Open the Windows of the Church
Fifty years ago this month, Pope John XXIII initiated the Second Vatican Council. He said it was time to “throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.” It’s time to throw open the windows again!
The Roman Catholic Church has changed in dramatic ways in the last fifty years. Many people say they’d like to have seen even more change, however. No matter what one’s views, it seems clear that the Catholicism today is significantly different thanks to the Second Vatican Council.
The task for renewal in the Church never stops, of course. But there are some moments when the need for renewal seems more palpable, more urgent, more real. We live today in such a moment.
I’ve been thinking about the church globally, including its denominations, groups, and movements. Some amazing things are occurring, as creatures cooperate with the work of our Creator. But there are also reasons to seek change.
Change in the Church of the Nazarene
I want to step out on a limb in this short essay. I suggest ten ways the windows of the church might be thrown open so that the wind of the Spirit might blow through.
Much of what I propose applies to the Church generally. But because I know my own denomination — the Church of the Nazarene — much better, this essay is aimed at this collection of about 2.5 million Nazarenes across the world.
Here, then, are ten ways the windows of the Church of the Nazarene might be thrown open to let the Spirit blow through the church. I could probably write a book on each one, but I’ve limited myself to a few sentences.
I list these in no particular order:
1. Engage contemporary theology. Theological scholars in the colleges and universities sponsored by the Church of the Nazarene explore a variety of theological ideas. Theology in the denomination is significantly different today than it was fifty years ago. And that’s to be expected. Unfortunately, however, pursuing new forms of Wesleyan-Holiness theology in dialogue with these contemporary theological ideas is not encouraged as it should be. I believe the Spirit intends to do new things and guide the denomination in new ways theologically.
2. Embrace the wisdom of the wider Christian tradition. The Church of the Nazarene is but one small part of a much larger Christian family. And that family has much to teach Nazarenes. Sometimes Nazarenes forget their indebtedness to the wider Christian tradition. The result is impoverished liturgy, worship, theology, and practice. The Church of the Nazarene can embrace the wisdom in other Christian traditions without losing its identity.
3. Reexamine what makes the Church of the Nazarene unique and affirm elements helpful for today. The denomination’s own history offers a rich resource. Of course, there are also aspects in its history better left in the past. I know of no one, for instance, who thinks we should return to the practice of forbidding members to attend baseball games. But other elements in our history can help us live faithfully today. As a denomination, we must do the hard work of gleaning wheat and leaving chaff.
4. Support the poor, powerless, and deprived. From its beginning, the Church of the Nazarene has felt especially called to help those most in need. Such help can be financial, emotional, intellectual, etc. I find many young Nazarenes wanting to affirm this history of helpfulness, although today these issues typically are called matters of “social justice.” The wind of the Spirit in the Church seems to be calling us to renew our resolve to act for the good of the least of these.
5. Embrace knowledge offered in the sciences, humanities, and arts. As important as the Bible is for Nazarenes, we have never been a “Bible only” people. Leaders from the beginning understood, for instance, the importance of liberal arts university education. Unfortunately, however, those who embrace the knowledge found in the sciences, humanities, and arts are sometimes deemed as “liberal” or concerned with peripheral issues. The windows of the Church are not opened wide for the Spirit if we ignore some portions of God’s truth.
6. Create space in positions of leadership for non-North Americans and minority voices. We’re already behind the curve when it comes to having good representation in leadership of non-white Nazarenes. The denomination is growing fastest outside the U.S., and many more Nazarenes live outside North America than in it. And yet our leadership at denominational headquarters – top to bottom – is by far dominated by white males. Perhaps embracing diversity will require decentralization, but it at least involves diverse representation at the leadership level.
7. Promote an evangelistic/missional strategy of love toward nonChristians. Unfortunately, some act as if befriending those of different religious traditions — without the relentless goal of converting them — is unwise. But we are called first to love, and that may or may not involve inviting others to embrace the Christian faith. In a world of increasing religious diversity, we should affirm the universality of God’s prevenient grace toward all peoples. And this affirmation need not lead to pluralism or extreme relativism.
8. Reestablish the power and number of women in leadership. Many members of the Church of the Nazarene happily note that while the Roman Catholic church has not embraced the Spirit’s move to establish women in the highest positions of leadership, Nazarenes have affirmed this throughout their history. And yet a very small percentage of Nazarene pastors are women. And leadership in various denominational sectors is dominated by men. Steps must be taken to encourage Nazarene members to promote women into positions of leadership.
9. Change the leadership General Superintendent structure. Since its early days, the Church of the Nazarene has elected beginning with three and then six leaders to the highest position of leadership: General Superintendent. When the denomination numbered a few hundred thousand, this was a sufficient number of leaders to fulfill the tasks assigned the position. While the denomination has grown ten times bigger in the last sixty years, the same number of general superintendents is called to govern. We either need a single bishop with dozens of key leaders under her to fulfill the tasks of leadership, or we need 18-20 general superintendents located in and representing various parts of the world. The denomination cannot function well in its current leadership format.
10. Engage culture rather than simply condemn it. I recently read the Pew Research Center study of religion among the American “millennial generation.” I was struck by how young people think about issues of religion and culture. In particular, most younger Americans think differently than their parents about abortion, evolution, the influence of Hollywood, homosexuality, and the proper size of government. This, of course, doesn’t mean that their views are better or should necessarily change the positions of the denomination. But it does mean that the Church of the Nazarene must engage culture – American and other cultures – to discern what should be embraced and what should be rejected. Besides, it’s quite clear that the denomination changed its views on many issues – e.g., dancing, wearing rings, movies, sports – as cultures changed in the last century.
One of the theological presuppositions of Pope John XXIII’s statement about “throwing open the windows of the church” is that what we do influences what the Spirit does. That’s a presupposition that fits well in Wesleyan theology. And it rightly puts responsibility on our shoulders to cooperate with what God might want to do in our world today.
I remain optimistic about the future of the church, in general, and the Church of the Nazarene, in particular. My optimism is grounded in God’s grace. But I also believe we as a church and as individuals must heed the call for a fresh anointing of the Spirit in our lifetime.