Churches, like other institutions, change over time. The timing and nature of change differs, but there tends to be a relationship between church age and effectiveness. Sociologist David Moberg suggests that effectiveness and growth increases initially as an institution ages, but at some point the reverse begins to be true. There are five predictable periods. The first is characterized by emotional enthusiasm for the new church and diffused leadership. A phase of formal organization follows. This leads to a period of maximum efficiency, usually followed by a phase of institutionalization characterized by an established bureaucracy, declining support for the distinctives that helped bring the group into existence, and increased diversity of beliefs, interests, and commitments. Unless strategic action is taken, the fifth stage is one of decline and disintegration. Moberg does not attach duration to the phases of the life cycle, but some have speculated that many institutions reach the fifth stage after 100
Yet, decline after a century is hardly inevitable. The notion of the hundred-year cycle probably originated with a student who asserted that Roman Catholic religious orders cooled off after a century. Others applied this observation to contexts that were actually quite different, fostering a myth.
As the Nazarene centennial approached, and because growth in the USA church had slowed, the topic of revitalizing our movement was examined in 2004-05. Bill Sullivan led a research team including Dale Jones, Stan Ingersol, Rich Houseal, and Ken Crow in a study of patterns and issues in
denominational vitality. They reviewed data from 17 denominations that grew well in their first 50 years and were still within the range of 100 years
old or older. The full report was presented at the 2005 Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers conference and is available online. Now, this abbreviated version has been updated for Grace & Peace Magazine. The study identified five principles or strategies for revitalizing a church. While it focused on the denominational level, these strategies also seem relevant for all levels of the
1. MAINTAIN FOCUS WHILE PROVIDING FLEXIBILITY.
The Roman Catholic Church demonstrates this virtue through its ability to allow internal diversity while maintaining unity in doctrine and liturgy. Over the centuries, new religious orders, each with its own distinctive emphasis, were permitted to grow within the Roman Catholic Church. With the notable exception of the first half of the sixteenth century, when Protestantism fractured Western Christianity, the decision to permit diversity within unity has been fundamental to Roman Catholic growth in all ages of its development, and we observe that creating a balance that maintains focus but provides flexibility is a key characteristic for the revitalization of a religious group.
In his classic work, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Sects, Ernst Troeltsch, father of the social study of religion, argued that a new religious organization takes shape around a dominant idea. The propagation of the dominant idea gives rise to the organization and shapes its
early development. A religious organization that intends to stand in continuity with its own past should know the dominant idea and corollaries that gave rise to it.
But like other social organizations, religious groups pick up accretions over time. These accretions can take the form of new religious ideas that
infiltrate the organization at a later point in time, or programs and ministries, or new modes of organization. Accretions can promote or obscure core ideas. They may even promote core ideas in one era and overshadow and obscure them in a later one. Accretions can even compete with core ideas for dominance within the organization. The ongoing debate over worship provides an angle for viewing this problem in its practical
dimensions. Is traditional Nazarene music, influenced by the American gospel music tradition, essential to the Church of the Nazarene? Or is contemporary Christian music just as “Nazarene”?
What about the classic hymnody linked to Luther, Watts, and Wesley sometimes associated with a formal liturgy? There are Nazarenes attracted to liturgical worship, while others strongly affirm contemporary Christian worship. Yet others insist on the vital importance they perceive in traditional
Nazarene worship styles. Is a particular worship style essential to the dominant idea that gave rise to the Church of the Nazarene or a necessary corollary of that idea? If a particular worship style is essential to what it means to be a Nazarene, then it would follow that this essential characteristic should be imported into other cultures—Asian, African, Latino—something thoughtful people hesitate to do. Religious organizations need to periodically reassess themselves and distinguish between that which is permanent in Christianity and that which is transient. In other words, they need to maintain their focus while striving for flexibility. And they should never absolutize those things that reflect merely the habits and preferences of a particular time, place, or culture.
This idea is reflected in the principle “Unity in essentials, liberty in nonessentials, and in all things charity.” This aphorism goes back to the minor Protestant reformer Peter Meldinius and was affirmed by many leaders since then. Phineas Bresee repeated the aphorism often during
the Church of the Nazarene’s early years.
Religious organizations need to be open to new movements that revitalize and renew. Nazarenes had to adjust to the rise of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries and the Work & Witness program. Each promoted the denomination’s core values in new ways, yet their emergence altered existing patterns of service and mission and required adjustments within the church. Flexibility is the key. Perhaps the Church of the Nazarene’s focus is found in its Articles of Faith, especially Article X on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The early denomination decided that its focus included neither a specific eschatology nor a specific view of baptismal mode or timing. This may be a model for us today to permit a variety of worship styles and to allow for mission programs that stress compassion and justice as well as evangelism.
2. MULTIPLICATION OF ALL KINDS OF LEADERS AT ALL LEVELS OF THE CHURCH.
American Methodism’s growth provides a strategic example of the benefits when leadership multiplies at all levels of the
church, from lay leaders up through bishops. Early Methodism’s basic unit was the class meeting—roughly a dozen people headed by a
local lay person known as "the class leader." Believers were held accountable for their Christian lives by the class, as the leader examined each member in turn in front of other class members.
