An Interview with Jerry D. Porter, general superintendent
Few things have shaped Jerry Porter as extensively as growing up on the mission field. From his early experiences as a boy in Puerto Rico, he developed a keen sense of seeing through the eyes of another culture. As an adult, he returned to missionary service, with his wife Toni, to launch a new work in the Dominican Republic. Since then, he has served as an educator, church planter, rector of the Nazarene Seminary of the Americas in Costa Rica, and regional director for the Mexico/Central America Region. His experiences have reinforced and built on his commitment to make room for all people in the family of God.
His election as general superintendent in 1997 fit nicely with the denomination’s growing 1980 commitment to establish a truly international church. As a plenary speaker at the 1998 Multicultural Ministries Conference, he declared that, “The Church of Jesus Christ is not a church that is separate or exclusive. It is a church for all people, regardless of color, language, or race.” In a powerful and poignant gesture, Porter represented all Nazarenes by kneeling and asking African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants present at the conference to forgive the church for its long-time indifference and poor treatment of minorities, and pledged a more positive effort to include minorities in all areas of the Church of the Nazarene. Since late 2006, after the Board of General Superintendents crafted a denominational statement of mission “to make Christlike disciples in the nations,” Porter has worked extensively to help Nazarenes understand what discipleship looks like in a church committed to internationalization. Few world areas are as ethnically diverse as the USA/Canada Region. With this in mind, Grace and Peace asked Jerry to share his thoughts on discipleship, cultural diversity, and managing difference in a missional church.
G&P: How has your work as a missionary impacted your understanding of the church?
Jerry Porter: I see the church as a place that welcomes all people and all cultures. As a missionary leader, one of my life’s great passions is releasing and multiplying the church. Typically, congregations fail to multiply because of limits with human systems. We tend to require certain levels of training, education, funds, and a serviceable building to multiply churches, leaders, and believers. We are restricted by our own systems. As a missionary, I think of how to create or embrace reproducible patterns for all these things without heavy dependence on money and other structures. That’s how the mission field impacted my thinking.
G&P: You have been preaching and reflecting on the book of Acts. Share some of your thoughts with us.
Porter: In Acts 16, the apostle Paul had a frustrating time trying to get his new missionary team together, after Barnabas went off with John Mark. He recruited Timothy and Titus to preach the gospel in Asia and Bithynia: that was the plan anyway, but the Holy Spirit said “no.” Paul was embarrassed and frustrated by this rebuttal. Later, he had a vision of “a man of Macedonia” pleading for him to come and help (16:9). It was a very clear directive. When he went to Macedonia, there were no synagogues, so he couldn’t use the methods he had always used for church planting. He found some women praying under a tree by the river and preached the gospel to them. Lydia was converted, and the first church in Macedonia was in Lydia’s home. The beauty of the vision of the man of Macedonia is that it was a woman who was the first convert.
Paul’s efforts were going well until he was arrested and put in prison. While there, he and Silas had a prayer meeting at midnight, which resulted in an earthquake that set them free. Despondent about their release, a jailer stood poised to take his own life when Paul stopped him. By morning, the jailer’s whole family is converted. The result was that another church was planted—but a very different church from the one started by Lydia.
What would happen if we allowed the Spirit to guide us, to give us the vision of where our church should start new ministries? What ethnic group or target group could we reach?
These stories in Acts give me pause to ask: what would happen if we allowed the Spirit to guide us, to give us the vision of where our church should start new ministries? What ethnic group or target group could we reach? If you had to plant a church, where would you plant it? What would happen if the 5,000 churches in the U.S. and Canada would start a new work this year?
The apostle Paul was a great visionary, but he always organized churches wherever he went. He knew that people needed to be brought together in some kind of fellowship. Remember, his definition of church did not include buildings. Buildings weren’t incorporated until 400 years after the death of Jesus. The Christian Church was multiplying in house churches and meeting wherever they could. To me, that is a great vision of church multiplication and the future of our church around the world. The bottom line is doing what we can to start new congregations that will reach new people and disciple them for Christ.
G&P: Discipleship is very important to you. What do you mean by discipleship?
Porter: I’ve been deeply impacted by the Church of the Nazarene in Cali, Columbia. Years ago, I went to Cali and taught extension classes. Two quiet students were in the group: Pastor Adalberto Herrera and his wife. I went to their church and preached to a crowd of 25 people and had a wonderful time. Fifteen years later, I preached to a congregation that has grown to 6,000 people. They have powerfully recovered the Wesleyan concept of small group discipleship.
We tend to think of discipleship as a short-term process, often to acculturate people into the life of the church. I have learned that discipleship is a continuous, life-long process of mentoring and being mentored by others—with the ultimate goal of growing into the full stature of Christ.
Because accountability is vital to this process, I asked Don Owens, general superintendent emeritus, if he would reassume the role he had as my professor and mentor in college. He prays for me and is my spiritual guide. I have prayerfully selected a dozen pastors, district superintendents, regional directors, and laity that I meet weekly on the internet. We pair off and share Wesley’s questions of accountability. We also take turns writing articles and responding to each other. It has been an exciting and stimulating spiritual experience for me. I have grown more spiritually in the last three and a half years than in any other period of my life. I am enthusiastic about how my life has changed. Now, I invite others to ask, “Who are you discipling and who is discipling you?” This elevates discipleship to more than just a statement of mission for the church; it actually becomes part of our ethos.
G&P: How do you understand the denomination’s statement of mission “to make Christlike disciples in the nations”?
Porter: Sometimes people ask me about the statement and say, “Brother Jerry, isn’t the real mission to be rather than make Christlike disciples?” I respond by saying, “Of course!” That is the preamble or prerequisite. We should not think we can make disciples, if we are not disciples. You start by follower-ship, and being a Christlike disciple, and then doing what the risen Lord told us to do: go and make disciples.
