As another Nazarene General Assembly approaches, I've been thinking back to the one I attended when I was 13 years old. That one was memorable for me because that year, they disenfranchised, stripping me of my voting rights. Even at 13, I was already voting in local church meetings. By the time that General Assembly adjourned, however,I was no longer of voting age because they had raised it from 12 to 15 years.
Actually, apart from revoking my voting privileges, the debates and legislative votes were of secondary interest to me. I was much more caught up in the whole event and a vision for the future that it was giving me. I wandered through the crowds around mission field displays and Global Ministries Center exhibits. I browsed the the sales area of what has become The Foundry. I went to all the teen activities. I enjoyed the exuberant services. I saw more Nazarenes than I had imagined existed.
To me, General Assembly became a camp meeting, the state fair, and a family reunion all in one package. It was the next best thing to the Rapture. As we headed home, I felt proud to be a Nazarene. I felt like I was riding the crest of a wave. I had caught a glimpse of our leaders' dreams. I wanted to help make those dreams come true.
I'll be at General Assembly again this summer. I'm especially excited because an Italian friend will be there. That friend, Giovanni Cereda, grew up in a Nazarene parsonage in Sicily. He has been pastoring in Italy for about 15 years. Last year, he became superintendent of the new Italy South District. This is his first General Assembly. I'm glad to see him thrilled about attending. I want him to experience in San Antonio what I began feeling at age 13.
For General Assembly, San Antonio will be invaded by 40,000 Nazarenes. Only about 1,100 of them will be voting delegates. All the rest will be there celebrating what it means to be a Nazarene. Those diverse but united crowds at General Assembly remind me of what is said in the Bible about the Rapture. Our quadrennial gathering is a dawnlike foretaste of the huge throng of the redeemed, which the apostle John describes in Revelation 7.
Harmony amid diversity. That's a feature of the dream that I hope captivates my Italian friend Giovanni. At the General Assembly, he'll be in a strange land, having to communicate in a language not his own. I want him to feel very safe and at home. I want him to be drawn into conversations in the exhibit halls and in the restaurants. I want him showing off photos of his two daughters. I want him to share in that dream of a truly global family that reflects the "safe" theme of the Old Testament cities of refuge.
I've heard cynics explain General Assemblies in terms of Machiavellian intrigue. They point to "evidence" of "us-them " scheming. What they profess to see going on in the administrative structure doesn't convince me. As we have planted churches and organized districts in more than 160 world areas, we have remained a caring, loving family. As we empower leaders around the globe, we want them to become part of our leadership team. We've no intention of breaking up into independent groupings of churches.
I dream of how the local churches of this global family can become safe havens for people. A brief moment in a Sunday morning service recently dramatized what I dream about for every Nazarene. During congregational singing, I glanced up at the choir. My eyes fell on Vicky, a single mother who doesn't live in the safest of neighborhoods. In her inner-city apartment complex, break-ins are frequent. Illicit drugs are sold. Police often show up to quell disturbances.
That morning we sang "Because He Lives" by Bill and Gloria Gaither. When we got to the affirmation "because He lives, all fear is gone," I saw Vicky's face tilt heavenward. She raised her hand in testimony. The deliverance from fear that Vicky expressed that morning embodies the sense of safety I want everyone to experience in the company of the redeemed called Nazarenes.
There's something else about John's vision that reminds me of the Nazarene dream. He said the people in the throng were wearing robes "made . . . white in the blood of the Lamb." In that setting of purity and holiness, they were waving palm branches in a joyful celebration of victory. What an elated moment!
Not long ago, a conversation I had with a new Nazarene reminded me of this part of John's vision. The new Nazarene was Dionel Davila. I met him on a Work and Witness trip to Mexico organized by Southern Nazarene University.
During our bus trip into Mexico, I wound up sitting next to him. When he told me he had transferred to us from another denomination, I asked him: "What attracted you to our church?"
Dionel, who is from San Angelo, Texas, didn't hesitate. "The call to holiness," he said. "I have had enough of churches where people get excited in worship services but place no importance on living the holy life to which God has called us."
His answer reminded me that Nazarenes desire to be more than generic Evangelicals. We dream about our global family proclaiming the biblical call to purity of heart and saintliness of life in an atmosphere of radical optimism.
We want to tell the world: "Those clean, pure robes can be yours. You can wave palm branches of true victory." Authentic biblical holiness is more than living up to a list of "thou shalt nots." Trying to live a holy life that way often turns out to be more of a nightmare than a dream. Let's get refocused on what Christ enables us to become. Isn't our dream built on a "deliverance from . . . in order to . . ."? Such a dream will attract thousands of others into the years ahead until our Lord returns.
