The New Nazarenes
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.
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.
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.)