Joan Chittister: Reflections on The Christian Calendar

The season of Lent is almost upon us, and every year there are at least some Evangelical Christians in different countries who contact me out of their concern or confusion with this period in the Christian calendar, or the concept of a liturgical year in general.

Phyllis Tickle explains that the Christian calendar has been an extremely important aspect of spiritual formation down through the centuries:

“The ancient practices of the faith are sevenin number, have come into Christianity out of Judaism, and inform all of the Abrahamic faiths.  Three of them – tithing, fasting, and the sacred meal– have to do with the physical body, its work and its needs.  Three of them have to do with the monitoring of time.  Fixed-hour prayer regulates the hours of the day, and Sabbath-keeping monitors the days of the week.  The liturgical year monitors or paces those same days and the weeks into the cohesive whole of basic human timekeeping, the year itself.  The seventh of them, pilgrimage, engages both the physical space of the body and the dimension of time, requiring that we go at least once in a lifetime with holy intention to a place made sacred by the faith and encounters of other believers.” (italics added)

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Those words of Tickle are penned in the foreword of Joan Chittister’s book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. Chittister, too, has fielded questions from people wondering why we celebrate Advent or Lent or any of the liturgical year’s dates when we do:

“The real answer to the question of the various dates of the liturgical year,” she asserts, “is that the liturgical year is not, for the most part, about a series of events at all.  It is about the import of those defining events.  It is about the relationship of those events, one to another.  It is about the real meaning, not the historical dating, of the events which, to this very day, shape our spiritual lives.”

In a world that rotates around school and work calendars and secular holidays, Chittister happily proclaims her need for something deeper: “I know that it is possible to grow physically older by the day but, at the same time, stay spiritually juvenile, if our lives are not directed by a schema far beyond the march of our planet around the sun.”

And to those who wonder if observing the Christian calendar would ever get monotonous, Chittister has a wonderful answer: “The liturgical year is the process of coming back year after year to look at what we already know, on one level, but are newly surprised by again and again.”

There is renewal in the ritual!  There is surprise in the “same”!

I will be offering more thoughts on this topic in the coming days, and more observations from this wonderful book as well.  For the meantime, I pray that you would begin to embrace the rhythm of the liturgical year.  And may observing and remembering these events open doors of refreshment and deeper knowledge in your walk with Christ.

Nine Observations on the Mesoamerica Region’s 2018 Statistics

Scott Armstrong

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A few days ago, I shared ten observations I had after analyzing the 2018 statistics for the Church of the Nazarene. Admittedly, I focused on the world, and now would like to be more Caribbean and Central America-centric. What is the state of our Mesoamerica Region? Here are several things I have noted:

