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Jul 13, 2006


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will spotts

I once had the opportunity to sit with a room full of Nazarenes in on a soc of religion lecture on the sect-church move. The professor was very amused at how strongly his audience wanted to view themselves in the coveted "sect" category.

You cover a host of issues here - many worth more exploration, but I'm really curious about one thing: is there a way to prevent that "sect" - "church" drift? It can be seen so predictably at least in Enlgish and American experience (hindsight). This is mirrored by the experience of the individual -- we tend to make "treaties" with the dominant culture to permit us to participate in its values and Christianity at the same time.

I ask because I find the institutional "insolence of office" and the accomodationist bent both to be incompatible with Christianity. And I find the holding "Christ and culture" in dynamic tension to be an unsatisfying concept. (Much as we all want to buy into the Christ transforming culture rationale -- and much as I can point out instances of this -- I can probably point out far more historic instances of culture transforming Christians.)

Michael Kruse

The Nazarenes are indeed an interesting group. I did my master’s thesis on them. According to survey data, over the past decade they have made an astonishing transition toward more social concern while keeping their Evangelical core. The following is a study published a couple of years ago that shows some fascinating changes: Fundamentalism in the Church of the Nazarene

“is there a way to prevent that "sect" - "church" drift?”

And that is the million dollar question isn’t it? The Roman Catholics have dealt with many potential sectarian splits by creating orders for reformist elements. That is one model. You hit on something with your observation about the Anglo-American element in this. These are also the cultures that have been the most thoroughly imbued with modernist hubris about progress and foundationalism.

I have wondered what well happen with this dynamic as the modernist world wanes. For instance, some have been concerned about a denominational split in the PCUSA because of decisions that have been made. While there may be a splinter group or two, IMO, that is the least of PCUSA worries. The bigger problem is evaporation. People just walking out of congregations to who knows where.

I think some of the impetus for splits on both sides of issues in the past is that people’s identity is deeply tied to an institution. The great majority of folks in our pews no longer have a strong identity investment with denominations. If they don’t see what they want they will just find it somewhere else regardless of denomination. I also think that as foundationalism wanes there will be less impetus to draw hard narrow hair-splitting lines on esoteric doctrines.

Bottom-line is, I really don’t have definitive solution. Do you have some thoughts on this?

On a related but different note, I think it was in one of Ken Bailey’s books where he noted that 500 years after the Church started the Armenian Church split with the West in 554. Five hundred years later the Eastern Orthodox split with the West in 1054. Five hundred years after that we had the Protestant Reformation, generally considered to have begun in 1517 when Luther decided to offer a few constructive observations at Wittenberg. The really big splits seem to come every five centuries. Well… it is five hundred years later. What should we expect now?

will spotts

Thanks for the link to the paper. I was vaguely aware of the shift described, but I was kind of shocked by its rapidity.

I disagree with the authors's classifications - for one thing, viewing things in systemic rather than individual terms is not a more complex thought. It is simply a current fashion - applied ubiquitously in our culture.

I found one statement charming: "If viewing the culture as evil and threatening and getting worse is an indicator of fundamentalism (of course, that begs the question as to whether or not the world is actually evil and getting worse!), then the majority of Nazarenes are somewhat fundamentalist."

Million dollar question? (Kind of an inflation from $64000, no?) I do not have an answer for this. On the institutional level, I'm not sure it is possible . . .. The Catholic model works in some ways to preserve the institution. Basically, the institution absorbs its challengers . . . kind of machiavellien: it appeals to the vanity of the reformer, and manages to take the sting out of reformation. But the order itself simply becomes another tentacle of the institution it sought to reform.

The PC(USA) won't split -- though we may loose a number of churches . . . who knows, even some presbyteries are on the table. The PC(USA) likely will, however, cease to matter "if these shadows remain unaltered by the future". European churches went through this process ahead of us, and now Europe is commonly regarded as post-Christian. (Unlike the reform - sect - church model that predominates in England and the US, "Old Europe" has been leading the way in the post-modern transformation. For me, the one thing the church cannot do - and the greatest tempation it faces - is to consciously try to be relevant. To do this is to fail before you start. Either there is something so compelling in Christianity (which I believe to be the case) that if it were followed, it would draw on its own. Or no amount of window dressing, cultural "relevance", etc. will make it worthwhile. I tend to believe the G. K. Chesterton line on this. "The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." Er . . . no . . . I meant to say, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Every 500 years? Are we at the 4th turning of the saeculum?

Michael Kruse

I share your suspicions of some the definitions in the study but, like you, I find the survey data fascinating.

"if these shadows remain unaltered by the future".

Are there no prisons!!! Are there no poor houses!!! *grin* I think the movie version of "A Christmas Carol" starring Alastair Sims is one of the best movies ever. I think I have watched it nearly every Christmats season since I was a child. Maybe we need a new version that stars the PCUSA as Scrooge so we can dramatize its future trajectory.

"The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."


will spotts

The data suggests something troubling to any good "conservative" . . . I'm wondering if this rapid rate of transformation is not more common than the slow, gradul method. Take the former Nazarene transformation from a very socially engaged denomination (women's suffrage, prohibition (as a human rights and women's issue), very early female ordination) to a far more isolationist denomination. The holiness emphasis remained constant, but the focus abruptly changed before. Is this a Nazarene phenomenon, or is it more widespread?

Alstair Sim sets the "gold standard" (the irony is not lost on me . . .). No doubt it would destroy my "orthodox" bona fides to confess that I have strongly suspected that work of "inspiration" more than once.

A PC(USA) Christmas Carol . . . from the new hymnal no doubt . . . I like it.

Michael Kruse

The Church of the Nazarene formed from a number of local associations on the east and west coasts in 1907 and then were joined by a smaller more fundamentalist contingent movement in the south in 1908. The associations on the coasts were formed from congregations that, from the 1880s to early 1900s, had left or been forced out of the Methodist Church for championing a return to what they believed was original Holiness teaching. They were major social activists. There were few churches in the Midwest. As the fundamentalist/modernist controversy heated up in the 1910s a great many fundamentalist Midwest Methodists left the Methodist church. These folks were much more about fundamental doctrine and much less about social activism. By 1920, fully 40% of the Church of the Nazarene was located in about eight Midwest states. I think that, more than anything else, was the reason for the rapid change, though clearly there were other influences. I think this is also what has given the denomination its somewhat schizophrenic nature ever since.

In the 1980s, the Nazarenes did something I find both fascinating and commendable. Like most denominations, they had a US Church with "foreign missions." What they did was divide the world into zones and districts within zones. Something loosely similar to synods and presbyteries. (I think there may even be another layer in here and I am not sure I am using the right terminology but you get the picture.)Unchurched regions were called pioneer districts. Once a certain threshold of congregations is reached, the district becomes a district like any other including a US district. The denomination is growing faster outside the US than in and I believe they are at or near a level where there are as many Nazarenes outside the US as in. I suspect the growing non-US presence may have partly been driving the recent changes. I don’t have a study or stats that makes that linkage but I suspect a strong connection.

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