The seductiveness of schism: a caution to fellow Nazarenes

gallant_lady_shipwreckAs Nazarenes, our core values are clear. We are Christian, we are holiness, and we are missional. Regarding the first value – “We are Christian” – we celebrate the remarkable times in which we live. For the broader Church of Jesus Christ, these are days of conciliation, of unity, of coming together for the sake of the Gospel and the advance of the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s a great moment to be alive and on the winning team!

The evidence of growing unity is all around us. In 1998, a joint declaration between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the nature of justification was pronounced, a declaration ratified in 2006 by the World Methodist Council. Closer to home for those in the Wesleyan-Holiness orbit,  2011 saw the birth of the Global Wesleyan Alliance, with the 2013 meeting witnessing the participation of 11 denominations, including the Wesleyan Church, the Salvation Army, the Church of God (Anderson), the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methoodist Church USA, and others. These are encouraging signs that the Holy Spirit is bringing us together in new ways, helping us advance in unity and with greater joint effectiveness.

As the only Nazarene missionaries living in the West African country of Benin (1999-2003), we reached out to missionaries of other denominations. Every Sunday night, twenty or so met together for Bible study, prayer and fellowship. On Wednesday, our missionary men’s group met for  breakfast. Despite differences, we were one in Christ. Friendships forged with brothers and sisters of different theological persuasions became our lifeline. While we didn’t agree on a handful of doctrinal issues, we knew this: We needed each other!

Against this larger backdrop of cooperation between churches of various traditions – a move to strengthen the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love, as the old hymn says – a dischordant note has been sounded this week by Nazarene pastor and blogger Josh Broward in his essay, “Will the Church of the Nazarene split?”

I don’t begrudge Pastor Broward his right to ask the question. Our denomination from the start at Pilot Point, Texas in 1908 has been founded upon a spirit of compromise to bring together diverse groups. Tensions have existed all along, and sometimes those tensions have resulted in schism, like when the Bible Missionary Church left the denomination in 1955 over the issue of television. Smaller splits happen in Africa, such as when a handful of Nazarene congregations in southeast Nigeria broke away from the denomination in the early 1990s. If Paul and Barnabas went their own ways over the issue of John Mark and his usefulness to the mission as a traveling companion (Acts 15:36-41), can we expect to always have unity in our time?

That being said, there are 4 reasons why expending energy talking about denominational schism is misguided:

1- Talk of a split ignores that the Holy Spirit is moving churches closer, not further apart. At the very moment when an interdenominational choir of Christians is learning to make beautiful music together, the “Shall we split?” dirge from some Nazarenes sounds strangely off-key. Instead, Paul advises:”So then we pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19, NASB).

Continue reading “The seductiveness of schism: a caution to fellow Nazarenes”

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Something fishy about this meme

10606456_10154618217465010_6734428944087588241_nReligion and church get a bum rap. They have become dirty words, something socially acceptable to talk down.

Exhibit A: Let’s look at the meme to the right. It came across my FaceBook, shared and “liked” many times by others.

In the top line, note how “religion” and “church” are obstacles. They stand in the way of you doing what you really want to be doing (fishing) instead of being in church. The message is clear:

Fishing is fun, but religion and church are BORING.

Just go fishing. You’ll connect with God there, and have a lot more fun. What you need is relationship, not religion or church, or so the picture would have us believe.

Like most deceptive memes, there’s just enough truth here to sugarcoat the underlying falsehood. So let’s start with the truth in the meme. Many people – myself included – do connect with God through nature. While I don’t fish, I love to hike with my camera at the ready. No bird, rock, tree or flower can escape my 30x zoom lens. Like the Psalmist, I regularly see the hand of God in what the LORD has created:

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftmanship” (Psalm 19:1).

When walking with my camera, I am drawn to think about God. I talk to the LORD, and often I sense God’s presence in return, a sense of peace, of God’s love, of companionship with the divine. So far, so good.

Where the meme loses me and I start to say – “Now, wait just a minute here!” – is the false dichotomy, as if you can choose either a relationship with God fueled by nature or religion/church. Truth be known, we need not choose between the two. Both hold many comforts for the disciple of Christ.

Let’s start with the word “religion.” Contrary to the negative connotation given by the meme and by the title of Christian rapper Jefferson Bethke’s well-intentioned but half-truthish viral video, the word “religion” as used in Scripture is positive. Two prominent uses are found in 1 Timothy 5:4 and James 1:26-27. There, the instruction by Paul and James is not to jettison religion but to live out a form of religion that is genuine and caring. How can this be done? Both agree that how we treat others – the members of our family, the widows, the orphans – is to model positive and genuine religion. Interestingly, the word “religion” in both passages is understood socially. The true and honorable practice of religion means confirming the value of our professed relationship with God by treating those around us with love and concern. Though he doesn’t use the term “religion,” John ratifies this sentiment:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen (1 John 4:20, NIV).