  1. Although we’ve seen encouraging growth in the last decade (38.27%), last year was paltry (0.76%). You read that correctly: in 2018 our Mesoamerican churches reported less than 1% growth.  Stated another way, for every 100 people who call themselves Nazarene in this region, we have discipled fewer than 1 person into membership. That’s a bit puzzling because (see #2 below)…
  2. We reported 31,640 conversions and 14,273 baptisms last year. In fact, 19,222 new members became a part of our churches in Mesoamerica last year by profession of faith or by transfer from other denominations. Praise the Lord! Those numbers would have signified a much more impressive growth than the 0.76% that we mentioned earlier, if it weren’t for all of the membership losses we suffered, whether by death, removal, or transfer.  Those are the combined reasons the overall growth rate was not higher.
  3. Although we have well over 420,000 members in Mesoamerica, slightly more than half that total weekly attend the largest worship service offered (53.7%) as well as discipleship groups (53.2%). Does that mean, in other words, that half our members are attending weekly worship and/or discipleship groups? Not exactly. We know, for example, that non-members are a part of worship every week, as well as Sunday School and discipleship groups.
  4. Total Global Missional Disbursements grew this past year by 46%. It is hard to express how exciting this is for our region! Missional stewardship and faithfulness have been emphasized greatly by NMI and all ministries in the last 4-5 years.  This rapid increase can only encourage us as we continue to expand our commitment to fund the mission around the world.
  5. Giving to the World Evangelism Fund (WEF) is at 1.54% of all non-missions giving. Remember, the denominational goal for every church and district is 5.5%. A total of five districts out of 80 in our entire region gave 5.5% or more: shout out to Guyana Demerara-Essequibo in the Caribbean, Upper Artibonite, South Central of Jacmel, and Lower Northwest in Haiti, and Gulf District of Mexico.  For the rest of us, what happened? The Church of the Nazarene in most of our countries was started by missionaries that were supported by WEF.  Now it is our turn to repay the favor.
  6. While the district-wide World Evangelism Fund totals are discouraging, 782 of 3,166 congregations (25%) paid their allocations in full last year. When the Church of the Nazarene speaks of allocations, we are referring to support of our district offices and ministries, educational institutions, as well as WEF.  Even though we still have a lot of work to do, this is a much more encouraging stat if only because it shows that, on a local level, many of our congregations are learning to be outward-focused and faithful to the denomination.
  7. NYI Membership in Mesoamerica declined -2.7%. It is one thing to experience hardly any growth from year to year, but in 2018 we have actually seen no growth, that is to say, fewer  In Mexico alone, we saw a -8.9% drop.  This should be a wake-up call to all of us as Nazarene leaders in the Caribbean and Central America.  If we do not prioritize children and youth, our church will become a relic before we know it.
  8. More than one out of every three Mesoamerican Nazarenes lives in Haiti. The exact statistic is 36.6%.  It is not the most populous country, and its land mass is quite small compared to many others’.  Innumerable political, social, and economic challenges exist. Nevertheless, Haiti has become a fertile soil for the gospel to take root – and the holiness message, in particular.
  9. As we noted in the global summaryDiscipleship attendance has grown more than overall membership numbers: 4.7% in our region, to be exact. The field that experienced the biggest increase in Sunday School and Discipleship attendance? The Caribbean with 8.2% last year.

I hope that these last two articles have been useful to you.  I’d love to hear from some Mesoamerican Nazarenes, specifically.  What do you notice when you look at the most recent stats? What is your reaction to my nine observations?

Ten Observations on the Church of the Nazarene’s 2018 Global Statistics

Scott Armstrong

General Secretary David P. Wilson and Nazarene Research Services recently released the annual Church of the Nazarene statistical reports for 2018. These detailed reports documenting the missional activities of the denomination on a global scale show growth for the Church of the Nazarene over the statistical year, as well as continued growth over the past decade.

There is much to be thankful for!  God is on the move around the world and in our denomination!

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In an upcoming article, I will offer some observations on Mesoamerica’s statistics specifically. However, for now, and as I have done in the past, I have read through the document and offer some of my initial observations:

