the anti-war hippies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and the Free Speech Movement erupting on the Berkley campus of the University of California.
I remember well when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and then Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and Robert Kennedy, less than two months later on June 6—add to that the advancing Civil Rights movement. The first decade of my post-seminary ministry was shaped during this tumultuous era.
I was troubled—as was Thomas Merton in his meditations, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander1 —because my tradition frowned on social engagement.
During that time, I also read Call to Commitment by Elizabeth O’Conner,² the story of the ecumenical Church of the Savior founded by Gordon Cosby³ in Washington, D.C., in 1946, upon his return from duty as an Army chaplain in World War II. It was a church with Jesuit-like membership requirements of spiritual exercises combined with social engagement with the problems of the city. I thought if I ever got to Washington, D.C., I wanted to see it first hand. I could not have imagined as I watched Washington, D.C., neighborhoods engulfed in flames following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that I would soon begin a 25-year ministry in one of those so-called “riot corridors.”
By the time I began my ministry at the Washington, D.C., First Church of the Nazarene in 1971, O’Conner had published another book, Journey Inward, Journey Outward,⁴ the story of how the Church of the Savior reinvented itself around mission groups with members accountable to a spiritual director for disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, journaling, and silence, while engaging in neighborhood service projects.
I joined a mission group soon after my arrival that included Pastor Gordon Cosby. Our initial mission was to wait tables each Thursday evening at the Potter’s House. During that time, we became more aware of the low-income housing crisis. In response, we organized Jubilee Housing with the express purpose of acquiring deteriorating apartment buildings and helping the lowincome residents rehab and eventually own their own buildings.
With a few members of the First Church of the Nazarene, I agreed to organize our own mission group and take responsibility for a 48-unit, deteriorating building full of people: few of whom were able to pay rent.
At the same time, I completed a D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary (WTS) in Washington, D.C. I had a growing interest in my own tradition, particularly the 18th-century Evangelical Revival in England led by John and Charles Wesley and the formative period of the Church of the Nazarene.
What I found changed my ministry, if not my life. As the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was an Isaiah 6 awakening, my discovery of John Wesley and the founders of the Church of the Nazarene was a Josiah experience, discovering within my own tradition the theological and practical foundation and motivation I needed to pursue my calling.
In the Wesleyan section of the WTS library, I discovered records of Wesley’s engagement with the poor and his voluntary practice of poverty. All I knew from my theology classes in college and prior seminary work were his sermons on holiness, with little to no context. It was never mentioned that the book Wesley wrote and published, more than any book of sermons or theology, was a book on health care. That aspect of Wesley was never discussed.
Encouraged from what I was learning about the Wesleyan- Holiness story, I eventually wrote my D.Min. thesis in 1975: “The Holiness Social Ethic and Nazarene Urban Ministry.”⁵ My work is referenced in a new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism⁶ (published by Oxford University Press) by Molly Worthen, who is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
During the mid-1970s, our small mission group became the nucleus of the Community of Hope, a ministry that integrated the personal and social dimensions of the gospel, if not holiness. I began to think of the Wesleyan-Holiness narrative as, in the words of O’Conner’s book, a “Journey Inward, Journey Outward.”
The committee reviewing my thesis wanted me to demonstrate that Wesleyan- Holiness theology, as articulated by Wesley and later advanced by the founders of the Church of the Nazarene, is inextricably intertwined with social transformation. It was not enough that these leaders were engaged in serving the poor and advocating for social reforms; the committee wanted me to argue that holiness theology and practice, necessarily not just coincidentally, advances social as well as personal transformation.
And so I read everything I could find on the social action and reforms advanced by Wesley, the 19th-century American Holiness Movement, and the founders of the Church of the Nazarene. I spent weeks in the Nazarene Archives documenting references to social concern and action. During that time, I read Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s Trevecca Nazarene College (now University) lectures: John Wesley: Christian Revolutionary,⁷ printed in 1970 before her major work, A Theology of Love,8 published in 1972. She wrote:
Wesley’s doctrine, moreover, would not permit him to rest content in biblical theology as such, or religious experience as such—two stopping places for some contemporary Wesleyanisms. Instead it pushed him into the social and economic and educational problems in the world outside his church.
