The New Nazarenes

December 2nd, 2009 / 20 Comments

The denomination in which I serve as an ordained minister, the Church of the Nazarene, celebrated its 100-year anniversary not long ago. Thriving in the next 100 years will require significant change.

I am excited to see contemporary Nazarenes embracing change in many forms.  Nazarenes are looking outside their own ecclesial walls for resources for renewal. Members of the denomination — both clergy and lay — are engaging a wide array of ideas, cultural trends, and theologies.

Those venturing outside their comfort zones, however, feel strongly about retaining their identities as members of the Church of the Nazarene. They are not interested in leaving; they want renewal, revival, or new creation.

One way to identify the changes that are taking place is to list some of the labels contemporary Nazarenes are trying on for size. Below is a partial list of some of these labels…*

“eco-Nazarenes” – those concerned about ecological and environmental issues

“emergent/emerging Nazarenes” – those engaged in the emergent/emerging movement or conversation

“process Nazarenes” – those interested in the resources process theology provides

“radical orthodox/post-liberal Nazarenes” – those interested in the resources radical orthodoxy and post-liberal theology provides

“missional Nazarenes” – those engaging missional theology in its various dimensions

“open and relational Nazarenes” – those accessing the resources of open and relational theology

“post-colonial Nazarenes” – those wishing to emphasize the importance of contextual theology and liberation

“ecumenical Nazarenes” – those who believe engaging other Christian communions is vital

“social justice” Nazarenes – those concerned about economic, environmental, and political justice

“immigrant Nazarenes” – those concerned with what immigration means for Christian identity

“nondenominational Nazarenes” – those who play down denominational structures and hierarchies

“liturgical/sacramental Nazarenes” – those who believe the sacraments and liturgy should be central

“front-door Nazarenes” – those who will not slip out the denominational back door when fundamentalists exert control

“ancient-future Nazarenes” those wishing to retain some particular aspect of the past but express it in a radically new way

“neo-Nazarenes” – an overarching label that probably covers the majority of the previous ones

This list is not exhaustive.  In addition, many contemporary Nazarenes would likely embrace several labels as representing some of their concerns.

Most of these labels identify North American and European Nazarene concerns. However, the fastest growth in the denomination is elsewhere. I have spent a significant amount of time in regions outside “the West.” And I find two paradoxical trends at play.

One trend among nonwestern Nazarenes is to embrace their own contextual expressions and languages of faith. This is a form of post-colonial theology, although few would likely know this label. Admittedly, nonwestern indigenous manifestations of what it means to be Nazarene can make western Nazarenes feel uncomfortable. The syncretism that occurs as Nazarenes express their own forms of holiness, however, seems often to generate transformed lives.

The second trend among nonwestern Nazarenes is to look to the U.S. and Europe for education and guidance. Most nonwestern young people crave Western-oriented education. While they sometimes embrace their own cultural heritage and expressions, they paradoxically import ideas, fashions, language, and theologies that are Western and not indigenous.

To list labels as I have done and to talk about the contextual theologies of nonwestern Nazarenes leads naturally to the question of what unites Nazarenes.  We might ask the question this way, “What is the core of the Church of the Nazarene?”

Answering this question well goes beyond the scope of this essay.  But I will briefly suggest two things that unite those who embrace their identity as members of the Church of the Nazarene.

  1. The Church of the Nazarene emphasizes the centrality of love. It does so, because its members believe the themes of love are central to the Bible.  It does so because its most significant theological source, John Wesley, considered love the core of the Christian faith.  And it does so because, as I have argued, love unites the diverse ways Nazarenes understand holiness and sanctification.

  2. The Church of the Nazarene has a particular historical trajectory that makes it unique.  It has its own “form of life,” to use the language of Ludwig Wittgenstein. This particular history is not without its flaws, of course.  But those of us who embrace the Church of the Nazarene do so in part because her story and our stories intertwine.