Beyond the Scriptural understanding of religion is one more philosophical. The second definition of “religion” in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary is “a system of religious beliefs or practices.” The words “belief” and “practice” are in the same constellation as the term “worldview.” Religion is the God-shaped “glasses” through which a believer views reality. C.S. Lewis once remarked: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” To infer that religion is somehow opposed to relationship is like saying we should never use our eyes so that we can develop a keener sense of hearing. Religion (symbolized by the eye) helps us interpret reality God’s way. Relationship (symbolized by the ear) gives us a sense of meaning as we talk with God and develop intimacy with our Creator. Just like we function better with both eyes and ears – when it comes to God – we need both religion and relationship.

A second word in the first part of the meme that is given a negative spin is “church.” I’d be the first to admit that there are plenty of churches that aren’t worthy of the title. Ingrown, judgmental, legalistic, these clusters of Christians give churches in general a bad name. Prison chaplain Lennie Spitale laments that many who find Christ and grow in their faith inside prison fall away once released. Though they try to go to church on the outside, too many Christians leave the impression that they have their act together. The ex-prisoner feels awkward and uncomfortable, often reconnecting instead with former friends with whom they fall back into destructive habits and patterns (Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out [B & H Publishing, 2002, Kindle edition], 28).

potatoesBut I learned a lesson about potatoes that applies to churches. As a teen, my boss at the supermarket asked me to sort through a shopping cart filled with 10 lb. bags of potatoes. The bags were smelling ripe, so I ripped them open and dumped the potatoes out on the table. Usually, out of 20 or 25 good-sized potatoes, it was only 1 or 2 that were rotten. These I threw away, while the rest got bagged up for re-sale. So it is with churches. Some Christians in churches seem rotten, so much that we’d like to throw them away like I did with those putrid potatoes. But most believers are just fine, imperfect people like you and me who – by God’s grace – are coming to look more and more like Jesus. Will we throw away the whole bag of potatoes for the sake of a few smelly ones?

Church is not just an option for the believer. It’s a necessity. The writer to the Hebrews urged his readers to keep coming together for worship and mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:25). Likewise, John Wesley (1703-91)  identified 5 crucial “means of grace” that help us grow in our faith. These are prayer, reading the Bible, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and “Christian conference.” By “Christian conference” he meant every way that believers come together. This involves weekly worship on Sundays but also includes being part of a small group where we can take care of each others’ needs, pray for each other, laugh together and – when necessary – warn a brother or sister when we see something creeping into their lives that risks drawing them away from God.

The community of faith has been so positive, so life-giving and joyful for me across the years that it’s rare for my mind to wander during worship to somewhere else I’d rather be. Instead, on the occasional Sunday morning when job duties and airline travel schedules keep me away from church, my mind often wanders there, with questions like:

-I wonder what songs they’re singing?

-I hope the pastor’s sermon series continues well today.

-Do you think that Joe’s job search we’ve been praying for has turned anything up?

-Today’s the day that the Smith’s baby gets baptized. They must be excited!

Relationship, religion, church – what powerful words! I’m glad that when it comes to us and God, we need not choose between them. They each have their place in our Christian vocabulary. By the strength of our example, energized by the Holy Spirit, let us make each of these words attractive and winsome in the eyes of our culture.

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Image credit (potatoes): thekitchencousins.com

Persons transformed: Making Christlike disciples

crossAt the center of Christianity is a cross. How strange is it that an ancient Roman instrument of torture and execution has become the most recognizable symbol in the world?

Theologians have pondered the cross for centuries yet still have not been able to fully explain its meaning. There are many verses in the New Testament that speak of the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth that day long ago outside the walls of Jerusalem. Among these, some from Paul’s letter to the Romans are among the best known:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:8-9, NIV).

We were still sinners.

To be a sinner is to sin, to disobey God either by doing what God forbids or refusing to do what God requires (1 John 3:4, James 4:17). The amazing thing about Romans 5:8 is that we deserved judgment but received grace, favor from heaven that we never earned. God could in anger have said to humanity after the disobedience of Adam and Eve: “You’ve made your bed. Now, lie in it.” Yet from somewhere deep down in the great heart of this Three-in-One God, compassion welled up. A baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem, Immanuel, “God with us.” Mary – a faithful young Jewish woman who had never had sex with a man – was confused. How could she be pregnant? What was this all about? Yet this miraculous conception had a purpose. The angel instructed Mary to name the child Jesus – “the LORD saves” – for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, NIV).

In the Old Testament, sin always required a sacrifice to atone, to make human beings once again at-one with God. Reflecting on the book of Leviticus, the writer to the Hebrews observed:

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22, NIV).

But God demonstrated his love.

On the day Jesus died on the cross, that was far from obvious for the men and women who had followed him for three years. The evidence seemed to point in the opposite direction, that God was demonstrating hatred toward Jesus. Did not Jesus himself – borrowing the words of Psalm 22:1 – cry out:

” ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani? – which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ “

Anyone hung on a tree was considered cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). That their Lord had died naked and brutally beaten could only have been interpreted as divine abandonment – or was it?

