In 2000, I answered the call God had placed on my heart to go to seminary. My family packed up and went to Saskatchewan as I studied at Briercrest Seminary. Those were not easy years, and at times, answering God’s call had a high cost. This included uprooting our family, changing jobs, and moving far from extended family members. But during those lean times, our family witnessed God’s kindness and provision when gas and food money were short for our family of four. These short years also shaped us in other ways—through the study of the Word and through enriching relationships with fellow students and inspiring professors.
When our time at Briercrest ended, we were eager to move home to Ontario and reconnect with our family and church family. We loaded our few belongings into an eight-foot U-Haul trailer and travelled 2,000 km home. However, our homecoming was different than I expected. We arrived home with our precious children, including a sixweek-old, to learn my father had suddenly passed away four hours earlier.
Our return home from seminary now brought a weight of loss and grief. The following months held times of sorrow, testing, and silence, which was followed by a time of healing as God carried us though this time of relocation and family adjustment. Meanwhile, I continued my studies and a pastoral internship to receive a master of divinity degree, and two years later, we were asked to consider a small pastorate. Our district superintendent met with me, my husband, and a pastor who led two congregations near us. One of these congregations was a restart church with declining membership. The minister told us he wanted to continue to serve his congregation full-time and had been praying for another pastor to succeed him at his second charge, the restart church. Even though the congregation was small and had been on the decline for several years, I listened to the proposal with anticipation, excited about the possibility of leading my first charge as a pastor.
We said “yes” to the appointment, and as we arose from our meeting with the district superintendent, we felt confident the Lord was leading us, our footing felt sure, and our desire to be faithful was strong.
I now anticipated the new reality of preaching. I had longed for this opportunity, knowing its significance in shaping the people of God. Yet at the same time, inwardly, I questioned God, especially since we were being appointed to a church close to home. If, as believers, we are sent people, why was God sending us “home”? If God had chosen me as His vessel to lead this little church, what would He ask me to do? If God was asking me to speak His Word, what would He ask me to share?
We moved into the small church’s attached parsonage. I was grateful for the opportunity but was filled with a sense of inadequacy knowing the district desired this little church to experience revitalization. It longed for the faithful members in Collingwood, Ontario, to hear and respond to the preached Word of God, experience a personal transformation through Jesus, and be consumed by the infilling power of the Holy Spirit.
The church had flourished in the past, so the reality of a declining attendance and dwindling offerings had discouraged the remnant. Through this time, the core stood firm, immovable, and bonded by deep roots, tight relationships, and a determination to keep the doors open. In such a time, my family and I arrived to work alongside them. The sanctuary, built in the late 1970s, was decorated with hanging chandeliers and orange commercial carpet. On Sunday afternoons, the room would fill with life as a small group of believers gathered for worship. Then, after the last person went out the door, an ominous silence filled it throughout the week.
Only God could provide the hope needed to restore this ministry. Romans 15:13 says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
These precious words brought me comfort, and they spurred me to lean into the Lord and listen for a fresh Word from Him. I understood in profound clarity that I could not conjure up hope; I could only trust that the Lord would provide.
Although trained vocationally for the ministry, I had arrived at this church broken and still recovering from the loss of my father. On weekdays, as I faced the empty sanctuary, I did not feel as if I had anything left to give. I did not have the energy to try to stir up vigor in others or to create synergy among tired
workers or to develop new programs. After a few months, although I loved the people and I knew God had led us to this place, I was quickly becoming emotionally depleted.
As I began to doubt this ministry where the Lord had placed me, the Lord gave me a vision of many people streaming through the hallway and into the sanctuary. Instead of our attendance of 18 people scattered throughout the sanctuary, I pictured the sanctuary being full.
This was certainly not our reality, but I believed the Lord had spoken and was perhaps asking me to lead this congregation as if the sanctuary were full. This changed my perspective on how I prepared for services. It changed how I crafted sermons and how I approached the pulpit on Sundays. It strengthened my prayer life.
I looked to God as I served our small congregation, and I believed that He would provide direction for the worship services as I sought His presence. I grew confident that God would speak to the people and stir up something new because He was truly present. I began to feel a sense of relief, knowing the renewal did not have to come from me. The people themselves could learn to anticipate and know the power of the Holy Spirit and experience their own spiritual revival.