Alasdair MacIntyre offers an analogy that helps to make sense of the New Nazarenes. MacIntyre uses the analogy of the craftsman who both learns from authorities but creatively engages new ideas:

     “To share in the rationality of a craft requires sharing in the contingencies of its history, understanding its story as one’s own, and finding a place for oneself as a character in the enacted dramatic narrative which is that story so far.”

     “The authority of a master within a craft is both more and other than a matter of exemplifying the best standards so far. It is also and most importantly a matter of knowing how to go further and especially how to direct others towards going further, using what can be learned from the tradition afforded by the past to move towards the telos of fully perfected work.”

     “It is in thus knowing how to link past and future that those with authority are able to draw upon tradition, to interpret and reinterpret it, so that its directedness towards the telos of that particular craft becomes apparent in new and characteristically unexpected ways.”

I am optimistic that many of the New Nazarenes can help the Church of the Nazarene link past and future. Their purpose – telos – might be to join with God to usher in a new century of holiness. My optimism, therefore, is an optimism of grace: God’s love at work in the world in wild and wonderful ways.

* (I thank my friends on Naznet for suggesting some of these labels.)

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Jim Hampton

Thanks, Tom, for the post. Here’s a couple of questions I had after reading this:
1) Is it possible that some of these labels are, by their very identity, mutually exclusive, and as such, incompatible with one another under the same denominational label?

I raise this first question in light of the recent White Paper which has caused much discussion on this very issue.

2) Like you, I have had the opportunity to travel to many nonwestern countries, and have been excited to see the indigenous theologies developing there. However, I have often been puzzled by something that you write about, and thus my question: Why are these nonwestern countries looking to the US and Europe for education and guidance?

As we have tried to be intentional about not being colonial-minded, allowing each area to create their own culturally defined theologies, isn’t their very asking us to teach them paradoxical?

Not sure I have answers, just questions. grin

Brian Postlewait

Kudos! Tom, I think your analysis is right on.  I appreciate the emphasis of a shared story which is held together and rooted in a theology of love that is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus. 

We are apprentices of Jesus through a Nazarene Apprenticeship program.  This is a school that is relatively new to the Jesus movement.  But it’s a school with some things going for it—strengths to be named.  Likewise there are areas of growth and learning as well.  If we want to grow and mature as a school for Love and Jesus Apprenticeship, then we must learn from the many other schools out there and from Jesus himself through devotion to the scriptures, sacraments, and practicing the gospel in word and deed. 


Hans Deventer

Tom, like you, I believe we should always have the optimism of grace. With God, all is possible. Yet from a human point of view, a new birth is often a painful process. Some don’t even survive.
I don’t know what the future will hold for us Nazarenes. God may even have to raise a new holiness movement from our ashes. Or will we let Him change us? “Into his likeness with ever-increasing glory”?
There are hopeful signs.

Dennis Carter

Interesting article. This concept of increasing diversity in the Nazarene church intrigues me. I’ll continue to ponder this article.

What unifies us? Love was central to the Nazarene church, perhaps most visibly expressed in compassionate ministries, helping the poor, etc.

It seems remarkably true, that most who currently embrace the Nazarene church have lives that have long been intertwined with the narrative of the Nazarene church. Such trends threaten “inward focus”, indermining the ability of that thread to weave through NEW lives within our surrounding culture?

Early Nazarenes seemed to be passionate about two things: sharing faith with those who did not already share in that faith (including going to where they were, not waiting for others to come to us), and expressing faith in all aspects of our lives, without reservation. This was reflected in the theology of salvation and sanctification. If our thread does not reach outside the current tapestry into the surrounding culture, eventually the thread will run out. I suspect contemporary Nazarenes will connect past and future to the degree that the diversity you refer to within the church, is able to empower passionate faith while intersecting a diverse secular culture.

David Pettigrew

The Church of the Nazarene experienced a significant shift at its 50th birthday as well.  The question of the day back then was “Are we going to be defined by legalism?”.  We chose correctly, in my opinion, and those who wanted us to go in a different direction withdrew.