As the disciples thought back over the time they had spent with their Lord, the cross finally made sense of some things that at the time were incomprehensible. They remembered the words of John the Baptist when Jesus came to be baptized in the river Jordan. Jesus’ cousin saw him coming, then announced loud enough for all to hear: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NIV). As for Mary, the mother of Jesus, surely now the words of the angel made sense. Jesus himself had warned his disciples that he would die in Jerusalem and rise again after three days (Mark 8:31). Somehow, they had not been ready to hear those words. They filtered them out.

Now, what had looked like hate and abandonment suddenly began to look like love. The death of Jesus was not in vain. It fulfilled a divine purpose and was motivated by God’s love for us, for me! The innocent died so that the guilty might live.

We have now been justified.

Sinners merit God’s anger and punishment. Yet Paul says in Romans 5:9 that in Christ, we have been saved from God’s wrath. We can be  justified, forgiven, pardoned!

Transformation always begins when our broken relationship with God is restored, thanks to what Jesus has done for us.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a well-known writer and naturalist. As he neared death, his aunt came to visit with him. She asked: “Have you made your peace with God?” Thoreau replied: “I didn’t know that we had ever quarreled.” Thoreau’s response underscores the truth that we must be willing to admit that we have wronged God or else why seek God’s forgiveness? Confession is a prerequisite for pardon. 1 John 1:8-9 (NIV) teaches:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

From pardon to purity: transformation God’s way

To be reconciled to God brings the blessing of adoption into God’s family (Romans 8:15). Likewise, from that moment when we are reconciled, we become disciples of Jesus Christ, followers of his way. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis taught that Christians are to be “little Christs.” This is not possible on our own, but our transformation to become Christlike disciples begins immediately once we have been forgiven and agreed to let God direct us onto a new path.

This new mindset – a willingness to forsake our sins, to let God change us since we are powerless to change ourselves – is called repentance. Placing our faith in Christ and what he has done for us at the cross, nothing short of a miracle transpires. Jesus calls this being “born again” (John 3:3), from which we get the terms new birth or regeneration. Singer Keith Green recounts his own experience of deciding to follow Jesus, saying it was “like waking up from the longest dream.” Paul insists that we become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). With the Holy Spirit of God now living inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:18), God makes everything new.

The word that describes God’s transforming work in our heart and life is sanctification. One meaning of the term is to be set apart for a sacred use. Some of the utensils used by the Hebrew priests in the Tabernacle were to be sanctified, i.e. used only in the sacrifice of animals in the worship of God (Leviticus 8:10-11). In the same way, the follower of Jesus is to consider himself or herself as belonging totally to God. The Christlike disciple does not have the option to specify which parts of his or her life God may control. To be entirely sanctified means that all that we are and have is now under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). When God has all that we are, then God’s holy presence – God’s purity and love – fill us. Sin becomes distasteful as our attention focuses less-and-less on self-gratification and more-and-more on how we can love and serve others in the name of Jesus.

God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.

mopAt 16, I took my first  job, working in the produce department of a grocery store. One night, my boss asked me to mop the floor of the back room. I did the job the best I knew how, but he was unsatisfied. When this went on for several nights, he finally asked me to demonstrate what I had been doing. “Greg,” he said, “you’ll never get the floor clean if you use a dirty mop dipped in dirty water. You’ll just keep spreading the dirt around.” The next night, I changed the dirty mop head for a clean one and frequently changed out the water. Success! The floor was clean and my boss was happy.

Looking at the church today, sometimes I think about mopping floors. We’ve understood that transformation of the world is not a distraction from the Gospel work. It is Gospel work. But unless we recognize that God must first transform us, then we risk just being dirty mops dipped in dirty water, spreading the dirt around and changing nothing. We cannot assume that just because individuals have been in the church all their lives that they have encountered the living Christ in a life-changing way! Each of us must decide to follow Jesus. Pardon and purity are available, but we must individually acknowledge our sin and make our peace with God through Christ (Romans 5:1). Paul challenges each of us:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2, NIV).

A key part of changing the world is allowing God the Holy Spirit to transform us first, then inviting others to journey with us as we follow Jesus together. Christlike disciples make other Christlike disciples. God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.

Summing it all up

The cross towers before us, a symbol of God’s love and the sacrifice of Jesus so that we can be saved from our sins. In the cross, Jesus built a bridge between God and humanity, offering his own blood so that we can be forgiven and cleansed, set apart for God’s own use. Justification and sanctification describe the radical transformation that God works in the lives of those who turn their back on their sins and decide to follow Jesus. As we become Christlike disciples – spurning sin and hungering for God – God uses us to make more Christlike disciples. God sends us out arm-in-arm into the world. Purified and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we become agents of the change God desires in society and all creation. What a mission!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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FOR FURTHER READING:

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.

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Image credit: Crossbridge Community

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.

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Image creditNexus Mods

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.

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