I thought about the development of the early church of the first century. Could telling the stories of God working on behalf of the biblical apostles and the first believers help our congregation reimagine hope? I began preaching through the book of Acts over a year and a half. During this time, we also watched a visual presentation of the applicable scriptural passage each week. We could see and trust that God’s Spirit was active in the midst of His people, and we had a renewed sense that only He could breathe new life into us.
I witnessed our small core of leaders renew their faith and trust in Jesus. I now had full assurance Jesus would fill them, just as when Jesus filled his disciples after
His death and resurrection, “and with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). The individuals in our congregation were increasingly ready to experience renewal, both in their personal lives and in the church’s ministry.
When I started at the church, the weekly service had been on Sunday afternoons. We rescheduled that to the mornings and continued to encounter a living God, who cared for broken hearts and tired souls, and our worship services offered a newness in spirit that could only have come from Him. We experienced new hope through the inspired Word of God, which increased our ability to see the needs around us. Through our new lens, we began to envision a fresh ministry growing out of the older one that had been established a century earlier.
With our hope restored, we began making new connections in our neighborhood, believing God was doing something new in us and that He could do something new in the people around us, too. God could transform our community. We leaned on the promise of Ephesians 3:20–21, “Now to him who is ableto do immeasurably more than all we askor imagine, according to his powerthat is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
Thankfully, God used the challenging experiences of those past years as building blocks to help us grow in faith and depend on Him to preach a church back to life.
Nazarene clergy reading one entire issue of Grace & Peace receive one Lifelong Learning Hour. Sign up or login to the Lifelong Learning Registry (www.learning.nazarene.org) to report your participation in this learning activity.
In May 2015, the Pew Research Center released the report of its second Religious Landscape survey, in which more than 35,000 American adults were asked a variety of questions about their religious faith, affiliation, and experience in the months between June and September of 2014. It should come as little surprise that, when the initial report was made available to the public, observers were less than optimistic about what the survey revealed regarding the state of religious affiliation in America and especially Christianity. Pew’s previous Religious Landscape survey was conducted in 2007, and in it, 78.4 percent of respondents identified as Christian. Seven years later, that number has fallen to 70.6 percent of those surveyed.1
Many commentators presented their own diagnoses of what the 2014 survey reveals as a growing problem for organized religion: that of the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, whom Pew analysts often labeled “nones” in the report.2 Nones went from being only 16.1 percent of those surveyed in 2007 to almost 23 percent of 2014 respondents.3 The religious group that saw its share of the American population grow the most in the last seven years is, ironically enough, the group of Americans who do not identify with any religion at all.
Observers were quick to use sharp language in their analysis of the Pew report. Daniel Burke, CNN’s religion editor, wrote of “the collapse of American Christianity.”4 At the Upshot blog for The New York Times, Nate Cohn argued that “there are few signs that the decline in Christian America will slow.”5 Elwood Watson, a professor at East Tennessee State University, warned that “the millennial situation is particularly alarming,” referencing portions of the survey that showed that young Americans are more likely to describe themselves as nones than any other age group.6
However, in all of the heated discussion about nones, and in the midst of describing the perceived decline of American Christianity with amplified terms and phrases, many commentators neglected to mention more particular aspects of the survey that could help Christian clergy tailor their messages and strategies to a changing religious climate. Many have written about the nones, but few have addressed the “nons”: non-white evangelicals, non-denominational congregations, and non-Christian religious traditions. All three of these groups actually grew in the past seven years, and learning about the nature of that growth could be helpful to pastors and lay leaders in the Church of the Nazarene in congregations all across the American religious landscape.
The recent Pew survey indicates that the Protestant faith tradition in the United States is becoming less racially homogenous; in the years between 2007 and 2014, racial minorities went from making up almost one-fifth of the evangelical Protestant population to almost one-fourth.7
This shift toward ethnic diversity in the evangelical Protestant family reflects a positive trend for American Christianity and for organized religion as a whole. In fact, the Pew report showed that the nones are less diverse in terms of race than those who identify with an established religion. With the prediction that America’s white population will reach minority status within the next four decades, evangelical Protestantism’s increasing racial diversity puts local churches in an optimal position to better reflect their surrounding communities.
