Tuesday, February 03, 2015


There's a Catch-22 when you write a blog. You want people to see it - that's why it's published publicly. At the same time, once other people see it, you're losing context and control. It's public now and people can presume and assume whatever they wish about your nuance and motivation.

My friend, Ric, a former seminary classmate, posted a piece on his blog this week that went Nazarene viral. He got something like 30,000 hits the first day (100 times more than his normal total). Ric's a pastor in the United Methodist Church, but his training was in the educational system of the Church of the Nazarene (my denomination). He talked about some of the struggles he had and his decision to move from one denomination to another.

It brought up one of our most difficult, unhealed divisions - namely our perspective on education. Likely as long as there have been institutions of higher education in the Church of the Nazarene, people have been skeptical of them. Professors are on constant alert for charges of heresy or the dreaded "liberalism." You can read the whole post for more detail (and likely lots of comments and explanation), but ultimately, he got an offer to work at a UMC congregation, tried to keep his credentials with the Church of the Nazarene and, when that proved near-impossible, simply moved from one denomination to another.

What fascinated me about the whole thing (and the fact that its a "thing" is exactly that Catch-22 of which I spoke) is how defensive some people have become. Ric was pretty overt in stating this was simply his experience, with no claims to larger trends or narratives. The problem is, his experience mirrors the experience of a lot of young Nazarene ministers. Whether he wants it to be normative or not, to many, it is.

From here, the responses become not responses to Ric, but to the many others in a similar situation. One comment I saw said something to the effect of "you either run from the problem or stay to help fix it." This is certainly a truism - but only if there's enough impetus to care about fixing it in the first place. Ric proclaims, right off the bat, his main reason for leaving as a lack of roots. There just wasn't enough connection to the denomination to make any sort of struggle against adversity worth the time, pain, and effort.

That makes sense. Not so much to me, but in a general sense.

I get it. I, on the other hand, have deep, deep roots. My father is a Nazarene pastor. His father was a Nazarene pastor. As best as we can figure, my daughter is likely a sixth generation Nazarene. Both of my wife's parents are Nazarene pastors and her mom was raised in the Church of the Nazarene from birth. My Dad and his three brothers all went to Nazarene schools and picked up wives along the way (with their own set of Nazarene roots), a tradition that carried on for most of my generation as well.

I can't imagine myself not connected to the Church of the Nazarene. The only way I'd leave is if they physically bar me from the building.

The problem is, what it means for me to be a Nazarene is certainly different than what it meant for my dad or my grandfather or his parents. It used to be a pretty tight-knit community where not only were people united in the basic holiness message, but lifestyle, worship, and the larger spectrum of theology was relatively uniform all the way around.

I don't think Ric is crazy. In fact, his experience resonated as much with me as anybody else. I left my ordination interview more upset than excited - which is probably not the ideal scenario. I've witnessed the backlash against professors at Nazarene institutions and I've experienced our deep-seated anti-intellectualism on more than a few occasions.

There is some lingering notion that somehow education harms faith - the more you study the less you believe. I can certainly attest that my education has led to me to believe a number of thing quite differently than I believed before, but I'm also quite certain without this education I would no longer believe at all. My educational experience showed me there's more than enough space for my questions within the larger context of the Nazarene Church.

In my case, although my education sometimes makes me feel marginalized or unwanted, it served to connect my understanding to my roots. I was able to recognize what made the Church of the Nazarene so special to those in my family who've loved it - but also discover a way to engage that rooted joy from my own perspective and context.

For Ric, it seems (and forgive me for being one of "those" people reading into things you've written), his roots were more anchored in his educational experience. When push came to shove, the people to whom he felt rooted were being marginalized and challenged by the Church of the Nazarene. If you find out your roots aren't really that connected to the larger plant at all, what do you do? It makes perfect sense to me.

My roots are in a different place, but don't think I haven't thought about the distinct possibility they won't always feel that way. If you're driving down the road and see a friend with a flat tire, you're likely to stop and help. If they begin to blame you for their having a flat tire in the first place, you might put up with it for a while. If it continues, you're going to evaluate just how good of friends you really are and whether sticking this ordeal out is entirely worth the hassle.

It's been said, and I have no idea if this is true or apocryphal, that Randy Maddox's comment when asked why he chose the UMC over his Nazarene roots, was that he'd rather defend his head than his heart. That's the sad choice a lot of young Nazarenes feel they have to make. They'd rather be seen as a sincere believers with the occasional odd idea than learned people who may or may not be a real Christians.

I've come to define holiness (the only real reason the Church of the Nazarene still exists) as an ingrained commitment to God - sincerity and passion towards living a life in imitation of Jesus Christ. Too often that doesn't seem enough for many people. I don't want this to sound like a death knell for our denomination - there are certainly plenty of supportive, welcoming Nazarenes out there, likely a majority (although who really knows?) - at the same time the issue is pervasive and real. It's a part of our past and a part of our present. It may still be a big part of our future. I don't know. I hope not.

I do know there are a lot of young people leaving because they don't feel trusted, the feel the subject of fear rather than hope. Fear will wither roots faster than anything. It is trust that will make them grow. And, if perhaps you find it difficult to trust someone so seemingly different from you - a skeptical elder or a radical youth - could it be time simply to not trust them and instead trust the God so visible in their lives?

That's how we grow roots and it's how we stick together.

1 comment:

ricshewell said...

Good thoughts. Just another thought to throw into the mix: when students are sent into the crucibles of college and seminary, it's their education that will be steady for the coming years, and their participation in local churches that vary. When I was in college, it was the first time I could really go to a church that my parents didn't go to. Freshman year, I visited churches but then settled on College Church. Sophomore and Junior year I worshiped at another church. And Senior year I worshiped at another. It didn't seem too strange. When I went to seminary, I pretty much moved churches as church jobs opened up. In college and in seminary, my participation in education was the constant. Probably why I planted roots with professors and the institutions. Thanks for your thoughts.