I see us at a similar crossroads today.  Perhaps the question we are asking is “Are we going to be defined by love?”.  Seems like a no-brainer, but the implications of actually living out that question are causing a lot of discomfort.  Will we see another splinter group break away, either made up of progressive Nazarenes who no longer fit in our traditional model, or fundamentalists who can’t share the table with us?  It’s unlikely that a new denomination would form, but we seem to be siphoning off folks in both camps, one at a time.  For me – I’m staying as long as the church I love will have me, and if she decides I no longer fit, I’ll leave graciously, knowing I couldn’t have found Jesus without her.

Jason McPherson

While I agree that love needs to be a core foundation of the future of the CoN, it is quite obvious that many people in the church (and many in my local congregation) are at odds with what this means and looks like.  I believe that gap will only grow between those who are firmly holding on to conservatism and what has always ‘felt right’ and those who dare to venture and wrestle with uncomfortable and unfamiliar questions that are new to the church.  Call me Scrooge but I only see the divisiveness growing.

mario zani

Great job, Tom! I suspect most of the labels reflect first the culture/context in which we live today; second, the human non-conformity spirit and rebellion against the status quo of some churches (or denomination sectors); and—perhaps—, in third place, the many desert “wandering” bored Christians led by non-committed-to-the-Word leaders (?). After reading my comment, someone (or more than one) will label me as well (there are “Comfort zone nazarene labelers”, nazarene opinologists, too).

Ron Hunter Jr

Will there be room in this new Nazarene Church for us conservative/quasi-fundamentalist Nazarenes who hold to Certain Authority of the Bible, to the exclusivity of Christ to connection to God, and that Beliefs matter as much if not more than behavior? The requirement of change you present says to me that there are some who claim Christianity not welcomed in the future Church of the Nazarene. What do we do of those in our home churches who support financially and prayerfully the mission of the church who would be insulted to be called progressives in the list provided. In the same vein the foundationalists in the church should hear caution as they (I) don’t want to renounce “my” church in order to have a community to belong, but they dare not dismiss and require removal of the many others who seek to belong. I am concerned with these “required changes” although I am not about to start an organization out of this anxiety, how do we become the church together rather than forever splinter?

Bob Luhn

Very thought provoking,Tom. As a “charismatic nazarene” I was hoping to make the list but maybe at the next 100 year celebration! Seriously, it seems to mean that our Wesleyan heritage demands that love be our core ethic/value. As I tell my pentecostal friends, “We both agree on being filled with the Holy Spirit, but disagree on the “evidence” of Spirit-filling. Love for God and one another flowing from a purified heart vs. speaking in tongues. Fruit vs. gifts.” I just came back from talking with a prostitute in her motel room. Speaking in tongues sounds a whole lot easier than loving a damaged person like this. I’m thinking I need more guidance from some “old Nazarenes” who worked with street people, unwed moms, addicts and so on and actually built churches out of such folks.How did they do it in the “Glory barn days”?

Jeffrey Sykes

Sometimes, though I am no longer a child, I feel like I still struggle to understand all it is that I have inherited under the label “Nazarene.”  I am an inheritor of the conservative and what same label as “liberal.”  I grew up in conservative churches and have struggled as I try to reconcile what I learned and experienced there with my experience since then.  What I now understand is that I am, in my own self, a contradiction.  For example, I grew up in a church that sang the national anthem on the Sunday closest to July 4.  After reading the Scriptures, I am convinced that the call to follow Jesus demands that I practice non-violence.  If our nation participates in violence can I sing that song in church anymore? 
My point is that I haven’t deliberately sought to break communion with any other believers, yet the fact that I might struggle with that could be offensive to others.  They fear me and I fear them.  When we are afraid, both of us could do things that might be incompatible with true faith in Christ.
What I hope we can share with a deep and abiding conviction is that always and everywhere the Holy Spirit is reminding us of what Jesus has taught us and is guiding us into all truth.


Terry Mattson

Dr. Oord,

Again, thank you!  Your overview of the current North American trends is helpful to a community in process of re-discovering her mission and soul.

