There are positives and negatives to denominations, so why be a part of any denomination at all? Do denominations even matter? Aren’t we all part of the Church? Aren’t we all part of the body of Christ?
I believe we are all members of the body of Christ, and together we are the Church. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe we need each other. We need to listen to each other, and I believe we need to serve alongside each other.
Disclaimer: I sound pretty biased, but thinking about this has also humbled me. I typed all this up, and then I started playing “They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love” on repeat. Its lyrics read:
“We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
The first time I heard that song, I was convicted. I want to be known as a Christian by my love, not by my bumper sticker, cross necklace, or Phineas F. Bresee tattoo (just kidding, that’s not a real thing). Just like pretty much everything, there are advantages and disadvantages to denominations. We need to work together with all believers. I pray God’s Kingdom to come on earth, and I think that looks like restoration. It is restoration not just to God, but also to each other. We pray to be forgiven as we forgive, which I am guessing means we need to forgive. We need to love each other. We need to love those in the Church and those “outside” the Church. We need to be known by how we love each other, so we need to love each other well.
Okay, that’s the end of my disclaimer. (Was it long enough for you?)
One of the biggest negatives, in my opinion, is that denominations have the ability to separate. Denominations can act like political parties, and we can end up using our words to break each other down far more than build one another up. The root of the word denomination does not have anything to do with division, but naming. Denominations give a name to a group or organization. Denominations offer identity.
I can see the shift moving away from denominations. In some ways, it kind of breaks my heart: I still believe in denominations. Some are asking if denominations are even still relevant, and I believe they are. I believe they have the amazing power to unite people. No one denomination is perfect, nor do I believe there is only one true denomination. (I remember once seriously saying to my friend there will be Catholics in heaven, and it was almost like it was the first time she’d heard anyone say that.)
However, let it be known that my love of the Church of the Nazarene does not trump my love of Christ. I am a Christian before I am a Nazarene, in the same way I am a Christian before I am an American.
I do not believe the Church needs more splintering. We don’t need to break and be fractured even more. I don’t believe we need to break away in order to find relevancy. I believe in church planting, but not when its sole focus is to create something cool and new. I believe there is freshness to be found in our Church, but not at the expense of breaking away. I believe we can discover diversity by remaining committed to our commitments—and to our denomination.
I do not think being part of a denomination or caring about a denomination means you are not a servant of God and the Church. I believe you are still serving God, and you can still be faithful to God’s call. When did organization mean we aren’t following God?
Beginning on a practical level, denominations offer financial benefits. More people can pool together more money. I mean, have you heard about Kickstarter campaigns? When more people bring what they have, amazing things can be done. Church bodies joining together provides strength—more resources and more voices coming together.
Denominations remind us we are part of a tradition greater than ourselves. They provide for us structure, but also a sense of belonging. We belong to something greater than ourselves. People are searching for a place to feel like they belong.
We need accountability. Individual churches and pastors need accountability. I strongly believe most sin stems out of isolation. As soon as we begin to isolate ourselves and trick ourselves into thinking we don’t need people to hold us accountable, we can quickly enter a slippery slope. Pastors receive accountability from church boards, but I think it’s even better when there’s accountability outside the local church. Denominations offer structure by having policies and processes.
Think about the affect a pastor can have. He or she has the immense opportunity to bless the congregation and community. Pastors have a lot of power. And, to pull a Spiderman, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Often churches that do not belong to a denomination train, ordain, and educate their own leaders, which in my opinion, is really dangerous. Denominations provide credentialing and ordination. I have only attended one ordination service, but it is a powerful moment when pastors lay their hands on new pastors. I am licensed by my district, so I know I have to answer to district leadership about my calling and my beliefs. I am grateful that not just anyone can be given the authority to lead people. In the same way I would not want a surgeon operating on me if he or she never went to medical school, I would not want to follow a pastor who has not been trained and called.
Denominations provide safeguards for the congregation as well as the pastor. Unfortunately, there are times when protection is needed. Interventions are sometimes needed. Obviously that is never the ideal situation, but you flip open a newspaper or turn on the news (or my personal favorite, listen to NPR) and you are aware troubling situations happen. Denominations offer congregations a governing body to which it can appeal. The denomination then has procedures and processes to offer counsel and intervention.
Denominations offer a united confession and united mission. Denominations state their beliefs and theology. Denominations have some statement of faith. Those statements of faith haven’t been flippantly put together. They are intentional, and they have been examined and tested over the years through various assemblies of the denomination.
Denominations offer mutual encouragement and support. I have only interned under pastors, but it is not hard to see how the pastorate could feel isolated. Through pastor gatherings, retreats, and various assemblies, being part of a denomination provides an outlet for encouraging the work of the ministry.
