Nazarenes have understood themselves to be involved in “distinctly spiritual work, to which they felt called of God.” This spiritual work centers on holiness as a doctrine, as the experience of entire sanctification, and as a set of practices for holy living.
Consider with me three historical expressions of Nazarene spirituality, each a response to a changing context, and each reconfiguring the relationship between doctrine, experience, and practice.
Uniting for the Spread of Holiness: The Spirituality of the First Nazarenes
The Christians who formed the Church of the Nazarene in the early 20th century came from other, mostly Methodist, denominations. They affirmed their fundamental Christian identity rooted in the long tradition of historical, orthodox faith, expressed in the early creeds, and reasserted in the Protestant Reformation. They viewed John Wesley as their theological father and gave priority to his teachings on holiness of heart and life, including an emphasis on the experience of entire sanctification. Concerned with the neglect of preaching on entire sanctification, a decline in corporate spiritual discipline, and the alienation of the poor due to “extravagant” church buildings, they departed established churches with a common vision for a renewed holiness church.
They understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a call to personal purity and a holy fellowship committed to living simply for the sake of proclaiming the good news to the poor and needy.
Spiritual vitality came to be associated less with established local churches and more with frontier-style, ecumenical gatherings sponsored by The National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness. In an American context marked by significant social change due to westward migration, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, these yearly gatherings provided the relational networks for those who would later join to form the new denomination.
The unions of 1907 and 1908 that united holiness people from the Western, Eastern, and Southern regions embodied the conviction that love was the primary evidence of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit—both love of God (concerned with inward or heart holiness) and love of others (concerned with outward or social holiness). They understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a call to personal purity and a holy fellowship committed to living simply for the sake of proclaiming the good news to the poor and needy.
This early Nazarene spirituality emphasized a holy lifestyle empowered and enabled by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, succinctly summarized in the membership expectations of the early Manuals of the Church of the Nazarene:
Loving God with all the heart, mind and strength. A faithful attendance upon all the ordinances of God, and the means of grace, such as the public worship of God, the ministry of the Word; the Sacraments; searching the Scriptures and meditating thereon; family and private devotions. Seeking to do good to the bodies and souls of men. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and ministering to the needy, as opportunity and ability are given.
Separating for the Preservation of Holiness: Spirituality During the First Half-Century
Committed to the Wesleyan theology and ecclesiology inherited from American Methodism, the Church of the Nazarene intended to be a comprehensive center for worship (preaching & sacraments), discipleship, fellowship, and service (evangelism & social action), modeled on the camp meeting format and experience with its emotional intensity and decisional focus. Fiery preaching moved people to decide for Christ and for holy living; frequent testimonies encouraged both the testifier and those listening to keep their relationship with God up to date; the gatherings generated the solidarity of a holy fellowship motivated to reach out to the needy in body and spirit.
Personal evangelistic outreach was highly valued and, combined with a dynamic revivalism inherited from the camp meetings, fueled significant growth of Nazarene membership and congregations as the 20th century advanced. These were fruitful years for the establishment and growth of various Nazarene organizations and institutions and the cultivation of strong bonds of connection. Increasingly, Nazarene spirituality was marked by a life centered around a church that sponsored three weekly worship-prayer gatherings (Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night), Sunday School, a Young People’s organization, Missionary Society, and a regional college.
The Church of the Nazarene, then, developed a second stream of spirituality alongside the one inherited from the first Nazarenes. It featured the consolidation of a close-knit denominational family with distinctive doctrines, experiences, and practices. Nazarenes liked to be with each other, and this was often attractive to outsiders.
The primary spiritual formation practices linked with this Nazarene spirituality were: (1) gathering regularly with other like-minded believers to learn the signature doctrine, have the signature experiences, and testify to the experiences; (2) maintaining individual moral standards of behavior with respect to the surrounding culture; and (3) practicing daily devotions or “quiet time” for Scripture reading and prayer (sometimes shared as family devotions). This latter practice, also advocated by many other mid-20th century North American evangelicals, reflected the continuing imprint of the camp meeting: they were “successful” when they generated emotional intensity, doctrinal clarity, and reaffirmed previously- made commitments.