Ironically, while the religious nones grew the most as a share of the American population from 2007 to 2014, people who identified as nondenominational Christians made up the fastestgrowing group within Christianity. This group went from being 4.5 percent of the American population in 2007 to 6.2 percent in 2014.8 In other words, the Christian denomination that grew the most in the last seven years was the “nondenomination.” In 2014, 13 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Protestant Christians did not associate themselves with any denomination, up from 9 percent in 2007.9 This trend indicates that the state of American Christianity is not as easily characterized as many commentators have made it seem. Considering the recent survey and associated observations about religious faith in America, David Briggs, who writes for the Association of Religion Data Archives, asked, “Does it all reveal a downturn in the role of religion in American life or does it reflect a reordering of beliefs and practices in younger generations?”10 Clearly, in the same way that religious faith in America is undergoing a sort of realignment, so too is American Christianity also undergoing an internal realignment.
Finally, non-Christian religious groups have seen notable growth in the past seven years, as reflected in the Pew survey results. These faith traditions, which include Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, went from being 4.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2007 to 5.9 percent in 2014.11 There are two factors here that are worth mentioning. First, Pew reported that 29 percent of respondents who were from non-Christian religious traditions were also born outside the United States. This means that non-Christian religious growth has been bolstered by immigration. At the same time, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu populations in America have not been as affected by the undertow of poor retention rates. The Pew survey indicated that 80 percent, 77 percent, and 75 percent of those who grew up in Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish households, respectively, still identify as such. If this recent data is any indication, the future of American religious life may not lie so much in secularism as in fragmentation.
Much has been written about how many Americans born after 1980 are, relative to other generations, disproportionately unaffiliated with any religious group. The Pew report reflects this reality: More than one-third of millennials are nones, compared with less than a quarter of Generation Xers.12 However, the Pew report also revealed some surprising information about millennials and evangelical Protestantism. The survey indicated that 65 percent of those who were raised as evangelical Protestants still identify as such;13 when it comes to millennials who were raised in these households, 61 percent continue to associate with their childhood tradition.14
This means that, even though evangelicals may be struggling to retain and attract millennials (a 61 percent retention rate should not, after all, be a source of immense pride), millennials are not necessarily leaving evangelical Protestantism at a much higher rate than previous generations. Obviously, churches still need to assess their own approach to the millennials in their local communities, and a great deal has been written about this subject. The Pew survey’s information in this regard could be instructive in correcting some miscalculations about the relationship between American young people and Christianity.
How, then, can pastors in local churches think about their work in light of these nons?
First, the encouragement and promotion of a congregation’s racial diversity in the surrounding community’s context would be one way to embody the general population’s multicultural future. One way to accomplish this goal would be to emphasize the role of the church in nearby neighborhoods and to encourage congregants to think more deeply about how they can reach out to people in the vicinity of the building where the congregation meets.
Second, clergy in the Church of the Nazarene should not look at the nondenominational churches in their vicinities as competitors but as partners in local ministry. Perhaps one of the first steps a pastor can take in this regard is to host inter-denominational events for clergy, where pastors from various churches of all theological persuasions in the area can have a chance to make meaningful connections. Even further, people who attend non-denominational churches can be exposed to how association with an international denomination like the Church of the Nazarene can allow them to make a greater global impact in areas such as compassionate ministries than being part of an independent church silo.
Third, local pastors should recognize how growing communities that identify with non-Christian religious traditions present congregations with opportunities for crosscultural missions. One of the central aspects of
this understanding should be the presence of charity and tolerance when talking about non-Christian faiths like Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. For instance, when paraphrasing or explaining specific beliefs associated with these faith traditions, clergy members should take great care to present those views with accuracy, rather than risk alienating members of the surrounding community by giving haphazard summaries of what others believe.
These three practices all require nuance, grace, and humility; emphasizing racial inclusion, partnering with congregations that have no denominational affiliation, and demonstrating charity behind the pulpit when it comes to discussing non-Christian faiths each presents its own set of challenges. Yet these challenges reflect the increasing intricacies of the American religious context.
CHRIS ESTEP is a student studying history and religion at Eastern Nazarene College in Boston, Massachusetts.
1Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 3.
4Daniel Burke, “Millennials Leaving Church in Droves, Study Finds,” cnn.com, May 4, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/12/living/pew-religion-study/index.html.
5Nate Cohn, “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian,” The New York Times, May 12, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/upshot/big-drop-in-share-ofamericans-calling-themselves-christian.html.