  1. The denomination’s membership has steadily grown during the past 10 years, although last year’s growth was tepid. Total membership has risen from around 1.84 million in 2008 to nearly 2.58 million in 2018. Additionally, in no year did we see a decline in membership worldwide in the last decade. More than 40% growth in only 10 years is quite encouraging! Nevertheless, last year’s growth was a mere 1.13% (see #4 below for one reason why).
  2. For the first time in a decade, we have reported a decline (-0.53%) in the number of churches. In 2017, 30,875 churches were reported, and in 2018, 30,712 were reported.  It should be noted that the decrease could be viewed as positive in one sense: while the number of missions went down (taking the overall numbers with them), many of those “not yet organized churches” most assuredly became organized, which is reflected in that number increasing by 0.58%.  Still, last year we organized the fewest number of churches of any year in the last decade.  One thing is certain: we must continue to emphasize church planting!
  3. Of the six world regions, Africa and Eurasia are pacing the way. Africa grew 7.3% last year, and 29.3% of the world’s Nazarenes are now African.  In a few years it is likely that one of three Nazarenes globally will be found on that continent. As far as Eurasia is concerned, membership has more than doubled in the last decade (112% growth).
  4. Membership in South America and the USA/Canada regions has declined. The -11.52% decrease in South American membership at first appears alarming.  However, Nazarene Research informs us that one district had over-reported fellowship members in 2017, and the -52,550 fewer members reported there in 2018 can be attributed to a correction of the previous year.  Thus, it should be characterized as an “artificial loss” (just as the purported growth in that district in 2017 should be labeled an “artificial gain”).  The decline in membership in the USA/Canada region is another story. While the overall Church has grown 40% in the last ten years, Nazarene membership in those two countries has gone down -4.57% in the same decade.
  5. A greater number of new Nazarenes are being received by transfer from other denominations (11.46%), while fewer new Nazarenes are being received by profession of faith compared to a decade ago (-9.47%). It is exciting to see that fellow Christians are changing their membership perhaps because of doctrinal alignment or experiencing the love of Nazarene churches. At the same time, the majority of Great-Commission Christians would agree that our primary growth must come from reaching those who do not know Christ with the good news.
  6. The denominational emphasis on discipleship during the last 10 years seems to be producing numerical fruit. Sunday School and Discipleship attendance has grown 62% in the last decade, a number much greater than the overall membership statistic.  To put it another way, last year discipleship attendance represented 51% of overall membership totals, while in 2008, that percentage was only 44%. It appears more of our Nazarenes are a part of some sort of discipleship group weekly, and/or our pastors and leaders are learning how to more accurately report the varied forms of discipleship that are occurring.
  7. God is calling and the Church is ordaining more and more leaders. 21% more elders and 48% more deacons have been ordained since 2008.  The number of licensed ministers keeps increasing, too.  A rapidly growing Church will require more and more leaders to preach, serve, and administer the Sacraments.  We praise the Lord for the growing numbers of pastors and lay people answering God’s call to shepherd His people!
  8. Membership in Nazarene Youth International has increased only 3% in 10 years. Let’s state that again: while overall membership has grown 40% since 2008, NYI has increased by 3%.  The one-year total is 0.53%.  I am almost at a loss for words.  Last year I addressed this issue, and I worry that any pleas to adapt are falling on deaf ears.  Every church wants youth to be present, but how many are willing to change in order to reach them and how many would then be willing to even hand over leadership to them? If we do not intentionally decide to wholeheartedly invest our time, resources, and love into children and youth, we will have forfeited our chance to be change-agents of society within the next 50 years.
  9. Giving to Global Mission (World Evangelism Fund + Approved Specials + Other Global Interests) went up considerably. 6% growth is exciting!  It reflects depth of stewardship and commitment around the world. That said (see #10)…
  10. We have a long way to go with regards to World Evangelism Fund (WEF) giving. On the first page of the report, the evidence cannot be denied: exactly one-third of global Churches of the Nazarene gave the minimum expectation of 5.5% or more of their non-missions giving to WEF.  Admittedly, on a positive note, that number is much higher than the previous year’s: only 26.8% of global congregations gave the full amount in 2017.  Still, nearly 29% of our churches did not give anythingto WEF last year! And 96% of all WEF came from one region: USA/Canada.  Around the world we have to do better! We have been blessed by WEF for so long; now it is our turn to bless others.  As a pastor friend in Dominican Republic who is in the process of transferring his credentials to our denomination once told me, “How can a church call themselves Nazarene if they don’t give to the World Evangelism Fund?!” Great question, José Luis!

Whew! That was a lot, I know.  And even then, I have undoubtedly missed dozens of other significant take-aways. What would you highlight, after looking at the document? Which of my ten observations encourages or alarms you the most?

Dear American Church…I Am Not Renewing My Membership This Year

By Frank Powell

Dear American Church,

Let me cut to the chase. I am tired of this club. I want out.

