Our history — Church of the Nazarene

Nazarene identity — The story of a movement that became a global "tribe."

The Christian church, as we know it today, came into being following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This happened in the first half of the first century subsequent to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost as reported in Acts 2. Within less than 300 years the Christian movement became the most powerful force in the Roman world. In the year 323, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.

In the Middle Ages, several Christian reform movements arose. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation — led by people like Martin Luther and John Calvin — gave birth to many of the Christian denominations we know today.

John Wesley

In the early 18th century, an Evangelical Revival swept across England. That revival was fueled by evangelist George Whitefield and the ministry of two brothers, John and Charles Wesley. The Wesleys emphasized the possibility of a victorious life through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The preaching, teaching, follow-up work and social ministries of the Wesleys gave birth to the Methodist movement. The historic "golden age" of evangelical Protestantism includes the first 100 years of this movement.

As time passed, the preaching and the teaching of the doctrine and experience of the Spirit-filled life (sometimes called entire sanctification or Christian holiness) began to wane within Methodism in the U.S. and Great Britain. Opposition even developed to those Methodists seeking to maintain a focus on the biblical call to holy living. This resulted in the organization of new denominations including the Wesleyan Methodist and Free Methodist.

Revival of holiness in the U.S.A.

About that same time (latter part of the 19th century), a holiness revival spread across the U.S. In addition to Methodists, the revival involved members of many Protestant denominations. Sadly, the holiness movement was not universally popular, and opposition to the message of freedom from sin arose. Such opposition led groupings of holiness people to band together for mutual encouragement. The Church of the Nazarene was born in the context of this banding together of various small associations of local churches that had been formed to preach and teach holiness.

Initially, the "Church of the Nazarene" was a single congregation. That church was organized in Los Angeles, California in 1895 under the leadership of Phineas F. Bresee. His experience as pastor, educator, evangelist, and presiding elder in the American Methodist church had prepared him well to guide the new group. Within a decade, dozens of churches in the U.S. had been organized under the Nazarene banner. While its initial beginnings were on the West Coast, that new movement soon began reaching toward the heartland of the United States and then to other countries. Bresee's burning passion was to "spread scriptural holiness" around the world, a passion that has continued to be a driving motivation for the Church of the Nazarene throughout its history.

These Wesleyan groups and associations, including Bresee's Nazarene group, began to talk about the need for a more structured and comprehensive fellowship that would unite their forces. Thus, in 1907, a meeting in Chicago between Bresee's group and a similar association from the East Coast led to a merger of the two groups. The following year, at a meeting in north Texas near Pilot Point, a large group from the South joined these other two groups. This latter event — on October 13, 1908 — is celebrated as the official formation of the Church of the Nazarene. Subsequently, other like groups have chosen to come under the Nazarene banner, not only in the United States, but in other parts of the world.

At its official beginning as a national denomination in 1908 the Church of the Nazarene had a little over 200 churches and 10,500 members scattered across the U.S. as well as missions outposts in Africa, Mexico, Asia. The Church of the Nazarene now includes congregations in more than 160 countries of the world. Today, the 30,000 Nazarene churches around the world now a total membership of more than 2.5 million.

Is there still a special niche for the Church of the Nazarene?

While doing deputation during one of our home assignment times, I had a discouraged pastor ask me: "Has the Church of the Nazarene outlived its usefulness? Do we still have a clear reason to continue as a separate movement?"

Good question. Most Protestant denominations resulted from the Holy Spirit's spiritual revival and renewal action at specific times and places. Sometimes, one of those emerging movement's message, methods and structure are closely tied to a specific cultural and historical context. With the changes in that context brought by the passage ot time, the movement starts to seem disconnected and irrelevant. As it seems increasingly less able to project a prophetic voice to the surrounding society and act as a viable force for change, that movement retreats into a protective shell or else morphs into a generic group indistinguishable from others.

