Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Preach, Pray, or Die

At the close of business for our most recent District Assembly (the annual meeting of our local group of congregations in the Church of the Nazarene) our District Superintendent invited, seemingly unprompted, his father to close the gathering with prayer. His father made the comment that when he joined the Church of the Nazarene someone told him Nazarenes need always be prepared "to pray, preach, or die." It drew great laughs, which proved even more amusing as the scheduled preacher for the service that evening lost his voice and our DS had to fill in on very short notice.

I appreciated the statement, though, because it speaks to an urgency that, to me, is the only hallmark of the evangelical movement. I know much has been made of the cultural, political, even theological benchmarks for such a title, but if we stay true to the word itself - which literally means "the bearing of good news." Granted, even the dictionary adds some rather partisan and particular details to the definition of the word, but I'm still willing to claim history on my side.

It's that urgency - not that the world is coming to an end and we need to covert as many as possible, but that this gospel, this good news, is important and there's an urgency to take it seriously in our decisions and lives - that appeals to me so greatly. I'm not sure there are any "official" evangelical groups who'd want me as a member after theological review, but I'll claim that affinity as long as I live (I hope) strictly for that reason: I seek to bear the Good News with not just my words, but with my actions, commitments, and decisions, with great seriousness.

I believe one of the hallmarks of that seriousness is the willingness to sacrifice, something perhaps many cultural evangelicals (and certainly the movement at large) has forgotten - with the general response to outrage being a demanding of rights rather than a surrender of comfort. I don't hear anyone deny that a life in imitation of Christ demands sacrifice, but see very few actively seeking ways to do so.

Granted, it might just be perspective. I can recount many intentional sacrifices me and my family have made in honest pursuit of embodying the gospel, but I could see strong critiques coming my way about the privilege and comfort with which we live. I don't mean my criticism of evangelicalism to be from a position of judgement, but I do spy a lack of intention. We, as a people (American evangelicals, for sure, but probable Western Christianity at large), are afraid to suffer for our beliefs. We might be prepared to preach or pray (although that could be less and less true as time goes on, probably no coincidence), but we are very reticent to die (even metaphorically).

I've been giving conservatives a bit of a hard time thus far, so it's time to turn the tables a bit. I was thinking of this statement a lot during our District Assembly, while also hearing many reports from the Young Clergy Conference that had taken place the week before. Over 100 Nazarene clergy under the age of forty had gathered in Oklahoma City to listen, learn, and dialogue in support of each other. It seems like a super cool event, one I am very sorry to have missed and hope to attend next year (also one I am very supportive of, please don't get me wrong). It's also a group, as is true of just about any "young" contingent from anywhere, tends to be more progressive (in the true sense of 'moving forward' and not the modern sense of 'a weasel word to replace liberal').

The most common description I heard of the conference was that it was a safe space for young clergy to discuss issues that might be problematic elsewhere. I agree and affirm that this is important - and, having been young once, understand the very real ramifications of such difficult talk on someone early in their career and with a tenuous grip on finances. The wrong reputation, earned or otherwise, can basically end a clergy career, at least in the Church of the Nazarene; it's career path without much of a safety net.

The second most common thing I heard from the event was the importance of a message from Jon Middendorf (the host pastor and someone who used to be the face of Nazarene young clergy, you know, when he was young). It was relayed to me that he challenged these young people not to leave the denomination when things got difficult, but to "stay and fight," but not with ways and means the world might associate with fighting, but fighting in imitation of Christ, with love and sacrifice.

It's a powerful message, but as I heard it and the rest of the event recounted, it struck me that many were not really making the connection between "fighting" and sacrifice. Issues discussed at that conference and the perspective of the younger generation in the Church of the Nazarene are vitally important, although perhaps uncomfortable for the denomination at large, often, despite rhetoric to the contrary, downright unwelcome. Making an evangelical stand might just cost us - maybe more than we're prepared or feel safe sacrificing.

This young generation (which, in this context is still the millenials, although the real "young" generation is probably already the one after that*) has grown up in a very security-conscious environment. It's second nature to triple check our protective measures before venturing any risk at all. This is great for surviving to adulthood without debilitating injury or unsightly scarring, but it makes sacrifice difficult. A generation told the world was their oyster only to grow up and become the first generation in US history to not have things better than their parents is difficult - even moreso when they were raised on safety.

What I'm saying is it's easy to retreat, to only risk and sacrifice manageable chunks of our lives (and this certainly applies to me, too). Today's future leaders need to hear that voice from today's former leaders that says "Always be prepared to pray, preach, or die," and we need to pay extra close attention to that last part and all of its implications for the world in which we live. Die might not mean martyrdom of our physical bodies, but it might just mean martyrdom of the life to which we've become accustomed.

*I should also say, in full disclosure, that I am NOT among this group. Most dating of millenials starts with January of 1982, which I missed by a month, but more importantly, I just don't fit any of the typical definitions culturally or in terms of mindset. I am part of what I tend to dub "the lost generation," a real brief transition time in between cultural groups, where we feel as unlike Generation X as we do millenials -
perhaps the best hallmark of which is the internet. We were fully formed adults before the internet really became a regular part of our lives,
but it happened early enough that we're generally native to the technology - although never in ways that millenials or the following generation tends to be. All that to say - I'm speaking critically of a group of which I, myself, am not a part, so please take what I have to say with appropriate levels of salt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ryan, I'm the gentleman that you wrote about re:Being always ready to preach,pray or die.I appreciate your kind comments. How could I get a copy of your blog writing. Don Bowser deb1932@live.com