Searching for a Renewed Holiness: The Spirituality of the Church’s Second Half-Century
Dramatic growth of the denomination beyond North America, combined with cultural shifts in the West, led to a new level of diversity in the denomination’s second half-century. The Church of the Nazarene had become a diverse, global community, defined as much by the myriad questions being asked as by the answers contained in the first half-century of its existence. Holiness continued to be a central concern, but questions were being asked about our doctrines, experiences, and practices: the usefulness of some terms and phrases; the place of revivalism; the dynamics of ethnicity, gender, and economics; and behavioral standards for holy living in light of cultural contextualization of the Gospel. These emerging realities, in turn, significantly influenced the expressions of spiritual renewal.
So, what do Nazarene holiness practices look like now?
So, what do Nazarene holiness practices look like now? It is difficult to generalize because there is a less singular or cohesive Nazarene culture. We gather together less often and when we do, it is increasingly difficult to find worship patterns and content familiar to all. Often, we do not know each other well enough to authentically inquire about the spiritual condition of one another.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Nazarenes have a diminished spirituality compared to the first half-century. Rather, its practices are more diverse. Nazarenes still pray, but for one it may be silent, meditative prayer, while for another it may be praying out loud for requests shared in a prayer meeting. Nazarenes still have daily devotions, but for one it may be a quiet time of reading Scripture and journaling, while for another it may be saying the Daily Office. Nazarenes still testify, but for one it may be in the context of a meeting with a spiritual mentor, while for another it may be in a public evangelistic service. Nazarenes still fast, but it may be abstaining from television or their Facebook account rather than a meal. Nazarenes still serve the poor and needy, but for one it may be helping at a Rescue Mission, while for another it may be political activism aimed at shaping government policy. Nazarenes still respond to altar calls, but for one it may be an individual trip to a “mourner’s bench” to pray through, while for another it may be a communal journey forward to receive the Lord’s Supper.
New categories and language have been needed to account for this new diversity of spiritual practices and, for better or worse, spirituality and spiritual formation have become the preferred terms. In the first halfcentury of the Church of the Nazarene, they were not needed; most of what they now stand for was assumed. To be a Nazarene was to be spiritual and to be engaged in common spiritual formation practices. That is no longer the case. In fact, the fairly recent emergence of spiritual formation as a category in the Church of the Nazarene, pioneered by the work of Morris Weigelt and Dee Freeborn at Nazarene Theological Seminary in the 1980s and 1990s, is an important recognition of the need to name and re-focus a holiness that, due to its diversification, seems to have lower visibility. The diversity of practices reflects a multi-faceted search for a renewed doctrine and experience of holiness, including entire sanctification.
Finding a Way Forward
This third stream of spirituality—a searching spirituality— gives greater place to the expression of desire for change within our denomination. A great challenge is that we do not always agree on what might need changing: not enough holiness preaching? outmoded categories and language for communicating holiness? not enough support for women clergy? too American-centric? too liberal? too fundamentalist? out of touch with contemporary cultures? too worldly? If we view this third stream of Nazarene spirituality as a search for a renewed holiness, then the uniting for the spread of holiness that characterized the first Nazarenes, and the separating for the preservation of holiness that characterized much of the first half-century of the Church, might have something important to say to us about a way forward.
The final article in this series will address the challenges and possibilities for Nazarene spiritual formation today and its implications for Christian ministry.
DOUGLAS S. HARDY is Professor of Spiritual Formation and Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Nazarene Theological Seminary
1. Manual of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene. Los Angeles: Nazarene Publishing House, 1908, 11. This wording is part of the “Historical Statement” and is a carryover from Phineas Bresee’s Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. Los Angeles: Nazarene Publishing House, 1905, 13.
2. Ibid., 33. This wording is a carryover from the 1898, 1903, and 1905 versions of Phineas Bresee’s Manual of the Church of the Nazarene.
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