Wesley was one of the first advocates of popular education. He saw that his converts must be cared for, and he built schools wherever enough converts warranted it.
He knew the value of wealth if properly used, but the curse of it when it was controlled by selfish hands. He practiced what he preached by giving away (we are told) 98 percent of his income.
Labor problems and child labor came to his attention. He worked for fair wages, fair prices, honest, healthy employment.
He applied Christian ethics to a corrupt society. His voice against the liquortraffic ‘England’s master curse’ was potent. He was a powerful antislavery spokesman. Wesley’s social reforms leaped the Atlantic Ocean and influenced American social morality more than is recognized.
These formative events: the social unrest of the ‘60s, severe poverty near my church in Washington, D.C., and the readings of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition led me to understand the practice of holiness as both an inward and outward journey.
The Journey Inward
In the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, the inner spiritual life is primary. There have been many misunderstandings of holiness among us (some of which Wynkoop tried to correct), and a variety of definitions of holiness developed during the 19th and 20th centuries as documented by Mark Quanstrom in his book, A Century of Holiness: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905–2004.9
The so-called “cardinal doctrine” of the Wesleyan-Holiness Movement and the Church of the Nazarene in particular has been an intentional experience and practice of inner spirituality. However holiness is understood or misunderstood, it has always been about an intentional inner spiritual life beyond a simple affirmation of Christian belief.
Upon joining the Church of the Savior mission group, for the first time in my life, I became accountable to a spiritual director for spiritual practices similar to those in Wesley’s Methodist “classes” and “bands.” For Wesley, sanctification or holiness was more than a religious experience, although it was and is that, or a doctrine, although it was and is that too. Holiness, as demonstrated by his life and his Methodist followers, was a practice of spiritual development both inwardly and outwardly. The inward journey is both primary and complementary to the outward journey. Neither is complete without the other.
The Journey Outward
For Wesley and the founders of the Church of the Nazarene, holiness was the practice of spiritual disciplines and social transformation including what we now refer to as compassionate ministry.
Holiness then, is more than a doctrine or an experience; it is a practice—a way of living. It is a life of compassion defined by the “Golden Rule” as described by Karen Armstrong in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.¹0 The practice of holiness or sanctification is a journey to and with God. God is known in our practices of contemplation, prayer, and silence. And as in Mother Teresa’s words: “Jesus comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
Just as those of the Wesleyan- Holiness persuasion have always been about intentional personal transformation, so at their best they have always been about social transformation. In his 1976 book, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage,¹¹ Donald Dayton documented the wide range of social reform movements in the 19th century advanced by holiness and other evangelical groups. Dayton also described the demise of those social reform movements in the mid-20th century. In Apostles of Reason, Worthen notes that Timothy Smith’s Revivalism and Social Reform¹² “traced the roots of 19th-century social progressivism normally associated with liberal Protestant theology, to earlier evangelical revivals.”
We need to remember the mid- 20th century Wesleyan-Holiness narrative to understand where we are now and why we need a new story. The years between 1925 and 1975 were a time Timothy Smith referred to as “the great reversal” when holiness social concern and reform were nearly forgotten. David O. Moberg, professor of sociology and anthropology at Marquette University, used that phrase for the title of his 1972 book The Great Reversal: Evangelism Versus Social Concern¹³ to describe how Wesleyans, among others, gave up their social concern in reaction to the Social Gospel.
I discovered this in my research in the archives of early Nazarene documents. In our denomination’s formative years, Nazarenes were deeply engaged in a variety of gospel missions, orphanages, and “rest cottages”— providing refuge for young women, victims of “white slavery” or prostitution, for instance. All of this has been well documented and preserved in Stan Ingersol’s research in Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying: Sources and Documents on Nazarene Compassionate Ministries in the Nazarene Archives.¹⁴ Of course, we knew something of Bresee’s mission work in Los Angeles leading to the founding of the Church of the Nazarene. But then it changed, almost suddenly. Fundamentalism, with its opposition to any social action that resembled the social gospel, influenced evangelicals generally, including the holiness churches.