My pastor friend was wondering if something like that was happening to the Church of the Nazarene. To be honest, there were very personal reasons for his questions. His little congregation appeared to sliding an irreversibly into oblivion. On top of that, his children had contemptuously turned their backs on the church. Frustrated at his church's impotence in reaching not only the community where he ministering, but also his own family, my friend had fallen prey to doubt and discouragement.

The Church of the Nazarene was born to meet pressing, definable needs. In addition to other things, Phineas F. Bresee said, "God has called us to help christianize Christianity." More than a century has gone by since the organizational structure called the Church of the Nazarene was formed.

Today we are one of many groups seeking to evangelize lost people. We are having success in planting new churches around the world and in evangelizing ethnic minorities. But . . . beyond that, is there a specific need which our theological and historical heritage has uniquely prepared us to meet?

Recently, I've been reminded that the original objective of "christianizing Christianity" is more valid than ever. In a book on religion in America written some years ago, pollster George Gallup said, "Religion is growing in importance among Americans, but morality is losing ground." It would appear that American Christianity is still a long way from being christianized. Clearly, time has not erased the need for a movement whose constitution asks its members to evidence their commitment to God "by avoiding evil of every kind." Our niche has been and can continue to be the fearless proclamation of a holy lifestyle, of radical commitment, of "dying out to sin" (to use older wording). That message needs to be heard by Christians of every denominational stripe.

Raymond Bakke reported to the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization the results of his meetings with church leaders in more than sixty major cities of the world. He concluded that one primary hindrance to urban evangelism was that there usually was "no ethical superiority" of Christians over nonChristians.

The preamble to the constitution of the Church of the Nazarene speaks of our hope "that we may cooperate effectually with other branches of the Church of Jesus Christ in advancing God's kingdom." We must help those involved in urban evangelism to see that the godly walk and vital piety to which our Manual calls Nazarenes is not the narrow-minded peculiarity of a holier-than-thou club. Rather, such a lifestyle is a key ingredient to successful urban outreach. Believers in other movements may never embrace the exact wording of every one of our Articles of Faith. But they can still embrace the idea that entire devotement to God and the holy obedience of love made perfect may offer the best hope for evangelizing the world's cities.

Some time ago, Christianity Today reported on a survey of church-going families. Forty-two percent of the children interviewed in the survey said their families never discuss religious topics. Don't these families need to hear the emphasis of a group whose "Covenant of Christian Conducct" specifically emphasizes the need of holiness teaching in the home?

In their quadrennial address to a denominational General Assembly, the Board of General Superintendents reminded Nazarenes that their central purpose was the "propagation of Christian holiness." To be sure, this may be narrowly defined as teaching and preaching holiness only to those persons converted in our own churches. However, I like to think that this "propagating" is aimed at a much larger audience, that of believers in all evangelical movements.

Occasionally, I meet Nazarenes fearful of being seen as too aggressively "pushing our doctrine." Such defensiveness cannot be justified. In full respect of Christians in other evangelical movements, we must believe that the Holy Spirit has entrusted us with a precious treasure which must be shared with the whole Christian world. In kindly, brotherly love, we can witness to the message of the cleansing and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Once in a while, we may get drawn into debate. That's not all bad. Sometimes a debate will help clarify definitions. But we must remember that our primary concern is spreading the biblical message holiness, not debating it.

Jesus' fervent prayer in John 17 for the sanctification of believers was meant for all Christians. One of the reasons for our existence as a movement is to help believers in other traditions to embrace the cleansing and power that is available to them (even if they prefer to talk about it a little differently than we do).

I sympathize with my discouraged pastor friend. He is carrying some heavy burdens. But he has no reason to fear that we're an outmoded movement stalled inside a time frame of the past.

The Church of the Nazarene is uniquely qualified to occupy an important niche in the Christian world. Let's preach, teach, testify to and live the key ingredient that so many Christians seem to lack: a life of Christian holiness.

This article was written and published in what is now called Holiness Today while the author was a missionary in Italy.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Nazarene global missions history

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