Here is the thing. I didn’t sign up to join a club. Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Maybe I contributed to the confusion. I am not sure how we arrived here, but things are going to be different. I am not renewing my membership this year.

Here’s why.

Jesus didn’t die for a club.

The church should be missional. The church should have an external focus. The church should shine as a beacon of light in the community. I feel like you started this way. When you began, your focus was reaching the needs of your community and your world.

But something changed. Now you focus on your needs. Your mission is comfort and security…at all cost. You invite people into this “mission.” I am afraid you created a monster. A country club minus the golf course, which is the best part.

I love the church Jesus Christ died to establish. I believe in the church’s future. I believe the church is the primary means through which the world comes to know the power of the cross and salvation.

So, believe me when I say this decision is not a declaration of the global church. It is also not a declaration of every church in America. As long as the King sits on the throne, the church will thrive and be a beacon of light in a dark world. This is a declaration of the American church culture, generally speaking.

Let me highlight some of the reasons I think this a club.

Clubs pour time and resources back into themselves.

People in clubs think paying their “dues” gives them stock in the club. People in clubs expect resources to be used on them and their needs. The church of Jesus Christ should never equate giving with power. It should never use most of its resources to feed internal programs and events.

Clubs value comfort and security.

This is why you pay to enter clubs. You want to feel safe and comfortable. Clubs value health and comfort. I am not saying churches are wrong for pushing into suburbs. Our cities need men and women passionate about the mission of God in those areas.

But I am worried your desire to embrace suburbia is often more rooted in your country club mindset than in God’s direction.

Clubs keep conversations in the shallow end of the pool.

Clubs are not venues to share feelings, disappointments, and struggles. Clubs keep conversations in the kiddie pool.

“How ’bout them Cowboys? What about the stock market? Will Trump be the next President?”

True story…I have a close relative (let’s call her “Jill”) who was asked the question “How are you doing?” by a member at her church. Jill had the audacity to tell this lady she was not doing well and needed prayers. The lady then proceeded to tell Jill she never intended Jill to actually tell her how she was doing.

This is a club mentality.

“How are you doing?” is not an open door to tell people about your problems. It is simply their way of acknowledging your presence.

Let’s be real, American church, you secretly hope “How are you doing?” does not lead to someone telling you about their problems. You don’t have time for that.

The church of Jesus Christ should value transformative community. You should bear one another’s burdens. No one should walk the road alone. No one. Galatians 6:2 says you fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens. That’s weighty stuff.

Are you bearing anyone’s burdens, American church?

People in clubs want to make their club the biggest, brightest one around.

Being a club is about competing. I am competing against you. You are competing against me. Clubs don’t care if they steal people from other clubs. In fact, stealing people from other clubs is calling “winning.” It shows that one club offers something another club does not.

This looks a lot like the American church. You view stealing people from other churches as “winning” because the bottom line is attendance on Sunday.

The church of Jesus Christ should view church growth through the lens of people coming to know Jesus. How many people have you baptized this year? How many people know Jesus today that did not know Him a year ago?

Why is this a competition, American church???

Clubs only invite people into their lives that look like them.

Clubs value likemindedness. The church of Jesus Christ should value diversity. Can you honestly tell me, American church, you value diversity? You chalk up your lack of diversity to things like cultural differences.

Really?

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Clubs are divisive and argumentative.

A few days ago my wife and I passed eight churches on the way to the church we were attending. We live 1.5 miles from the church building. Eight church buildings in 1.5 miles. That’s one building every .15625 miles (sorry, I like numbers).

I understand I live in the Bible belt, but is it necessary to have that many notches on the belt?

Please do not misunderstand me…this country is diverse and you need different expressions of the church. But do you really need 8,000,000,000 churches in one city? This, however, is what clubs do. Insiders believe their way of doing things is THE way. This is a dangerous trap.