With strong local lay leadership, Methodist clergy did not have to be stationed in a single place and were deployed more widely than clergy of other denominations. They traveled circuits with multiple preaching points and dozens of classes under their general care, preaching, organizing new classes, appointing class leaders, and helping class leaders develop their skills as spiritual guides. As Methodism grew, so did the number of district superintendents. The number of bishops also grew proportionally. Northern Methodists had eighteen bishops in 1891; southern Methodists, somewhat smaller, had a proportional number of bishops.
In contrast, expansion of the Board of General Superintendents (BGS) has not kept pace with denominational growth. In 1908, three general superintendents oversaw eighteen districts—a ratio of 1:6. By 1928, there were fifty-six districts, and the BGS expanded to four permanent members, dropping the ratio from 1:19 to 1:14. In 1952, with 99 districts, adding a fifth general superintendent dropped the ratio from 1:25 to 1:20. And in 1960, with about 113 districts, adding a sixth general superintendent dropped the ratio from 1:23 to 1:18. The BGS has not expanded since, but there are over 460 districts now. The ratio stands at 1:78.
Because of the limited number of general superintendents, a new level of organizational structure—the regional director—was created in 1980. This added another layer of organizational insulation between the district superintendent in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific, and Latin America, and the jurisdictional general superintendent. Much of the cost that would be incurred by enlarging the BGS is being paid to regional directors, who function in many ways as assistant general superintendents but lack the authority of general superintendents. Increasing the number of
general superintendents—say to something comparable to the 1960 ratio—would provide closer and more personal general leadership
to the various segments of the denomination.
Districts have recently been combining. Korea is now a single district rather than the previous five, and the number of districts in the USA/Canada Region has dropped in the past two decades. There are valid reasons to reduce the number of districts, but one result is a reduction of leadership positions.
Multiplying leaders at all levels of the church is necessary for a vital denomination. When leadership is truncated at any level, the organization is affected negatively. Nazarenes need a robust sense that every Christian is called to ministry as part of the body of Christ. A deliberate cultivation of lay leadership, coupled with a strong sense of being the people of God, can help revitalize a denomination. Every lay and clergy leader should be looking for ways to add leaders, rather than consolidate leadership among fewer individuals.
3. A MISSION-MINDED MENTALITY.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, new church development peaked within several American denominations. C. Kirk Hadaway documented this in a study presented in 1979. He studied ten large denominations and discovered striking differences between most mainline denominations and two evangelical churches, the Southern Baptists (SBC) and the Assemblies of God (AG).
Hadaway theorized that “in order to avoid decline in the present and produce growth in the future, a denomination must replace its dying churches with healthy churches in areas of population growth.” Furthermore, he found that churches like the AG and SBC “tend to maintain higher rates of new church formation and to be less affected by adverse changes in the religious interest of the population.”
These denominations have a strong commitment to evangelism and few rules governing new church formation. They are more open to lay pastors or minimally prepared pastors. They accept small congregations as well as large ones. And they place primary responsibility for new church development at the local level.
The Nazarene experience was part of a larger pattern in America, but the fact that the Nazarene pattern in the late 1960s and ’70s was more like the mainline denominations rather than the evangelistic ones is both interesting and disturbing. The decline in new church development was common for that time. Recovery in the 1970s was not. The probable reasons why the AG and SBC recovered new church evangelism are suggestive to us. First, Nazarenes should recognize and affirm the value of congregations of all sizes in a variety of settings. Find ways to support not only lay and clergy leaders in impressive churches and settings, but also do the same for those serving in small, difficult places. Second, continue to give priority to the USA/Canada Region’s emphasis on starting new churches, which stresses responsibility on the part of local churches for new growth.
Nazarene support for global missions has traditionally been strong. Indeed, this may be an additional unifying focus for the denomination. A mission mentality needs to include both
a global mission and a home mission perspective.
4. ATTRACTION OF THE MASSES.
People in the upper categories of the socioeconomic scale do not have the same motivation to value future rewards as the underprivileged. Working-class people living in or under the threat of poverty are more likely to respond to services that lift people out of the mundane and to a message of deliverance and eventual justice. More affluent people are less likely to be attracted by the promise that God will lift up the poor and bring down the mighty.
John Wesley was well educated and comfortable in the cultural setting of Oxford, but according to D. Michael Henderson, he believed that if “England were to be reformed according to any biblical pattern, it would have to begin with the workers, the miners, the rude peasants who were beyond the reach of the established church.”
When Phineas Bresee organized the Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles, charter members included people who were well educated, affluent, and socially prominent; however, according to Timothy Smith, most of the members were “recent converts from the poorer sections of Los Angeles.” In fact, “The chief aim of the church was to preach holiness to the poor.” Workingclass and marginalized people were welcomed and attracted to the ministries of Wesley and Bresee.
Denominations that are effective in ministry tend to move away from their roots among the responsive masses and journey toward the less responsive, privileged classes. The movement tends to become more respectable and stable but less effective in outreach.
