The world is changing, and the church must change with it. Right? Can we still rely on the wisdom of the denomination’s founders when our nation and its place in the world are different from the days leading into the First World War, when the Church of the Nazarene was in its infancy?
The United States is no longer isolated; in fact, the world has come to us. Immigrants—legal or otherwise—flood in from across the globe, bringing their customs and languages and faiths and foods with them.
Even if we live in one of the increasingly rare communities in which everyone is like us ethnically, religiously, and culturally, we are all still subject to the consequences of globalization. The daily news brings information from faraway lands that used to be known to Americans primarily through the pages of National Geographic. Most of us have seen the word chipotle on a menu at a local restaurant. Yoga classes meet in cities and towns across the land. More and more Americans travel internationally to enjoy the wonders of other countries.
As we ourselves grow accustomed to people and places and ideas and tastes that would seem exotic to our grandparents, the church has had to reconsider the ways we have always “missionized.” Our sensitivity to other cultures and appreciation of all they contribute to the world has made the once-acceptable idea of “saving the heathen” less palatable. We still want to witness to our world, whether that means crossing the ocean or crossing the street, but we may balk at our grandparents’ methods.
Those practices seem even more onerous when we want to witness cross-culturally to our own children, and even those neighbors whose families came over on the Mayflower. Evangelizing our own families shouldn’t be difficult; they are, after all, the ones we know and love the best. But times are changing so rapidly that the generation gap is now a chasm. Today’s college students grew up with electronic communications, the internet, opportunities to travel and study internationally, and school friends who are Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims. They understand the world in ways that are different even from their parents. Trying to imagine the world into which their grandparents were born almost surpasses their ability.
As we ourselves grow accustomed to people and places and ideas and tastes that would seem exotic to our grandparents, the church has had to reconsider the ways we have always “missionized.” -Mary Lou Shea
The world is changing, and the church must change with it—in some respects. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, however. We Nazarenes are blessed with a heritage that is far richer and more pertinent to today’s struggles than we might imagine. I have spent the last three years with Hiram F. Reynolds, one of our original general superintendents (a role he fulfilled for a quarter of a century before becoming a GS emeritus), and our original Mr. Missionary.1 Under his guidance, the fledgling Nazarene denomination developed into the missionary denomination that today has a presence in more than 150 world areas, with hundreds of professional missionaries and thousands of volunteer missionaries continuing to spread the good news to a needy world. One of the most thrilling things I’ve learned from Dr. Reynolds is that he employed best practices in missions a hundred years ago. Embodied in Reynolds’s practices are some of the ways we can benefit from our heritage, ways that suggest the church does not necessarily need to change in order to meet today’s challenges. Instead, it needs only to be faithful to the vision it has always claimed.
Perhaps the single most important aspect of Reynolds’s life and ministry was his unswerving devotion to Christ. He embraced that commitment so completely that it was immediately clear to everyone with whom he came into contact. He never apologized for his faith, but he rarely acted in ways that anyone might demand an apology. Instead, he lived his faith. Reynolds prayed and fasted regularly—not in showy ways but as part of his rhythm each day. He not only read Scripture daily; he committed it to memory so it would be available when he needed it, when dealing with both others’ concerns as well as his own.
Reynolds was a humble man. Maybe that is why so few Nazarenes today know who he was. He was always ready to let others take the bow for a job well done. He praised others’ work and forgave their shortcomings and intentional slights. He was kind and generous with his time and his few possessions. He was an optimist. He was scrupulously honest, both publicly and privately; in sixty years of ministry—most of it spent away from home— he was never once caught in a compromising situation that might call his marriage vows or his ordination into question. His handling of money was beyond reproach; he was known to return to contributors as little as a nickel’s overpayment on mission pledges, and to seek the permission of every contributor before redirecting funds from one project to another. He even offered to return money that had been given for a particular cause when the need had been met and the individual was not interested in supporting an alternate project.
He lived to the standards the church expected of everyone—no tobacco, no alcohol, no gambling, no cussing, no dancing— and he also acknowledged that he had, as a young man, engaged in all of these behaviors and been freed of their hold on his life when he surrendered them to Christ. Reynolds testified to God’s astonishing, redemptive grace at every turn, recognizing that even his greatest talents were only gifts from God for the advancement of the kingdom. He had a warm and gentle sense of humor, a good memory for names and faces, and a genuine affection for those whom he served. Hiram Reynolds lived an utterly transparent life, and when people scrutinized it, they saw the light of Christ shining through. I think we would do well to recall that this is still the single most important evangelistic tool that Christians possess. An unblemished reputation for honesty, humility, and integrity is more persuasive than anything else we can ever say or do. Embracing holiness as a lifestyle, rather than just a doctrine, will take us far.
Reynolds was not shy about using the latest scientific information, data, and statistics to address the needs of a sinful and suffering world.