Fortunately, the emphasis changed again around the mid-1970s; at least, it began to change since we have not yet arrived at an understanding of holiness as the integration of personal and social dimensions of the Gospel as practiced byour founders.
Moberg published a revised edition of The Great Reversal in 1977, changing the subtitle from “Evangelism Versus Social Concern” to “Evangelism and Social Concern.” ¹⁵ He recognized that in the early ‘70s holiness and evangelical leaders were, as he wrote, “reversing the great reversal” in practice as well as in theory.
I have lived through much of the “Great Reversal,” a time when some, in the name of holiness, opposed much of what we now do as compassionate ministry. I began an urban ministry in Washington before there was such athing as compassionate ministries just at the time the “Great Reversal” was beginning to reverse.
To fully recover our practice of holiness as a life of compassion, we need a new story. The idea of putting it this way came to me in a recent meeting I joined with Abdul Aziz Said after reading his book Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East.¹⁶ As a Syrian- American, he has been teaching at American University in Washington, D.C., since 1957. He is the senior ranking professor of international relations at AU and is the founder of the Center for Global Peace.
In the second chapter of this book titled, “The Need for a New Story,” Said writes that Middle East peace will come only when the “confrontational story” or stories are replaced with a “compatibility story.” I suggest the phrase “Journey Inward, Journey Outward” as the theme of a new holiness compatibility story of spirituality in a life of compassion. In this story, we would recognize that holiness is a practice of both inner spirituality and a compassionate life. We would recognize that the inward journey of holiness might take many routes regardless of where it begins. We would be willing to let go of our “confrontation” stories with their legalisms and exclusive claims to truth. We would reject the “confrontation” story of fundamentalism. As professor Said writes: “Fundamentalism implies a refusal to listen to the ‘other.’” We would recognize that holiness is a practice of compassion, leading us outward to a world of suffering and human need.
In our compatibility story, we would respond to human suffering wherever it exists and cease our disputes about the Social Gospel and social justice. We would recognize that evangelism— sharing the good news—is alwayscompassionate and that Christian compassion is the good news or evangelism. The new holiness compatibility story is, to coin a phrase, compassion/evangelism.
This theme and story will be wellreceived beyond the boundaries of our own tribe. Evidently, the increasing number of “nones,” those claiming no religious affiliation, is not a reaction to spirituality and compassion but to the old stories of religious disputes, contentious true believers, and indifference to a world of need. We can connect with even the “nones” by telling the new holiness story as an intentional journey of spirituality and compassion. With this new story, we can retain and attract the next generation as we recover and are faithful to our own tradition.
As in the subtitle of Jonah Sachs’ recent book, Winning the Story Wars,17 “Those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future.”
TOM NEES was formerly the Director of the USA/Canada Mission/Evangelism Department for the Church of the Nazarene, and now serves as President of Leading to Serve (www.leadingtoserve.com), an organization dedicated to leadership and mentor training.
2. Elizabeth O’Conner, Call To Commitment: The Story of the Church of the Savior, Washington, D.C. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
3. Gordon Cosby passed away on March 20, 2013, at age 95, spending his final days in Christ House, a hospice for homeless people organized by the Church of the Savior.
4. Elizabeth O’Conner, Journey Inward, Journey Outward (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).
5. Thomas G. Nees, The Holiness Social Ethic and Nazarene Urban Ministry, D.Min. thesis, Wesley Theological Seminary, March 1976.
6. Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
7. See: http://usacanadaregion.org/sites/usacanadaregion.org/files/PDF/Books/John-Wesley- Christian-Revolutionary.pdf.
8. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1972)
9. Mark Quanstrom, A Century of Holiness: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905-2004 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2004).
10. Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011)
11. Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).
12. Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: In Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957).
13. David O. Moberg, The Great Reversal: Evangelism Versus Social Concern (New York: Lippincott, 1972).
14. Stan Ingersol, Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying: Historical Sources and Documents on Compassionate Ministries Drawn from the Inventories of the Nazarene Archives (Second Edition).
15. David O. Moberg, The Great Reversal: Evangelism and Social Concern, rev. ed. (New York: Lippincott, 1977).
16. Nathan C. Funk, and Abdul Aziz Said, Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishers, 2009).
17. Jonah Sachs, Winning the Story Wars (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).