiritual growth, the place of corporate discipline in the Christian life, and the beauty of simple living. Let’s examine briefly how Benedict helpfully weaved these into his monastic system.

Continue reading “Disciplined community: light from St Benedict”

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If the church could take a selfie

DSCN3653Admit it. You’ve done it. You’ve snapped a photo of yourself – a “selfie” – at least once. Maybe you’ve even gone to the next level and bought one of those trendy selfie sticks, a trick to make a selfie appear like someone else took it.

Sometimes I wonder: What if wasn’t just individuals who took selfies?

What if the church could take a selfie?

What would she see? A better question might be: What should she see?

These are the kinds of questions that more than 300 Nazarene thinkers asked at the March 2014 Global Theology Conference, held in Johannesburg, South Africa. In a summation, Dr Thomas Noble, Professor of Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary concluded:

The church must be God-glorifying, Christ-centered, and Spirit-filled.

Dr Thomas Noble, Nazarene Theological Seminary
Dr Thomas Noble, Nazarene Theological Seminary

The statement is strong for several reasons. First, it is brief, making it more memorable. Secondly, it is Trinitarian, focusing equally upon God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That is no small virtue at a time when so much of our worship music centers on Jesus to the point that the Father and the Spirit are in danger of being eclipsed. Finally, it is not a halfhearted suggestion. It breathes urgency by using the word “must.” To neglect any of three characteristics is – in some sense – to cease being the church.

But let’s unpack the parts of this triplet.

The church must be God-glorifying.

Worship is the church gathered, but what is the purpose of worship? Pastor Victoria Osteen, Co-Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, was roundly criticized following her remarks in a widely-circulated video. She opined:

When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?

Self-absorption runs counter to Christ’s call to a life centered upon God and poured out in service to the world. Self-glorification is the antithesis of the two Great Commandments, loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). John Calvin (1509-64), the great Reformer from Geneva, noted regarding God the Father: “As all good flows, without any exception, from him, so ought all praise deservedly to return to him.” (1) Beyond worship, if the church receives human praise for a work of charity, shall she accept the credit for herself or deflect it back to the Father, the source of all that is good?

The church must be Christ-centered.

If God the Father is the one who to be glorified by the church’s worship and deeds, this does not dismiss the importance of Christ in all  that we do. To be Christ-centered as a community of faith means above all never losing sight of Christ crucified. In his self-giving love at Calvary, we behold the exemplar of who we are called to be both individually and corporately. In The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann observed:

The gospels intentionally direct the gaze of Christians away from the experiences of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit back to the earthly Jesus and his way to the cross. They represent faith as a call to follow Jesus. The call to follow him (Mark 8:31-38 par.) is associated with Jesus’ proclamation of suffering. To follow Jesus always means to deny oneself and to take ‘his cross’ on oneself. (2)

Christ crucified is the antidote to the narcissistic ethos of our time. As the church contemplates the self-giving love of Christ most excellently displayed in his death, she will be disgusted by every ingrown, time-consuming program that makes the church a comfortable club for the saints instead of a rescue squad rushing to the aid of those sick and dying from sin.

The church must be Spirit-filled. Make no mistake: This is not just any spirit, for the New Testament recounts the life-sucking and malevolent presence of evil spirits in the cosmos (Ephesians 6:10-20). Rather, God calls the church to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Wesleyan-Holiness teaching has emphasized the need for God to pour the Holy Spirit out like a river upon individual believers. Too often, we forget the corporate nature of this filling as exemplified on the Day of Pentecost. On that momentous occasion, it was the church gathered together in prayer that experienced the miraculous descent of the Dove (Acts 2:1-4). Only through the ongoing effusion of the Third Person of the Trinity is the church unified, cleansed, gifted and empowered for her outwardly-focused mission. Clark Pinnock explained:

God did not pour the Spirit out for us to exult in it as a private benefit. The purpose was ( and is) to empower witnesses to God’s kingdom (Acts 1:8)…God wants a community that, like Jesus, gets caught up in the transformation of the world. (3)

The Holy Spirit is the dynamo of the church (Acts 1:8). Though potentially dangerous if overdone, the metaphor of spiritual warfare demands reliance on the continual protection and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is especially important when the church begins living out its call to pierce the darkness by loving the last, the lost and the least, resulting in fierce push-back from the Enemy. Only the Spirit can instill courage amidst the fight, filling the church with stubborn love toward all even if she is at times the target of undeserved hate. Only the Spirit can energize the People of God to advance the Kingdom of Heaven, often against seemingly impossible odds.

If the church took a selfie, I wonder what she’d see? Would she capture the image of a community of faith that glorifies God, is centered on Christ and his selfless example, and overflows with the power and love of the Holy Spirit? Give me that kind of a church and we’ll change the world.



(1) John Calvin, in I. John Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Prss, 1997), 9.

(2) Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 54.

(3) Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 141.


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Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

Personal AND social transformation: lessons from a jetliner

Is your Gospel like a jet with one wing?
Is your Gospel like a jet with only one wing?

At the front of the chapel at Northwest Nazarene University (Nampa, Idaho – USA) is a memorable quote from Charles Wesley (1707-88), one of the founders of Methodism:

Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.

With apologies to Mr Wesley, the theme on which God is putting a fire in my bones these days is this:

Unite the two so long disjoined, personal and social transformation.

Like airplanes need two wings, so the Gospel message needs both a personal and social aspect in order to take off and take us where we need to go. While there are some in all age categories who understand and practice a two-winged Gospel, sometimes it seems like the church is a plane with only one wing.