During that bus ride across northern Mexico, Dionel told me there was a second reason he liked being a Nazarene. He said he liked the fact that Nazarenes are generous givers. That, too, reminded me of the vision of Revelation 7. The crowd in John's vision focuses on the Lordship of Jesus. The throng's exuberant worship of the King of Kings parallels the way Nazarenes worship through their giving. Out of overflowing hearts, we have been generous and exuberant in our personal giving. Nazarene churches give freely to support district and global ministries.
My dream is that we will continue to be others-oriented. From time to time, an occasional worried voice cries that local churches are being "drained dry" to support district and global ministries (as if a congregation's main responsibility was its own survival). Such thinking runs counter to our dream of being a blood-washed throng where the stains of selfishness are washed away. We must not come to view Nazarene churches as beleaguered outposts struggling to hold precarious positions. We must not succumb to such thinking. Let's dream the better dream.
For nearly 10 years, Charles Witte was the bivocational pastor of the Crescent, OK, Church of the Nazarene. On more than one occasion, I heard Charles tell fellow pastors how to face financial pressures.
"Churches have fewer financial troubles when they make giving to world evangelism a top priority," he would say over and over.
Charles was right. His little flock came to make giving to others a characteristic of their church. I watched them enjoy giving to World Mission Radio, Nazarene Com passionate Ministries, and other offerings. He helped them catch the essence of what I dream about for our denomination.
Rev. Witte is not alone in his ideas about our needing to focus on a global outlook rather than seeing ourselves as trying to defend embattled fortresses. For years, Gene Williams pastored Wichita (Kansas) First Church. That congregation of 1,200 was 70 times larger than the group Rev. Witte pastored in central Oklahoma. Yet, Gene Williams often used nearly the same words as Rev. Witte.
We Nazarenes must be generous in giving to others if we're going to be true to who we are. We've got to take risks.
Will you share this dream? Will you be part of a church where the sound of marching is heard? We can have every reason to wave palm branches (or whatever else signifies our sense of victory and joy).
Last fall I visited Sofia, Bulgaria, on behalf of Southern Nazarene University. Nazarene work there is going on under a compassionate ministries umbrella. The volunteers and intern missionaries have been able to lead some Bulgarians to Christ, even though government recognition of the denomination has been slow in coming.
While in Sofia, I taught a seminar for future Bulgarian Nazarene leaders studying in the extension program of European Nazarene College. In the closing hour of those concentrated few days, I asked for students' reactions to the concentrated hours we had spent together in the classroom.
It became a time laden with emotion. One young lady, Milena Eneva, said she decided that day to become a Nazarene. She was going to embrace the Nazarene dream. She said: "I decided I wanted to be part of something bigger than I am."
I invite you to join her. Embrace the dream.
Let's never be content with empty pews and unconverted neighbors. The dream is still before us. Let's be the city of refuge flying the banner of holiness and trumpeting the optimism of grace.
Maybe you won't get to this upcoming General Assembly. Maybe we won't have a chance to eat tacos and enchiladas together there. That's okay. Forget the tacos. Let's make the dream come true. Heaven is ahead of us. Let's reach for it now.
This article was originally published in what is now called Holiness Today while the author was teaching at Southern Nazarene University
Are you good at thinking on your feet? I'm not. I get caught off guard all the time. It happened recently at Southern Nazarene University.
I was the missionary-in-residence there at SNU. I often had students in my Christian Thought who are not Nazarenes. Suzanne was one of those. One day after class she stopped to talk. She said she was thinking about joining our church.
"But I'm not sure why," she said almost as a challenge. "Can you help me decide? Why are you a Nazarene?"
I began to hem and haw around. As I said, no one thinks of me as a brilliant off-the-cuff thinker. Finally, I mumbled something. Days passed. Suzanne's question kept coming up. I couldn't keep from thinking about it.
Finally, I've got an answer. Unfortunately, the semester has ended. Suzanne is no longer in my class. So I'm trying to answer her here.
Why are you thinking about becoming a Nazarene, Suzanne? Is it because you agree wholeheartedly with the moral standards set by General Assembly delegates?
We're against sin. I hope you are. We're for righteousness. I hope you are. We're not, however, the only group preaching tithing and clean living. A lot of evangelical churches set tough moral standards. Many voice their convictions clearly and coherently.
Looking for a church with high moral standards? You have a broad range of choices.
Should you become a Nazarene because you like our Articles of Faith?
A few days ago, I sat beside a nonChristian on a flight out of Denver. I said I was a missionary with the Church of the Nazarene. "Nazarenes? Baptists?" he said, "Aren't you about the same?"
"Yes," I told him. Naturally, we insiders can see significant differences. On many major issues, however, we agree. To a non-churchgoer, Baptists and Nazarenes are very much the same.