6Elwood D. Watson, “Religion and the Current State of Ambivalence Among the American Populace,” The Huffington Post, June 4, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elwood-d-watson/religion-and-thecurrent-_b_7481796.html
7Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 52.
10David Briggs, “‘Nones’ are ‘Someones’ in Vibrant U.S. Religious Landscape,” The Huffington Post, May 20, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/nones-are-someones-invib_b_7314554.html
11Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 54.
12Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Ibid., 11.
On Wednesday, September 28, 2016, Nazarene Theological Seminary hosted an Economic Summit, which was also sponsored by Pensions & Benefits USA and the USA/Canada Region. The theme, “Funding Clergy and the Church in the New Millennium,” featured a panel discussion and other presentations (which are below).
The State of Clergy Financial Wellness
by Dale Jones, Director, Nazarene Research Services
8 minutes, 9 seconds
Can the Church and the Minister Afford Each Other?
Featured speaker: Molly Marshall, president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary
46 minutes, 6 seconds
Panel Discussion on Nazarenes and Giving
Panelists: William Sawyer (Moderator), J. Clif Christopher, Dan Copp, Jerry Kester, Megan Pardue, Carla Sunberg, and Don Walter
54 minutes, 32 seconds
Competing Is NOT a Dirty Word
Featured speaker: J. Clif Christopher, author and CEO of Horizons Stewardship Company
74 minutes, 22 seconds
When Antioch First Church of the Nazarene struggled to cope with an aging building and other challenges, they found a creative solution that has revitalized their congregation.
5 minutes, 1 second
Nazarene pastors, scholars, and students from across the United States and Canada gathered in Kansas City, Missouri, at Nazarene Theological Seminary for a three-day USA/Canada Theology Conference. The conference’s theme was “The Pilgrim People of God Living in Exile.” Full conference papers are available at http://didache.nazarene.org. The conference was sponsored by Nazarene Theological Seminary, Global Clergy Development, and the USA/Canada Region.
You Cast Me Into the Depths
Sermon that opened the theology conference by Scott Daniels, senior pastor, Nampa College Church of the Nazarene.
47 minutes, 58 seconds
Session 1: Peril & Promise of Exile - Biblical Narrative Speaking to Us Today
Presenters: Tim Green & Roger Hahn
Panelists: Dean Flemming (moderator), Sarah Derck, Steve Green, Albert Hung, Stephen Riley, and Sam Vassel
Video 1: 32 minutes, 41 seconds
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Video 2: 50 minutes, 8 seconds
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Session 2: Life in Exile - Ministry in a Changing Culture, within Changing Congregations & the Challenge of Leadership
Presenter: Kathy Mowry
Panelists: David Wesley (moderator), Tim Crutcher, Eddie Estep, Greg Garman, Roberto Hodgson and Simone Twibell
Video 1: 27 minutes, 40 seconds
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Video 2: 49 minutes, 10 seconds
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Session 3: Being the Pilgrim People of God - Called to Identity, Mission & Ministry
Presenters: Tim Gaines and Shawna Songer Gaines
Panelists: Tom Noble (moderator), Jay Height, Diane Leclerc, Steve McCormick, Mark Quanstrom, and Montague Williams
Video 1: 27 minutes, 48 seconds
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Video 2: 50 minutes, 13 seconds
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Session 4: Forming the Pilgrim People of God - Practices of Discernment and Formation for and with Congregations
Presenter: Dan Boone
Panelists: Ian Fitzpatrick, Brannon Hancock, Janine Metcalf and Brent Peterson
Moderator: Rebecca Laird
Video 1: 26 minutes, 58 seconds
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Video 2: 61 minutes, 38 seconds
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Session 5: “Preparing Leaders for Exile & Pilgrimage - Formation for Ministers & Laity”
Presenter: Gordon Smith
Panelists: Ron Benefiel (moderator), Susan Carole, Jesse Middendorf, Jeanne Serrao, and Brian Wilson
Video 1: 32 minutes, 20 seconds
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Video 2: 56 minutes, 36 seconds
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Session 6: “Thy Kingdom Come” – A Panel Discussion
Panelists: Dan Boone, Tim Gaines, Shawna Songer Gaines, Tim Green, Roger Hahn, Kathy Mowry and Gordon Smith
62 minutes, 5 seconds
God's Pilgrim People - Closing Worship – Sermon by Carla Sunberg, president, Nazarene Theological Seminary
29 minutes, 40 seconds