others had been educated more informally in the ebb and flow of life. Individuals representing almost every point on the socio-economic scale stood side-by-side as we sang, prayed, and reflected together upon the Holy Scriptures. By God’s grace, we had become a mosaic of God’s redemptive, reconciling work.
If nothing else, our Nazarene narrative and practices have conveyed an important message: no matter which side of the tracks we come from or the corner of the world in which we’ve been born, each of us is the focus of God’s saving, sanctifying love. All of those missionary visits, Sunday School bus ministries, and Vacation Bible School programs taught us to welcome the other. Sometimes, on our good days, we get it right!
Yet there is another element of diversity that receives less attention and is, honestly, far more complicated: religious ancestry. Individuals carry with them their formative experiences of God and the world. A more transient society increases the possibility that an individual will attend more than one congregation in their lifetime—some congregants may even attend more than one congregation simultaneously. When an individual moves across the country, there is no guarantee that denominational loyalty will determine the next congregation s/he joins.
“Switching” is the practice of moving from one church or congregation to another, after having been a member in another church or denomination. There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice. We change phone services and cable providers all the time. We decide on different food brands. Changing is part and parcel of our social context.
In today’s North American context, seats in any sanctuary will often be filled by people who have changed denominations at least once. Many people will change numerous times throughout their lives. A challenge arises when those joining their new denomination retain the theology and practices of their former church or denomination. Depending on the influx of different backgrounds into a local congregation, the congregation may often find itself at a very different point than its theological and historical ancestors. For example, if a Methodist church experiences an influx of Pentecostals, the ethos of that Methodist congregation may be altered to reflect an infusion of Pentecostalism.
No matter which side of the tracks we come from or the corner of the world in which we’ve been born, each of us is the focus of God’s saving, sanctifying love.
Looking across my congregation, I realized that 40-50% of the adults in my church come from differing denominational backgrounds. Each one comes with theology and practices from other congregations. My congregation includes Baptists, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Methodists, Pentecostals, and, that burgeoning category, “non-denominationals.” Sometimes, these members are a breath of fresh air, as they candidly question our shared narrative and practices. This affords us opportunity to share what it means to be a Church of the Nazarene. Other times, they expect us to be like their previous church. Unfortunately, this can lead to frustration, failed expectations, and hurt.
Naming this diverse reality reveals a difficult question: how do congregations in the Church of the Nazarene welcome others and still become a people with a common narrative and shared practices reflective of our Wesleyan-Holiness heritage?
One way forward may be to remember our shared narrative and to recover critical practices (both personal and corporate) that nurture within us a particular way of being in the world. If we carry with us the “spirit” of the work of Wesley and Bresee, we will rediscover the importance of practices like Bible studies and accountability groups, feeding the hungry, and advocating for the homeless. As we recall our shared narrative, we will recover the centrality of the Scriptures in congregational life (particularly worship and discipleship), and the congregation will locate itself corporately in God’s story. Retrieving the commitment to study and reflect daily on the life and teachings of Jesus and to pray for one another, our neighborhoods and the world will become a shared practice across our congregation’s life. Engaging in a ministry of justice, peace, reconciliation, mercy, and hospitality will reflect our Wesleyan-Holiness heritage. A Church of the Nazarene, through their shared life, might remember their identity as God’s holy people, so much so, that they might help add new chapters to our denominational story that ring true to our past.
As I reflect upon the life stories present in my congregation, I wonder if an important part of being a Wesleyan-Holiness congregation is as much methodological as theological. It seems a strong emphasis on the demands of discipleship is as much a part of this tradition as are the nuanced understandings of sanctification. It may be that what it means to be a Church of the Nazarene today is to take seriously the work of God in our lives and communities AND to hold one accountable to practices that put us in a posture before God to be continually transformed into God's image and likeness. In doing so, Nazarene congregations will become an expression of the holy people of God poured out for the world in God's mission—all to the glory of God.
JEFFREY T. BARKER is senior pastor of Bethel Church of the Nazarene and Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Eastern Nazarene College