When the focus shifts away from Jesus, the level to which you will become divisive has no end. This starts by refusing to associate with those outside of Jesus. Then it moves to those outside of your fellowship (or denomination). Then it moves to people within your denomination who think similarly but differ on one “important” issue. Then it moves to those in your denomination who think less like you. And so on, and so on.

Eventually you create what you see today. Over 9,000 different denominations (your divisiveness makes it difficult to even define a denomination). Do you see the slippery slope?

American church, if you rallied around Jesus and not your traditions, your impact would be exponentially greater.

People in clubs value keeping everyone happy.

Clubs hate losing members, so they cater to every need. If Joe is unhappy about this change, the club caters to him. If Jill is unhappy about that change, the club caters to her.

Most churches today equate unity with happiness. Unity does not mean you keep everyone happy. Unity means you keep everyone focused on Jesus.

Some people feed on the attention they receive from getting their way. The church should be unapologetically focused on making disciples and shining light into the darkness. Clubs don’t like change. Clubs do things the way they have always been done. Making disciples and refusing to change are usually at odds with one another.

So which value drives you, American church? Making disciples or preserving traditions?

Honestly…

____________________

Again, I am not leaving church…I am leaving the club. There are churches living out the mission of Jesus Christ all across America. Praise God for these churches. But I am tired of spending time and energy contributing to a culture that fattens itself with more resources.

I am tired of spending my time convincing others I am right and they are wrong. This only feeds my natural tendency to be judgmental. If I am right, everybody else is wrong. But if Jesus is right, love, grace, and truth become the standards by which I look at the world. I like those standards. It feeds a much less natural tendency to accept and love.

I want to focus on those who haven’t experienced the gospel. I want to spend time figuring out how to minister to my neighbor whose marriage is on the rocks, my friend battling cancer, or my classmate struggling with pornography. I want to surround myself with a group of men and women that are missional.

There is hope for you, American church. There is hope because God reigns over all things and situations. There is hope because Jesus is the head of the church. But I can’t sit comfortably in a club any longer.

I want to be join a movement. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

Frank Powell

I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!

This article was originally published at: FrankPowell.me

Slogans that Awakened the Church: Intensely Missionary

By Howard Culbertson

“The spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions. The nearer we get to Him, the more intensely missionary we become.” –Henry Martyn, missionary to India and Persia.

Henry_Martyn.jpgKnow anyone who views world missions support involvement as being only for those who happen to be really passionate about it? I know people who think that way.

“It’s their thing,” they dismissively say.

If Henry Martyn were still around, he would object. “It is not just their thing,” he would protest, “It is Christ’s thing and it must therefore be a ‘thing’ of every Christ follower.”

Martyn, early 19th century missionary to India ad Persia, saw world evangelism as a central passion of God’s heart. That means, said Martyn, that the more Christ-like we become, the more we will share Christ’s passion for world evangelism.

Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5 call us to “think the way Christ Jesus thought” (Easy to Read Version). Although that exhortation occurs in a passage about Christ’s humility, it appertains to every other context. Being Christ-like to the point of thinking like Christ includes embracing His desire that all the world hear the Good News.

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Pastors sometimes lament that those in their congregation supporting world mission are often the senior citizens. Where that is true –and sometimes it is– it may be because those older people who support world evangelism have walked with Christ over a number of years.  With the passage of time, as they have grown closer to Him, they have become “intensely missionary.” Because Jesus Christ is passionate about world evangelism, it should not surprise us when older, mature believers become passionate about it, too.

So, global passion in those older “saints” validates Henry Martyn’s words: “The nearer we get to [Christ], the more intensely missionary we become.”  On the other hand, Martyn’s statement does not limit mission passion to those who have been believers for decades. He is simply stating something that is clearly a Biblical message: If we get our hearts in tune with Christ’s heart, we will become passionate about proclaiming in all the world the Good News that God has come in Christ Jesus to redeem fallen human beings.