Though I am sure there is some overlap, I believe in my own denomination. I believe as the Church of the Nazarene, we are able to have and provide many things.
We are able to have checks and balances. “The government of the Church of the Nazarene is a combination of episcopacy and congregationalism. Six elected representatives serve on the Board of General Superintendents. This board is charged with the responsibility of administering the worldwide work of the Church of the Nazarene. The Board of General Superintendents also interprets the denomination’s book of polity, the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene,” according to the Church of the Nazarene’s website.
We are able to network. I am slightly convinced any time you gather with Nazarenes, the small talk is not about the weather but it is about who you know. Sure, there have been times I’ve told people I am Nazarene only to hear, “What’s that?” as a response. There have been far more times when I’ve met someone who is Nazarene or knows someone who is Nazarene, so we have found some mutual connection.
This can be a negative because it makes it feel almost exclusive at times. Since I am a first generation, I have no “famous Nazarenes” in my bloodline. I know Nazarenes, but I don’t know if I know a lot of Nazarenes. I live ten hours away from home, and I feel a small level of comfort knowing if my car was stranded somewhere, I could google the nearest Nazarene church and call a pastor for help.
We are able to connect. We are part of a family. While traveling, I smile when I pass a Church of the Nazarene, because even if I have no idea who pastors or attends there, I know I have family there. When I visit another Nazarene church, I feel at home. I mean, I think to a certain extent you could find that at any church—I have felt at home in churches that were not Nazarene. But there’s something about going to a Nazarene church that feels like going home.
We are able to transition more smoothly. When a pastor leaves, we have a clearly defined and structured process for the selection of a new pastor. I’ve heard stories of when pastors have left well, but I have also heard horror stories of someone who has not left well. Obviously, that would make a great impact on the overall transition period. There is a mourning period when someone leaves, even if it is on the best of terms, and the Church of the Nazarene does have a plan and timeline to try to make it go as smoothly as possible.
We are able to resource. There are various ways the Church of the Nazarene provides resources, but one of the most tangible ways is our publishing arm, Nazarene Publishing House (NPH). It is the largest publisher of Wesleyan-Holiness literature in the world. NPH prints more than 25 million pieces of literature each year (source). Under its main umbrella, there are various other publishing organizations with a mission to provide quality material, including WordAction, whose mission is to provide “Bible-based, Wesleyan-Holiness curriculum that is relevant to everyday life” (source).
We are able to send out missionaries.
“Nazarenes are passionate about making a difference in the world by taking the good news of Jesus Christ to people everywhere. Today there are 702 missionaries and volunteers serving around the world. Each week, Nazarenes worship in more than 212 languages or tribal languages, with literature produced in 90 of these. The church operates 33 medical clinics and hospitals worldwide. This missionary enterprise is made possible by the contributions of the global Nazarene family. Nazarenes also engage in starting new churches and congregations by praying, giving, and supporting worldwide volunteers and contracted missionaries.” (Source)
We are able to educate. In addition to all the local churches that provide Christian education through Sunday School and small groups, the Church of the Nazarene has valued higher education from the beginning. There are 53 colleges, universities and seminaries located in 35 countries on six continents. I mean, let that soak in. That’s insanely awesome. Without the Nazarene denomination, we would not be able to come together in the same way.
We are able to joke. Nazarenes don’t just take a nap on Sunday, we take a Nazarene nap. We love our potlucks. We love our Rook. Perhaps these are stereotypes (and I am sure there are more stereotypes about Nazarenes), but we can laugh about these particular stereotypes. At the root of this, we find community. We are united through our similarities. With Nazarenes in so many different countries, there are many things that make us different. Being Nazarene unites us in a beautiful way.
We are able to come together. I have seen and experienced great community at different churches, even churches outside of my denomination. I have seen some churches who really embrace visitors, welcome them, invite them to be part of them, but I have been the visitor who has felt like an outsider as well. Here’s one memory that stands out above the rest.
This fall I visited my friend in San Diego, who attends a Church of the Nazarene in Mid City. This church has several different congregations that are a part of it. My friend and I arrived late, so we slipped in the back. During the beginning of the service, an intoxicated man came in from the streets and the pastor of the church simply walked with him to the back of the sanctuary and prayed for him. The greeting time was quite long. I am not sure what it would have been like if I hadn’t been attending with my friend, but I feel as though they would have been welcoming. Complete strangers offered me hugs. It was so beautiful. I felt at home. It was the community found at that church I can point to and say, “That’s the Kingdom of God on earth.” They have lived an example of what being Christlike and holy looks like. They were just as loving to me as they were to that man who came in from the streets.
Simply, although cliché, I believe we are better together.