We should not think we can make disciples, if we are not disciples. You start by followership, and being a Christlike disciple, and then doing what the risen Lord told us to do: go and make disciples.
In one sense, the statement of mission is a subset of our three core values to be Christian, Holiness, and Missional. The word “Christlike” outlines the fact that a person who is Spirit-filled and entirely sanctified is going to grow daily in the likeness of Christ. The best definition of holiness is Christlikeness. The ethos of that is the Great Commission, where God told us to go and make disciples. It is possible to train pastors, build buildings, and not make disciples. We have failed in our mission, until we make disciples.
It is also important to remember we are to make disciples “in the nations.” Our faith is not only enriched and deepened, but made more complete through the addition of other cultural and language groups. No one group has a corner on Christ. We need the whole family of faith to give us a complete picture of Christ.
I have been very gratified to see the grassroots traction of so many parts of the church toward our core values and our statement of mission. It has galvanized the hearts of our people. One young pastor in the U.S. recently said, “I’ll give my life to that mission statement. I will give my life to make Christlike disciples in the nations.”
G&P: Ministry in the U.S. and Canada can include working across cultural and language barriers to reach immigrants, refugees, and people of color. What advice would you share with Nazarenes from the dominant culture wanting to reach others for Christ?
Porter: The U.S. or Canada is not a melting pot, but a rich mosaic of cultures. Even after people no longer speak their ancestral language, they often embrace many rich characteristics from their culture. When we identify a congregation or a worship service as “Latino,” this is not simply a statement about language; it also includes aspects that are very normal and common within that culture. Latinos worship differently than Anglo-Saxons. Black people worship differently than Koreans. Even if English is the primary language, which is often the case with second and third generation groups who were originally from non-English speaking countries, there may still be rich, cultural differences that require sensitivity.
One mistake we often make as the dominant culture and as white English-speakers is to say we want to be “one” church—a church not segmented or divided by cultures. In our desire for “oneness,” we have to be careful not to force others to act or worship like we do. That is culturally insensitive. Unity is not the same as uniformity. We must pursue the same mission, not the same language, culture, or thought forms.
G&P: Despite strong similarities, discipleship and Christlikeness can be understood, expressed, and practiced in a variety of ways in Nazarene churches in the U.S. and Canada, largely due to differences in culture, customs, language, education, and socio-economic status. How do we manage such differences in a way that builds unity and enriches our church rather than divides our fellowship? In what ways must our thinking change to accomplish this?
Jerry Porter: In 1 Corinthians 3, the apostle Paul addresses a problem: people were divided over allegiance to various leaders. Some identified themselves as followers of Peter/Cephas or Paul. Paul challenges them to stop glorifying men (and he’s one of the people being glorified!). At the end of that chapter, Scripture affirms, “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (vv. 21-23).
When we polarize over issues, we lose the ability to become one great family, one great church.
When we polarize over issues, we lose the ability to become one great family, one great church. Paul didn’t want the Corinthian church to split into different churches. Denominationally speaking, we can do the same thing. If we get fixated on following Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or John Wesley, we will shut out what others have to teach us. What Paul wants us to understand is that—first and foremost— we are followers of Christ. While Nazarenes take from Wesley, we also can learn from Calvin and Luther. We can take from anyone who teaches truth that helps us to become more Christlike. The great leaders and thinkers of the Christian tradition nurture and help us, but we do not belong to them; they belong to us, and we belong to Christ. We need not be afraid of what we can learn from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. If we think we are learning from Wesley, we have to remember that Wesley learned much from the holiness teachers of the Catholic church, like the desert fathers and mothers.
E. Stanley Jones, the great Methodist leader, once told me about his early days as a preacher. He would go up and down the line of biblical history preaching about Abraham, Moses, and Joshua, and then he would preach about Jesus, Paul, and Peter. He discovered he had to defend or explain figures like Samson or Solomon, but he never had to explain or defend Jesus, because Jesus defended himself through his life, message, and death and resurrection. Jones discovered that the best way to preach was to show how Moses pointed to Christ, or how Peter reflected on Christ’s teachings. In the same way, we must point to Christ.
Some people have faith like a balloon—everything they believe is contained inside and everything is of equal value. They hold together things like their belief in the virgin birth and their belief the world is fl at. How do they know the world is flat? Well, because the Bible talks about the four corners of the earth. So, whatever the Bible says, they believe—and it is all in this balloon. When one thing fails, the whole thing pops!
I’m 61 years old. I don’t believe in some things now in the way I did as a teenager. If some things I thought were true ended up being false, it would not undermine my faith. It would not change the fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead and gives me new life.
We must establish faith priorities. Instead of a balloon, I think of faith being more like building blocks. If you can show me the things in my faith system that are not true or are not important, I can rearrange my faith system, as long as I’m building on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ.
Empirical evidence led the church after Galileo to conclude the earth was not the center of the universe. This did not and does not change the fact Jesus was resurrected from the dead and gives us new life. We don’t have to worry about whether the sun is the epicenter of this galaxy or whether earth is. It doesn’t change the realities of our faith. I think we need to invite people to go back to the basics, and believe and build their life on Christ. That is the non-negotiable cornerstone on which to build our faith. Many young people need to be taught how to have a faith system built on Christ. Those who have a faith system like a balloon despair if one thing is wrong. We need a more mature way of understanding our faith. We can often be polarized from the left and right, on political and theological issues. When it comes to God’s church, we must take the approach of Scripture, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). We will share heaven with many different kinds of brothers and sisters, and we might as well start working together. We need to listen to them, respect them, learn from them, and make sure we are solidly on the rock, Christ Jesus.