We have a couple of unique doctrinal views. Many churches differ with us on sin and sanctification. If you oppose us on these key doctrines, Suzanne, you'll be uncomfortable being a Nazarene. On the other hand, we're not the only ones believing in the Bible, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Atonement, Communion, and baptism. On most issues we're right in the mainstream of evangelical Christianity.
I've known Nazarenes who left to join other churches. They still believed in the Trinity, the Bible, and the Atonement. But they weren't Nazarenes anymore. Agreeing to a list of "I believes" is probably not reason enough to join our church.
Should you become a Nazarene because you believe in entire sanctification? Does this doctrine describe your experience and your understanding of God's Word?
This argument has merit. Entire sanctification as a second work of grace is a distinctive. Not every evangelical church believes in it like we do. Some disagree strongly with us. Believing in entire sanctification significantly narrows your choice of churches.
Still, there are several "holiness" churches. Those preaching entire sanctification include: The Wesleyan Church, God's Missionary Church, the Church of God (Anderson), and the Free Methodist Church. So, believing in entire sanctification does not automatically mean you should become a Nazarene. [ How entire is entire? ]
Looking for a holiness church? You could join any of those other groups.
Should you join the Church of the Nazarene simply because you like the church?
I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene. I've been a part of it for more than 60 years. I like the freedom of expression in our services. I love General Assemblies. The story of aggressive outreach and mergers that gave birth to us fascinates me. Still, emotional appeal alone is not enough to make you a Nazarene.
Suzanne, are you attracted to us because of some local church? Don't join, however, based on what you see in one local church. Remember: When you become a Nazarene, you join more than a local church. You're joining a movement. You may like one church, Suzanne. Is that reason enough to join a whole movement'?
So, what's the better answer? Should you become a Nazarene because
b. Lifestyle standards?
c. Emotional appeal.
I've thought a lot about your question, Suzanne. None of these first responses satisfies me entirely. If I have to choose from this list, I'd prefer to say: all of the above. It's, however, something more.
The other day I flew to Washington, D.C. During that flight, the answer came to me. Why do I choose to be a Nazarene, Suzanne? It's because of the dream. I'm a Nazarene because I share the Nazarene dream!
Emotional appeal. Doctrine. Lifestyle standards. They're all part of the Nazarene dream. But our dream is something more. It's a vision of Spirit filled believers invading every nook and cranny of this world. In sacrificial service they seek "the entire sanctification of believers and their upbuilding in holiness." The Church of the Nazarene doesn't have a fortress mentality. That is, we're not hunkered down behind something, trying to survive Satan's onslaughts. "We don't need forts and barricades," Phineas F. Bresee wrote in our early days, "We need a marching, conquering army."
We're assault troops, not fortified defenders. Our dream is a wonderful mix of second-blessing holiness and aggressive evangelism. That dream has driven its to plant a Nazarene church in 60% of the U.S. counties. That's more extensive coverage than many older and even larger denominations. Phineas Bresee was one of our founders. I was fascinated to find his name in a recent book titled Seven Hundred Plans to Evangelize the World. That book cataloged the plans and dreams of Christian leaders and organizations through the centuries. Only a few denominational leaders make that list. Bresee is among the select few. "We are debtors," he said, "to every man to give him the gospel in the same measure we have received it."
We published our first Manual (a book of history, doctrinal statements, governance procedures and lifestyle guidelines) in 1908. Under Bresee's leadership those early Nazarenes wrote: "We seek . . . the preaching of the Gospel to every creature." Barrett and Reapsome saw Bresee as having a plan to evangelize the world.
Many of the 700 plans that Barrett and Reapsome looked at have fizzled. They sounded great but didn't produce results. Among those which Barrett and Reapsome declared "alive and well" is Bresee's. Bresee's plan is, said Barrett and Reapsome, being "massively implemented." That's true. Today, the Church of the Nazarene is at work in 165 countries. The dream of planting the holiness banner everywhere drives us onward and outward. I've dreamed that dream, too. I want to help make it happen.
Along the way I've seen some Nazarenes drop out. They wandered off to other churches. I've talked with some of them. They didn't leave primarily over moral issues or because of disillusionment with our heritage. Doctrinal differences did not trigger the change. They simply drifted away, having lost the dream. The vision no longer gripped them as it once did.
When my parents married, they were members of another holiness group. They changed churches when they discovered that the Nazarene vision harmonized better with their own hopes and dreams as Spirit-filled believers. They've helped conserve that dream so that I could dream it, too.
That, Suzanne, is why I'm a Nazarene. If you're dreaming that dream, we'd like to have you. Come, help us make it happen.
-- Howard Culbertson
The above article originally appeared in the periodical now called Holiness Today. This is an updated version of the printed article.
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