I remain in my Nazarene community for two reasons.  First, her narrative is mine.  I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the narrative, as I have experienced it (i.e., middle class, suburban, culturally modern, mostly white and often empty both in mission and worship).  But the hunger inside the Love Story has captured me and still does. The wholeness and holiness which is the promise of a loving God remains ellusive.  I am not holy and am deeply acquainted with the broken spaces between us and in me.  Still, the love for God and from God is rich, sometimes joyful, always present. I now live in an urban, multi-cultural, multi-economic community living into mission.  The hunger for fullness of love has increased as I live way beyond my own and our ability to meet need, but it is the hope of being fully given over to God’s love that keeps me looking back into our own story… and sideways into the Catholic story, the emergent stories and into the faces of those who live without homes and sharing with each/all holy communion (Eucharist).

I am deeply optimistic with what I am seeing among this new generation. Our DNA is inclusive and open, even as some of our history is exclusive and legalistic.  I am confident we shall choose well.


Scott Daniels

I find your question about whether or not there will be room in the church for the conservative quasi-fundamentalist kind of funny since imo that view continues to dominate the local church. It’s sort of like someone asking if after the abolition of slavery and the legislating of women’s rights if there will be room left in the work force for white men. I think you are really asking if there be room in the Church-affiliated academy for such a view.

I really can’t stand the idea that the new Nazarenes that Tom lists somehow reject the three categories you list…

Couldn’t it be argued that (to pick Tom’s first example) that the eco-Nazarene is led to be concerned about the environment precisely because of their belief in the authority of the Scriptures? Why can’t we find an inerrantist who strongly avocates creation-care as a way of living out the dominioning command given to God’s imagers?

Which of the “hyphenateds” listed would argue against Christ as the full revelation of God? Christology will always be the central question for Christians in general and not just Nazarenes.

I think its simply a false dichotomy to separate belief and behavior. Ultimately a person lives out of their convictions. Again, every hyphenated group Tom listed is shaped by beliefs. We inevitably look like the God we believe in.


Scott Daniels

Thanks, Tom. Your question about what unites us will dominate the next decades of the church. I don’t think we can sustain a common historical trjectory for long without some united telos toward which that trajectory is leading.

I thank you for arguing that love is our common bond. (I would expect that from you). But I wonder if that differentiates us from other Christian traditions enough to make our unique existence significant.

I also think you are speaking from what you wish were true rather than what has been true. I think we were originally shaped (like Pentecostals) by a generation who advocated a unique religious experience.  Which then led to a generation that struggeld to share that same experience but were still shaped by particular (historical and socialy contextual) ethic which as culture continued to move forward increasingly looked like legalism. The next generation rejected that legalism but were co-opted by a sweeping conservative politic.

The current generation is rightly rejecting that political co-opting but isn’t quite sure where to go now. And so they go out (which is represented in some of your “new” groups) or they go further back (as some of the other “new” groups do).

But that’s my overly simplified read on things (at least in North America). But that’s why I think there are some many groups who are adding adjectives to Nazarene.

I like to think I’m a Wesley-Bresee-Greathouse-Nazarene. I need three adjectives smile

Dennis Carter

This really is a fascinating topic.

Ron, many feel like you. Not only is there room, but you are (desperately) needed. How else are we to reach our world? But perhaps the ideal question isn’t whether there is room for you. Some alternate questions to consider might be:

Why are the young generations half as likely to be interested in Christianity or the church as the older generations? (Barna research) If we fail to reach our youth (including young adults), what will happen to our culture, our country, and our world in the the next 40 years?

Do our churches have room for the messed up life, who is vaguely interested in “spirituality”, but is intimidated by church for any number of reasons (are burdened by lies and guilt, have had previous negative experiences with church, feel judged long before they feel loved, the Christian language/culture is foreign to them, church seems weird or irrelevant to them, etc.)

