A social blunder led to a keen insight for noted church historian David C. Steinmetz. When asked to introduce guests at a party, his memory failed when he got to one attendee. Panic, confusion, and embarrassment ensued, leaving him unable to fulfill his duties. To his chagrin, the guest had to make her own introductions.
In that moment, Steinmetz realized how memory enables our ability to function effectively in the present. He concluded that a church that loses its memory and lacks self-identity can only “wander about aimlessly in the present and future.”1 Knowing our past is essential in undertaking our mission in the present, he affirmed.
As Nazarenes wrestle with ministry amid immense social, economic, and cultural change, how solid is our denominational identity? How clearly do we understand our mission and message against the backdrop of increasing secularization, religious pluralism, ethnic and cultural diversity, and technological innovation? What adaptations do we need to make to reach Millennials, postmoderns, and a diverse global community? Within our denomination, how aware are we of what must change and what must remain the same as we face the challenges posed by our future? How closely should we align ourselves with the trajectory of our past? How can knowledge of the Nazarene story help answer these questions?
Our past must inform our present and future, and many significant persons and perspectives could (and should) guide our efforts: Few are as notable as Nazarene co-founder Phineas F. Bresee. Historian Carl O. Bangs, Bresee’s latest and greatest biographer, considered him not just a pivotal Nazarene figure, but a major evangelical Protestant leader in American religious history. In Bresee, we find the powerful convergence of ministry to the poor, urban evangelism, preaching that is faithful to the gospel witness, and an inclusive vision of the church fueled by a commitment to the deeper Christian life. Bresee’s story is especially compelling when you consider that at age 58, when he was at the top of his game and a significant leader in Methodism (and this was no small ascent), he walked away from a secure ecclesial future to undertake a whole new theological enterprise.
In Bresee, we find the powerful convergence of ministry to the poor, urban evangelism, preaching that is faithful to the gospel witness, and an inclusive vision of the church fueled by a commitment to the deeper Christian life.
In 1883, when Bresee left ministry on the Iowa prairie to come to urban Los Angeles, he entered a complex social context completely foreign to anything he had experienced previously. Immigration, ethnic and cultural diversity, inner-city poverty, and industrialization and labor issues were already large realities, yet Bresee was not in awe. He had the gift of being broad-spirited and enthusiastically confronted social challenges. He opted for a brand of Christianity that was decidedly Wesleyan, missional, and inclusive. He wanted to start “centers of holy fire” in the urban areas of America, which he hoped would bring revival.
While Bresee is justly thought of as the patron saint of Nazarene compassionate and urban ministry, he had reached the conviction, after a critical year in 1894 while serving at the Peniel Mission, that what the poor needed was not a mission, but a church.² He believed the poor and all classes of people needed fellowships that would be true community churches characterized by sacraments, love, and holy living. An address he gave on the pastoral office during his Methodist years expressed something of the qualities he believed a minister needed to lead such a work: “A pastor must be a large-souled man . . . large enough to take to his heart all classes of men . . . he stands especially near to the poor and despised. . . . He will have enemies to deal with as well as friends, and his heart must be large enough to love them all.”³
Bresee was a catalytic leader who valued people and resisted controlling impulses. He had the ability to bring diverse groups together around a common mission. His famous dictum, which he did not originate, says much about his character and leadership: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and, in all things, love.” May that dictum characterize our present fellowship as we work together to fulfill our gospel-shaped mission.
BRYON K. McLAUGHLIN is the former editor of Grace & Peace Magazine.
2. Denominational archivist Stan Ingersol related this (and the following point on “community churches”) in a group conversation on Bresee, December 13, 2012.
3. Carl O. Bangs. Phineas Bresee: Pastor to the People, abr. Stan Ingersol (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2013), 79.