When John Wesley set out “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land,” his native England, like contemporary America, was not a society experiencing holiness. According to Henderson, in order to achieve his audacious goal, Wesley had a difficult choice to make: Would he aim at reformation of the nation from the top down, working among the intellectuals and the aristocracy to bring them back to their evangelical moorings? Or, would he take the message of holiness directly to the people, the countless hordes of England’s illiterate and unchurched working class?
That decision faces every new generation of Christian leaders and must be answered with renewed commitment with each successive effort toward awakening the church.
As our generation seeks again to redeem a nation, Wesley’s wise choice is clear. The condition of the nation and the character of our heritage cause us to recommend a
continuing, intentional expansion of ministry among the millions of unchurched, working-
class and marginalized people.
5. RETENTION OF YOUNG PEOPLE.
To achieve any significant presence in a society, a denomination must retain its youth while reaching new converts. Kirk Hadaway identified four groups of young dropouts and observed that a major reason for those in three groups is that young people “have adopted values that are in clear contrast to those of most Americans who attend church regularly.” Hadaway observed that many are Catholic and “cannot bring themselves to join
another faith that might be somewhat closer to their own values.”
Rodney Stark and Roger Finke expressed a similar idea in the form of a proposition: Under normal circumstances, most people will neither convert nor reaffiliate. Here we see why children usually adhere to the faith of their parents and relatives. By doing so, they protect their kinship ties.
By remaining within the faith of those to whom one is attached, one maximizes social capital by retaining the good opinion of others. Research shows that most people do remain within the religious organization in which they were raised.
Nazarene higher education is often considered a way to retain youth, but the percentage of college-age Nazarenes attending a Nazarene university slid from 25 to 16 percent between 1994 and 2008. The implication of fewer youth remaining connected to the Nazarene family through higher education will probably have a negative impact on retention.
Youth retention is essential to denominational growth. Since 1969, approximately 750,000 youth have been part of the USA/Canada Church of the Nazarene. Compare this with the 2015 figure for adult enrollment—approximately 469,000—or our membership of 640,560, or worship attendance of 475,253, and you can see the importance of youth retention to
After reviewing the research literature, Christian Smith and David Sikkink summarized five keys to youth retention. First, greater religious commitment and religious similarity of parents and intentionality in parents transmitting their faith to their children is a key factor increasing the chances of their offspring carrying on in the religious traditions of their parents. Second, the quality of relationships between parents and their children matters a lot, with positive, affectionate, and cohesive parent-child relationships increasing the religious commitment and retention of offspring.
Third, traditional family structure increases religious retention; situations with married biological parents increases the religious retention of offspring, and subsequent childbearing by offspring reduces the chance of apostasy. Fourth, many life course transitions involving social disruptions—marriage, divorce, geographical relocation, etc.—significantly increase the chances of religious switching and dropping-out. And fifth, status and ideological discrepancies between religious adherents and the groups to which they belong (e.g., educational differences, disagreements on normative standards) tend to increase the chances of religious switching and sometimes apostasy.
Since strong families are key in youth retention, we recommend that helping families stay together and build healthy relationships should be a high priority for our denominational family.
Nazarene youth also need events and experiences that bind them to the denomination. Historically, attending a Nazarene college has been effective in bonding youth to the church. Currently, a decreasing percentage of Nazarene youth attend Nazarene colleges; therefore, other means of retaining youth need to be explored.
The quadrennial youth gathering, Nazarene Youth Conference, has been a significant event in the lives of many Nazarenes. The creation of such programs on each region is a positive development. District gatherings might include youth who are unable to afford the larger gatherings.
Some rite of passage would be helpful. Such plans are available and could be implemented denominationally. Also, a denomination-wide emphasis on youth involvement in mission prior to high school graduation could contribute to youth retention. Emphasizing individual spirituality without providing denominational anchors will leave our youth open to generic Christianity and likely result in lower retention rates.
We believe the composite model advanced in these five principles has much to commend it.
Our search for a model of denominational renewal has led us to a voluntary response to the question “Shall we reinvent our 100-year-old denomination?” We prefer the word reclaim to describe the revitalization that we believe is possible. We want to see the church reclaim the focus and flexibility that allowed several disparate groups to come together and form the Church of the Nazarene. We believe reclaiming the expansion of local and general leadership will contribute to growth. Reclaiming our original passion to spread Christian holiness across the land will result in the multiplication of worshiping units in the USA and around the world. We have no doubt that reclaiming our original commitment to the masses, particularly the poor, will open vast fields of evangelistic opportunity. Reclaiming our commitment to provide spiritual development for our youth, even though the cost is high, will result in the Nazarene heritage being extended far into the future.
This paper, updated in 2016 for publication, was originally written in 2005 under the supervision of Bill Sullivan,
director of the Church Growth Division (now USA/Canada Regional Office); and by Dale Jones, director of Nazarene Research Services; Stan Ingersol, denominational archivist, Church of the Nazarene; Rich Houseal, Nazarene Research Services; and Ken Crow, former manager of Nazarene Research Services.