Holiness and Dirty Data


Sensing that great change is afoot for the Church of the Nazarene and that young and minority pastors often feel excluded, Point Loma Nazarene University hosted a conference called, "Holy Conversations in the Church: Is There a Place for Me?" on October 30-31, 2015.  They asked me to address the topic: "What Concerns Do Millennials Have?"  This is the text of my talk.

    Every paradigm is temporary.

    Thomas Kuhn rocked the scientific world in 1962 with his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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According to Kuhn, science always operates under a particular paradigm.  For generations, the goal of Normal Science is to add detail to the outline provided by the dominant paradigm.  
    However, slowly scientists discover anomalies - or dirty data - that won’t fit easily within the existing paradigm.  At first, scientists are able to contrive complex justifications for the dirty data within the dominant paradigm.  
    Eventually though, the dirty data piles up, and a few brave and creative souls tentatively propose new paradigms.  Their proposals are necessarily imperfect because they are first ventures into a new reality.  Naturally, these pioneers are shot down.  They are rejected, discredited, blackballed, excluded, excommunicated, and sometimes even executed.  
    … until we reach a tipping point.  The mountain of dirty data becomes unavoidable.  Second tier pioneers rework and refine the new paradigm to make it simpler, more elegant, and more accurate.  And finally, the scientific community and society at large make the jump to the new paradigm, establishing a new normal.

    Think of our understanding of outer space and our place in it.  For most of history, most humans understood the earth to be essentially flat with the heavens in a great dome above us.
    However, around the time of Aristotle, the scientific community began to acknowledge rather unevenly that the earth is round.  They imagined that everything else rotates around the earth (the geocentric model).  
    Alternatives to the geocentric model emerged quickly, but the tipping point did not arrive until much later.  Copernicus suggested that the earth is one of several planets in rotation around the sun. But scientists rejected his theory because their models were more accurate - even though more complicated.  When Galileo squished the circular orbits into ellipses, suddenly the heliocentric model started making sense.  Kepler added a few more key refinements, and we passed the tipping point in the 1,600’s.  
    In the 1,800’s and 1,900’s, our paradigm was rocked again with the realization that we are a tiny speck in a whole galaxy of stars in a possibly infinite universe.
    Theological revolutions follow the same basic structure.  Let’s look at the Protestant Reformation as an example.  The working paradigm for many centuries was that all authority was centered in the Pope in Rome.  All theology worked within that framework.  But in the late middle ages, the dirty data started piling up, and Huss was burned at the stake for talking about it.  He was just too early.  By the time Luther spoke out, he had 95 bits of dirty data to nail to the Wittenberg Door.  A new paradigm of biblical authority and localized interpretation emerged.

    Millennials understand intuitively that we are in the midst of a holiness revolution. 

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We find ourselves with a growing mountain of dirty data and early movements toward new paradigms of holiness theology.  We are currently at the point of highest systemic tension in the cycle of paradigm changes - between dirty data and new paradigms.  We face the challenge of how to live together effectively as everything seems to be changing all around us.  The old quote that Bresee borrowed - possibly from Augustine - may provide a helpful framework: Unity in Essentials, Liberty in Nonessentials, Charity in All Things.  Within this structure, I’ll introduce the primary concerns of Nazarene Millennials - as I understand them.

    First, Unity in Essentials. 

Millennials have far fewer essentials than any previous generations.  Millennials might assent to all of the sixteen articles of faith, but in practice only two fundamentals are nonnegotiable: Jesus and mission.  Most Millennials are willing to set aside the majority of theological debates for one landmark question: “Who is Jesus, and how do we follow him?”  Thus, Jesus and mission are essentially linked.  Everything pales compared to the central issue of following Jesus’ mission for the restoration of all creation.

    Second, Liberty in Nonessentials. 

   For Millennials, nearly everything else is a nonessential.  The other stuff may be important, but it is not essential that we all agree on it.
   Millennial Nazarenes believe wholeheartedly that God is making us like Jesus and that our calling is to live like Jesus.  Beyond that, we aren’t sure about much in terms of how sanctification actually works.  
   Millennials generally think of requiring abstinence from alcohol as the last holdout of American legalism.  We can and should debate this, but we have to acknowledge that our traditional Nazarene tea-total-er stance feels like archaic legalism to millennials. 
   Most Millennials are comfortable with acknowledging the diverse Christian history regarding theories of heaven and hell, and many feel compelled to explain a variety of Christian options so that no seekers have an unnecessary barrier placed between them and Jesus.
   Next, we can and should debate gay marriage openly and robustly, but we should also acknowledge that the vast majority of Millennials and nearly all of their children will consider gay marriage a nonessential Christian issue.   Actually, many of the next generation will consider accepting gay marriage an essential justice issue.   I offer this not as a values statement of what should be, but as a sociological prediction of what is likely to be.   As we debate, we must plainly acknowledge the direction of our context.

    Last, Charity in All Things.  

   Millennials expect genuine love and grace in our conversations, policies, debates, and churches.  If you want the respect of Millennials, genuine kindness is nonnegotiable.
   The bad news for Boomers is that Millennials see way, way more nonessentials.  The good news is that our Nazarene tradition was built in accommodating political, ethical, and theological diversity.  We Nazarenes have always acknowledged that we don't have to agree to get along, that we can have significantly different views on many points and still worship and work together in spiritual unity.
   And Millennials expect to see our holiness theology of love take root in ALL our churches through serious and sustained work of racial reconciliation and social justice.  All churches, not just churches in poor urban areas, must be compassion centered.

    But I believe the most important message that Millennials would like to give to church leaders today is simply this:

Don’t kill the reformers. 

You don’t have to agree with us.  You don’t have to like what we do or say.  But we need you to understand our world enough to say, “We need you.  There is space for you to help us figure this out.”  
    Church leaders, on behalf of all the Millennial leaders here and around the world: please don’t kill the reformers. Don’t shoot us down or shout us out or threaten to defrock us.  Don’t banish us to the kids table.  Invite us into the rooms where the real decisions are made.  Become our friends.  You need us, and we need you.  

    Millennial leaders, on behalf of a church that doesn’t quite understand you, please hear this. 

We need you. 

You are fighting a hard battle at the turn of eons, and sometimes you’re fighting against us.  I’m sorry.  That’s just how this cycle works.  Don’t give up.  And, don’t leave.

Please, don’t leave.

    We really do need each other - more than any of us realize.