Personal transformation has been the stock-in-trade of the 50+ crowd. This is the Billy Graham flavor of Christian faith focused upon the individual. In the Wesleyan-Holiness variety, it’s a call to be saved and sanctified, meaning God forgiving the wrong things that we have done, filling us with love for God and others, so much that unworthy habits in our lives get crowded out. It’s a fresh start, a new beginning and a life-long journey toward being more-and-more like Jesus, even as God’s Spirit lives inside of us (2 Corinthians 3:18, 5:17). More recently, many have emphasized getting to heaven and – in the meantime – a daily nurturing of our relationship with God through prayer and the reading of Scripture. Historically, this approach is known as pietism.

Social transformation is the heart-cry of many believers in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Young followers of Christ see a world that is broken and needing to be fixed, a world in need of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). With social justice as an important rallying point, they throw themselves into helping the poor, saving the Earth by changing their consumption habits, or battling prejudice against minorities. It’s about seeing God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). They see in Jesus a model for how to minister to those forgotten and oppressed by our society. Further, they have the audacity to believe that these wrongs can be righted, that evil systems can be changed.

A teacher poses at the center for street kids run by the Church of the Nazarene in Antananarivo, Madagscar. Children receive basic education, a hot meal, and learn about the love of Jesus
At the center for street kids run by the Church of the Nazarene in Antananarivo, Madagascar, children receive basic education, a hot meal, and learn about the love of Jesus

Unfortunately, we have an unhealthy tendency to think in binary terms, as if one must be either in the personal transformation camp or the social transformation camp. In our day, we see a growing generational divide. The older set may consider those younger to be naive and distracted from the heart of the Gospel, which in their view is mostly about getting people ready for the next life, while the younger set rejects the “Club Heaven” approach, finding that flavor of Christianity to be insular and therefore of limited impact.

But what if the church – like a jet – was always meant to have two wings, not one? What if message of Jesus Christ is not either/or, but both/and?

In fact, the Gospel is about both personal and social transformation. It can neglect neither one for any length of time and thrive, no more than an airplane with only one wing can fly.

As related to local churches, the need differs according to the setting. In a congregation that is insular, we must lean in the direction of community involvement, of adding to piety what John Wesley called “works of mercy” — feeding the poor, visiting the sick, and clothing the naked. It may involve going beyond symptoms to root problems, of marching against corruption or government practices that destroy the environment or campaigning against abortion as a form of systemic evil.

In other churches that are already strong on social transformation, leaders will need to inject a healthy dose of the personal elements of the Gospel. Here is included a call to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, a need to leave our sinful ways behind and let God change us from the inside out. The use of small accountability groups can do much to foster a stronger inner life and help move new believers on to a closer walk with God.


Some will ask: Which comes first, personal transformation or social transformation?

As a community of faith, we must always pursue them at the same time.

If we say that personal transformation must come first, the track record is that the church never gets around to building the Kingdom of God beyond the church, to social transformation. Further, as Wesleyans, we believe in the means of grace. In addition to taking the Lord’s Supper, we believe that God can use any number of practices to bring about change in our own lives – praying with others, visiting a nursing home or prison, campaigning against wrongful imprisonment of the innocent, volunteering at the rescue mission, being a Big Brother or Big Sister, going on a Work and Witness trip – all of these practices and more can be what God uses to make people aware of their need for a radical encounter with Jesus that will deliver them from the grip that sin has upon their lives. We must never make “getting saved” a prerequisite for heading out in mission with the church. Often, God will use the mission itself and rubbing shoulders with disciples of Christ to draw individuals to salvation.

Jets need two wings to fly. In the same way, the message of Jesus Christ is about transformation, both personal and social. Pastors and church leaders, how are you pursuing these dual emphases in your setting?

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments

Beyond self: Gathered to worship

Southland5The first line of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life may be its most profound: “It’s not about you.” Nothing that the church does together underscores this truth more than worship. When the people of God worship together, we are collectively caught-up into the presence of the Eternal One who far surpasses our minuscule, temporal selves.

Sunday is sacred because – ever since the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning – it has been the one time each week when collectively we set aside all distractions. It is on this day that we celebrate the Risen Christ, focusing on God. The hymn by William Kethe calls us to forget self and directs our attention instead to divine Royalty:

Oh, worship the King, all glorious above,

Oh, gratefully sing His pow’r and His love;

Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,

Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

The heart of worship: It’s all about God

Note where the focus lies. Each person in the room – be it a small store front with a low ceiling or a sanctuary in a high-vaulted cathedral – directs his or her attention heavenward. Self fades away in the bright light of the God who has no equal. Like the prophet Isaiah, worship properly understood transports us beyond ourselves and takes us to another dimension where we catch a glimpse of the majesty of the King: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3, CEB).

This is the first and most important aspect of worship: It is God-directed. Worship entices us to bow our knee before God, funneling our attention not self-ward but heavenward, celebrating the blessings of God with grateful hearts. And yet as we lose ourselves in God’s majesty, something amazing and paradoxical transpires:

 Steadfast refusal to focus upon ourselves in the end transforms us!

We see this boomerang effect in Ephesians 3:14-21. Paul offers a prayer, yet it is not a hurried petition, a rote recitation. Rather, it is a prayer that breathes the essence of worship:

“This is why I kneel before the Father.” – v. 14 (CEB)

Paul takes on the role of worship leader, submitting as creature to Creator, bringing us collectively into the awesome presence of Almighty God. Importantly, this God is Triune in nature and being. As Paul genuflects before the Father, he asks Him to strengthen our “inner selves” through “the Spirit” (v. 16). He invites Christ himself to live in our hearts “through faith” (v. 17). Oh, the mystery of the Three-in-One God! And not surprisingly, where this Three-in-One God abides, love is never far away:

“I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God” (v. 18-19).

If there was any doubt about the corporate setting of Paul’s prayer, it evaporates in v. 21: “Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen.”

Continue reading “Beyond self: Gathered to worship”