This article was originally published at: nazarene.org

 

Opening the Bible by Thomas Merton

I recently had the privilege of reading a wonderful little book, called Opening the Bible, written by the renowned Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  His thoughts on reading the Scriptures were written decades ago but remain poignant and relevant as much today as in his time. Just to offer a taste, I will share three quotes.

First, to all of us who have ever approached the sacred text seeking to learn a truth or find out what to teach or preach, Merton demonstrates that we are missing the depth to which the Scriptures invite us to go:

“The Bible raises the question of identity in a way no other book does.  As Barth pointed out: when you begin to question the Bible you find that the Bible is also questioning you. When you ask: ‘What is this book?’ you find that you are also implicitly being asked: ‘Who is this that reads it?’” (p. 27).

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Have you ever experienced that? If not, your reading of the Bible has been woefully superficial! I admit that in my rush and my ministerial demands, many times I have not taken the time to allow the Bible to read me.  But only then will true transformation occur!  In fact, Merton says later that any reader of the Bible must be prepared to be changed drastically:

“We cannot enter into this dynamic of freedom and understanding unless, in reading the Bible, we somehow become aware that we are problems to ourselves.  The Bible is a message of reconciliation and unity, but in order to awaken us to our need for unity it brings out the contradictions within us and makes us aware of a fundamental division” (p. 80).

A lot of us are uncomfortable with those contradictions! We want the Scriptures to encourage and assure us, but when they examine and reproach us, will we invite God into even those most discordant of places?

Merton challenges us even further.  Many of us would agree that it requires great faith to accept God at his word without any backtalk.  But what if dialogue, and even argument, between God and us reveals an even deeper level of faith and intimacy? I leave you with the following quote:

“Any serious reading of the Bible means personal involvement in it, not simply mental agreement with abstract propositions.  And involvement is dangerous, because it lays one open to unforeseen conclusions.  That is why we prefer if possible to remain uninvolved.  In 2 Samuel 12:1-10, we read how David, a man of quick and hot emotional response, listens to a story of Nathan and becomes involved in it to the point of intense and righteous indignation, and then discovers that the malefactor who so angers him is himself!

We all instinctively know that it is dangerous to become involved in the Bible. The book judges us, or seems to judge us, on terms to which at first we could not possibly agree.

The Bible itself, in the Book of Job, gives us a pattern of healthy disagreement. Not only that, but throughout the whole Old Testament in particular we find people (like Abraham) arguing with God and being implicitly praised for it.  The point is, then, that becoming involved in the Bible does not mean simply taking everything it says without the slightest murmur of difficulty.  It means at once being willing to argue and fight back, provided that if we are clearly wrong we will finally admit it. The Bible prefers honest disagreement to a dishonest submission.

One of the basic truths put forward in the Bible as a whole is not merely that God is always right and man is always wrong, but that God and man can face each other in an authentic dialog: one which implies “a true reciprocity between persons, each of whom fully respects the other’s rights and his freedom” (pp. 43-44).

Nazarene World Week of Prayer – 2019

From February 24 to March 2, 2019, Nazarenes will be interceding for different requests! Join us in prayer!

And as you pray throughout this Nazarene World Week of Prayer, remember that God is present and active! Our prayer requests simply encourage us to join Him in His redemptive purposes in the world. Pray faithfully! Pray passionately!

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Too often, when we pass through troubled and challenging times, we forget all that we have enjoyed by God’s good grace, and turn our focus inward, thinking only of our own present trials. When facing our troubled or uncertain times, turn our focus to others who “have no hope, and are without God in this world,” and those who are seeking to bring hope, and point to the God of hope and peace.

Remember our missionaries and the work of the church throughout the year in prayer. Many are often facing challenging times in the places in which they serve. They seek to be peacemakers and agents of transformation. They need your support through intercession.

Throughout this Nazarene World Week of Prayer, we are partners together with God through prayer!

Click the following link to download the prayer guide: Nazarene World Week of Prayer – 2019