For the person who is started on their personal “spiritual journey”, are we prepared to give them the needed time, support, and encouragement; all seasoned heavily with patience, prayer, love, and grace? Do we let them authentically expore their faith, or do we expect them to immediately believe, undertand, and act like proper Christians?

Are we patient (and committed to relationships) sufficiently that we will listen and love before speaking and judging?

You implied “beliefs matter… more than behavior.” I agree, but have discovered something that may matter even more than beliefs… and that is trajectory. A soul that is messed-up but authentic, and is moving closer to God, is perhaps favored over a mature but stagnant and/or “private” faith, that no longer seeks to impact the world for Christ. Which is more important, where one’s faith is, or where it is going to be?

It is impossible for pastors to carry these loads by themselves. Are we equipping all believers (not just the professionals) to reach our world? Are Christians willing to “get in the game.” Are pastors willing to coach?

Personally, my theology and lifestyle are conservative Nazarene, and not substantially changed over the last 30 years. Even so, I probably fit into about half of those labels. For me, the difference is that I’ve become increasingly passionate about how to reach my peers, who are interested in God/Jesus, but turned off by the current Christian culture.

Ron Hunter Jr

I recognize the state of the church as you point out, yet I hear in Toms query an inevitability of becoming who we are not presently. Some would argue of your” white men” illustration that while it may not have been immediately evident, the eventual concern is becoming one of reverse discrimination. Simply moving on need not always involve removal of who we were/are although it may become unrecognizably different.
You heard well the three (of many other) concerns that would have been heard differently depending on who would have read it. I hear in the churches a panicked concern that these are under attack. Even my son who attends at a Nazarene College is concerned because he has been told that many Pastors are increasingly reticent to ask Nazarene Alum as staff. This looks like an “old guard” debacle that need not be. Earlier this week I had a young man who quoted your father as a major influence in his accepting ecclesiastical and theological change, something he recalled from 15 years ago or so. While there seems to be a disconnect from the academy to the parish, the future belongs to all of us.
Others will hear the aforementioned concerns with an “emergant” ear with an excitement to see what lies beyond the horizons. The “hyphenateds” do not necessarily group easily to permit generalities as I am prone to do but I know you are more aware than I of the dearth of Christian belief of which the centrality of Christ is open for definition. The feature article in Christianity Today which parallels a recent Pew Study speaks volumes.
I agree with you more than I often state that Belief and behavior are intertwined such that people necessarily are both what they believe and what they do. But which is formational? Both certainly but I tip the scales to belief a bit more because behavior simply informs belief; but once something is held in belief the behavior can follow.

Ron Hunter Jr

I appreciate your gentle approach and concur with you on many points. Trajectory is an interesting word to use in this context. Congers up an image of with the little guy on the sled flung wherever I have drawn a line. And I know that you aren’t implying that maturity and the journey of faith is so arbitrary, yet so much spirituality is spent trying to make silly beliefs work in life. Much of the invitation of God is behavioral through beliefs. You ask “Which is more important, where one’s faith is, or where it is going to be?” I don’t see that ministers or fellow Christians have control of the A or the Z in one’s own life much less of others so the direction matters. I am watching my own children become young adults, and am convinced that slight deviations early conclude in different worlds eventually. Fortunately God redeems the wayward and directs the redeemed in all matters of belief or behavior.

Jamie Wayne Schmotzer

Coming from a Charismatic Anglican background, myself, how could I have forgotten:


Thanks, Bob!!!


Hello, I have just read the book Articles of faith What Nazarenes believe and Why. Am so impressed with what i read I am planning on converting to become a Nazarene . But after reading your Blog i have even more Questions now grin  God Bless you !
Gary Collinge. UK -England

Phil Loase

Your essay is not for the common man to understand. Your vocabulary is beyond most blue collar folks. I suspect there is an underlying attempt to impress with great oratory. The plain gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected is the course. Let us maintain the course that was and is set by the Word Of God. Becoming Christlike. All else is refuse. Simply look to Jesus and Live.