If all I learned about Reynolds was the quality of his life, I would have learned just about all I would need to know to be an effective witness of the gospel. However, Reynolds was not content simply to excel in his devotion. He was driven to prepare as best he could to reach the lost. As a preacher, he early on established a routine that served him well for decades: Mornings were given over to the study of Scripture and theology and the writing of sermons; afternoons, to pastoral visits. Since Reynolds frequently preached more than one sermon in a day, preparation was important. He wanted to do more than entertain or frighten or bully his listeners; he wanted to inspire them to recognize their hopeless brokenness, and to pursue Christ with a relentless love.
He spent time every day out among the people. Some folks were his congregants; some were neighbors or merchants or strangers he met at thegeneral store or at the train depot or on the street corners of whatever city. It was important to him to meet all those people who meant something to God, and who had worries and troubles and fears that needed to be addressed. Imagine how much good our congregations could do if we intentionally immersed ourselves in Scripture and prayer and fasting, then greeted everyone we met with the compassion of Christ and the unfailing love of the Father.
Reynolds kept up the habit of asking folks what their needs were, how he could help, and how he could get out of the way. As head of the missionary enterprise, he was in constant contact with our missionaries around the world. He was ultimately responsible for all that happened on the mission field. He could have taken a hardline approach—issuing edicts and demanding that every missionary fall in line. Yet he rarely did that, except in cases that threatened to damage the name of the denomination or its Lord.
Instead, Reynolds trusted his people on the ground, recognizing that the folks in the field had gained their insights through hard experience and a deep commitment to the people among whom they lived and served. He requested frequent reports on all aspects of mission life, wanting to know about everything from the weather to the price of cornmeal to indigenous cultural practices.
Reynolds spent his entire life engaged in lifelong learning. He subscribed to newspapers and journals, purchased a set of encyclopedias for the missions office in Kansas City, and gleaned information from various missionaries about the state of the world. Reynolds was convinced that the only way to reach the world was to be interested in it and to have an appreciation for, and understanding of, the lives people led. When he traveled, he tried the local foods, rode the local transport, and slept in local accommodations.
Reynolds never assumed that he had all the answers, even if that meant being humbled in the presence of those who were willing to attribute power and authority to him.
Reynolds trusted that the Holy Spirit was at work everywhere in the world, and in every heart that was open to it. His trust of the Holy Spirit enabled him to trust indigenous clergy and workers, not just the American missionaries with whom they worked. He trusted women to serve as ministers, missionaries, church planters, evangelists, rescue workers, and district superintendents because he trusted the Lord they served. He shared platforms with African- American preachers and worked with small, African-American congregations that wanted to join the denomination. He puzzled over ways to make the denomination more attractive to this country’s African-American population. Reynolds knew he needed to keep learning, and that the most important lessons usually came through dialogue with those whom he served. Reynolds never assumed that he had all the answers, even if that meant being humbled in the presence of those who were willing to attribute power and authority to him.
Reynolds went beyond learning about people and cultures and the state of the world as it was. He enthusiastically embraced every new method of spreading the gospel. In the early days of his ministry, he used carbon paper to create copies of his handwritten correspondence. Later, he acquired a portable typewriter to speed his communications, and he then adopted the use of telegrams to send urgent messages. He used the telephone when it was still an uncommon fixture in most private homes. And he dreamed of new ways to send information, assistance, and people to the places that needed them most.
In fact, while reminiscing about a trip from Calgary, Alberta, in Canada, to Southampton, England—a trip he accomplished in a stunningly rapid “12 days, 11 hours, [and] 20 minutes”— Reynolds rhapsodized, “Just think of going more than one-fourth of the way around the world in a little over eight days. Then think of the possibility of carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. How soon it could be accomplished with the present, well-developed methods.” He went on, rewriting 1 Corinthians 3:21-22, “‘All things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things (railroads, steamships, air crafts, wireless crafts) present, or things to come (new inventions), all are yours’ for the Church of Jesus Christ to do the job.”² Reynolds was not shy about using the latest scientific information, data, and statistics to address the needs of a sinful and suffering world. He used every tool available to him, trusting that the Lord would bless his efforts so long as the methods were consecrated to the work of holiness.
Reynolds provides a blueprint we can adopt with confidence in the ongoing work of evangelization: Be authentically holy and faithful in all things. Love people and learn about them and the things that are important to them. Educate ourselves; do not be afraid of adopting techniques and technology that enable face-toface encounters with the world. Acknowledge every person’s full humanity, gifts, and graces. Be humble. Be worthy of the trust we seek to gain as we enter people’s lives. Be grateful, and able always to testify to the grace in our own lives. Above all, trust God. God never fails.
MARY LOU SHEA has taught at Eastern Nazarene College and is now a visiting scholar at the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University School of Theology.
1 The information included in this article is the result of three years’ work sifting through the Hiram F. Reynolds Collection in the Nazarene Archives at the Global Ministry Center in Lenexa, Kansas, as well as reading twenty-six years’ worth of the Herald of Holiness and the Other Sheep. I have spoken largely in general terms, given the constant presence of these attributes in the personal and professional documents and the published reports relating to Reynolds.
² H. F. Reynolds, “Things Concerning Zion,” Herald of Holiness 15, no. 4 (April 21, 1926): 9. Emphases are Reynolds’s. He speaks of reaching Southampton in a little more than eight days because he subtracted the time spent along the route attending to church matters between trains.