They shake their heads and frown. Looking into a far-off abyss, they ask:
“Where is all of this heading? Are we going to split?”
Pastors from around the country - young and old, progressive, conservative, and moderates, hipsters and hunters - are concerned for the future of the Church of the Nazarene. They don’t want it to happen, but they don’t see any other way.
I’ve given them my best answer while drying my hands in the bathroom or refilling my coffee at the back of a busy conference. But the repetition and importance of the question beg for a more serious response.
Will the Church of the Nazarene split? It could go either way, but here are my best guesses framed in three different scenarios.
If the Conservatives Win …
People are afraid. The world is changing, and changing faster than ever before. Many Christians have retreated to the church as the last bastion to resist change. Many feel that if even the church changes, all is lost.
There is a reactionary movement all around North America. A battle is underway for the heart of the Church of the Nazarene. Progressives are painted with a broad brush as villains who are (unintentionally) leading the church astray.
As this battle plays out, younger Nazarenes and older progressives find themselves more and more unwelcome in the church that raised them. Many have voted with their feet by migrating to less restrictive denominations or even to no church at all.
If this conservative constituency wins, if conservatives are able to push through some of their fundamentalist legislative moves, or if they are able to continue pushing out progressive thinkers and pastors, then the results will be dire. We will be an increasingly aged denomination in terms of members, strategies, and thoughts. The exodus of young, academic, and progressive Nazarenes will increase exponentially.
Then, the Church of the Nazarene will continue to bleed our youngest and brightest to other denominations who will be happy to take them.
However, a split is unlikely if the conservatives win. I discussed this scenario with Dr. Ron Benefiel, a renowned Nazarene theologian and sociologist. Dr. Benefiel argues that historically schisms happen from the right not the left. Because discontented people on the right have a high confidence that their view is the only real truth, they tend to be averse to compromise or merger. Instead, they form new groups where their ideals can exist in purest form. Discontented progressives, on the other hand, tend to leave more quietly and merge with other groups that have space for their views.
So, in summary, if the conservatives win, we’ll likely get an old and dying church operating with a fortress mentality, actively engaging a losing battle against heathens and liberals alike.
If the Progressives Win …
The times they are a’changing, and a great many young and forward-thinking leaders want the Church of the Nazarene to catch up with the times. They are ready for swift movement on issues such as alcohol, racial reconciliation, social justice, creation care, revising our doctrine of sanctification, and softening our stance on homosexuality and gay marriage.
No matter how history votes, regardless of whether the progressive stances on these issues are right or wrong, quick victories here could result in schism. And “quick” is measured in decades in the context of church change.
If conservatives feel that the Church of the Nazarene has been taken over by progressives, and if they lose hope for reform, then a split becomes likely. Conservatives are likely to feel a moral obligation to protect the essential doctrines and to separate the wheat from the weeds within the church.
Ironically, a split like this may be most likely if the progressives finally achieve two of their longstanding dreams: (1) Equal representation from all Nazarenes around the globe, and (2) The right for each region to define certain ethical standards. Progressives face a problematic situation of believing strongly in the value of diverse leadership for the Church of the Nazarene, while largely being unaware that most of our non-Western leaders would not support many of the changes progressives are pushing. An American vs. International split is currently being worked out with American Episcopals and international Anglicans, and we Nazarenes could follow the same path of diversity then schism.
So, yes, if the progressives win big and win fast, the conservatives are likely to split away.
If We All Win …
There is a third option. Neither side has to lose. We can learn to appreciate each other and move forward together.
Of course this is the more difficult path. It requires humility, patience, listening, power-sharing, and courage - all in short supply in today’s hyper-politicized landscape. This requires all of us - including this somewhat prophetic instigator - to tone down our rhetoric, to tune in for deep listening, and to value the perspective and presence of those with whom we have profound disagreements. Difficult, yes. Impossible, no.
This is the path of Nazarene history. Phineas Bresee’s famous motto still rings in our ears: “Unity in essentials; liberty in nonessentials; charity in all things.”
The Church of the Nazarene was the first denomination to reunite Northerners and Southerners after the American Civil War. Our 1908 merger of North, South, East, and West necessarily involved tolerance for political, ethical, and theological diversity.
We have tolerance written into at least two of our articles of faith. We accept all forms of baptism and even accept those (like Quakers) who feel opposed to physical baptism. Similarly, we intentionally do not take a stance on the varied debates regarding the End Times. Instead, we simply affirm that Jesus is coming again.
We are an extremely diverse global denomination - with a bewildering kaleidoscope of worship styles and languages. At our best, we have affirmed and reaffirmed contextualization and indigenous leadership around the world.
We are essentially moderates. From the beginning, we have been neither fundamentalists nor liberals, neither traditionalists nor radicals.
Embracing diversity is part of our Nazarene DNA. I - for one - expect us to stay faithful to this DNA. In fits and starts, with quiet successes and heart-wrenching fiascos, we will stumble forward into mutual hospitality.