Concerned Nazarene Traditionalist

In my own humble opinion, this entire theme boils down to one real question: What is the correct balance between influence over one’s denomination and one’s submission/obedience to one’s denomination? How much should I obey the covenant I have established with this particular body of believers? And how much should I try to push that body (by hook or by crook) to conform to my own idea of what a proper church should look like and stand for?

As a retired service member and, therefore, one accustomed to operating under others’ authority, I see great value in the biblical mandate to obey to those in authority over me (Romans 13:1-7), and in following the formula provided in 1 Peter 5: 1-7. However, I also believe it is each member’s responsibility to speak into that organization, when such is necessary either to correct grievous wrongs or guide it back toward to its own founding principles. (I am doing that very thing now.)

But I have been sadly disturbed of late to see various factions within the ranks of the Church of the Nazarene trying to exert their power – seeking to control the denomination, coercing it to change in ways they hope will better accommodate their own pretenses and prejudices, and pushing it away from its founding principles – often into dubious, less-than-comprehensively-biblical, sometimes radical, and occasionally heretical departures from them.

I was not reared as a Nazarene. I was barely reared a Christian. So I have no inherent bias toward the Church of the Nazarene. When I accepted Christ and His call upon my life at 19, I actually began that journey under the banner of the Free Methodists. I still dearly appreciate the Free Methodist Church. But, in 2001, I became very uncomfortable with their episcopal structure.

Did I demand radical reform of their polity because I (and some other colleagues) were uncomfortable with it? No. What right did I have to expect and entire denomination to change in order to accommodate my own idiosyncratic preferences? The answer: absolutely none. Instead, I (along with my wife) withdrew my credentials from the FMC, and affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene. I chose the Nazarenes because I agreed with their theology, valued their history and culture, and found their style of organizational governance more effective and just.

When speaking with non-believers demanding to be called “Christian” despite their unbelief, I often illustrate the absurdity of such a thing by describing someone who shows up at a basketball court with a hockey stick, a Frisbee, and a football helmet. This person then runs around the court, whacking at the Frisbee with the hockey stick, yelling, “Look at me! I’m playing tennis! Who are you to tell me I’m not playing tennis! Don’t you judge me! I’m the one playing REAL tennis!!!” When one refuses to follow even the most basic tenants of Christianity, demanding the title of “Christian” is patently imbecilic.

To a more tempered degree, I believe that same illustration applies to persons who demand the title of “Nazarene,” and insist upon full membership in that denomination, while simultaneously denouncing, subverting, and slandering many of the very values and qualities which define the Church of The Nazarene. No human-generated label will get us into heaven. The title “Nazarene” is no different. Nor is membership in the Church of the Nazarene a guarantor of our salvation – only faith in Christ/God with obedience to His commands.

There are literally hundreds of denominations out there to choose from. So, to the members of those factions which despise the beliefs, practices, and/or priorities of the Church of the Nazarene, might I suggest simply severing ties with the Nazarenes they loathe, and allying instead with a group more sympathetic to their own particular quirks of conscience? After all, “what’s (really) in a name?” What is the value in belonging to a community one finds intolerable – especially when there are so many others to choose from?

I will mostly ignore, for now, the degree of self-righteousness, narcissism, and arrogant pretense required in a few people to even casually believe millions of other Nazarenes around the world (who are really doing just fine) must change and conform to their own personal whims and preferences (or even “convictions”). Although I do think they are worth mentioning – at least in passing – as those qualities are so markedly anti-Christ.

I love the Nazarene denomination I joined, and I hope she continues to be that church. Do I agree with every aspect of her? Of course not. I don’t always agree with her policies or methods, and I have run some of my concerns “up the chain.” But I am committed to submitting myself to her. I will refuse to let the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good.” And I believe my denomination (though imperfect) is still fundamentally good. So I will support her, defend her, and obey her leadership, insofar as they are faithful to our shared calling and do not require me to violate any of my own core, biblically formed principles. The sacrifices I have made for that loyalty have been numerous, but that obedience has all been worth it, and I so appreciate the transformation it has fostered in my own heart and life.

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