Thursday, July 13, 2017

Comparative Global Wesleyan Polity: The Church of the Nazarene

This is the fourth in an occasional series of articles comparing the different ways in which Methodist/Wesleyan denominations historically related to The United Methodist Church structure themselves as global bodies.

What would The United Methodist Church look like if three-self mission theology were written into the Book of Discipline? One possible answer is the Church of the Nazarene.

The historical roots of the Church of the Nazarene are many and complex, but they include early leaders such as former Methodist Phineas Bresee, along with others who were part of the diverse holiness movement in late nineteenth century America as well as abroad. The Church of the Nazarene sees itself as a Wesleyan body in the Methodist tradition. It strongly emphasizes the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification, and although there are congregational influences on its polity as well (pastors are called by local churches, not appointed), on the whole, its polity is distinctively Wesleyan/Methodist.

Today, the Church of the Nazarene is the largest Wesleyan holiness denomination in the world. According to its 2016 figures, the church has nearly 2.5 million members across 192 “world areas” (countries or substantially distinct portions of countries, such as Guam). That makes the Church of the Nazarene an extremely well-distributed church globally, more so than the UMC. Among its membership, 26% reside in Africa, 26% in the US & Canada, 16% in Mesoamerica, 13% in Eurasia (Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia), 13% in South America, and 5% in Asia-Pacific.

The Church of the Nazarene is structured into three legislative/deliberative levels – local congregations, districts (equivalent to annual conferences), and General Assembly (equivalent to General Conference). Districts are overseen by district superintendents, and the denomination as a whole is led by six General Superintendents, who have individual responsibilities for specific parts of the denomination as well as shared responsibility for the entire denomination.

The Church of the Nazarene groups districts into six continental “regions,” which are not legislative but instead allow for contextually-relevant administrative structures and upon the basis of which some denominational representatives are elected. Thus, the regions are somewhat analogous to jurisdictions or central conferences in the UMC, though there is no distinction between the USA/Canada region and other regions, in the same way that differences do exist between the UMC jurisdictions and annual conferences.

In additional to regional programs, the Church of the Nazarene also has three denomination-wide agencies covering the areas of education, mission, and Sunday School/discipleship. Though based in the US, these three agencies are intended to serve all Nazarenes throughout the world.

The regions facilitate some level of contextualization. Nevertheless, like the UMC, but unlike The Wesleyan Church and Free Methodist Church, there is one standard policy book for the entire denomination. The Church of the Nazarene’s Manual (equivalent to the Book of Discipline) is about 400 pages long and binding on churches everywhere, including a standard set of committees that are expected to exist in all districts and congregations. The Manual does stipulate contextualization in places, such as the development of educational standards for pastors.

The approach to being a global church that the Church of the Nazarene has taken does not emphasize contextual adaptation of polity so much as thorough implementation of Anderson/Venn “three-self” theory: that the goal for new mission churches should be to become self-led by indigenous pastors, financially self-supporting, and self-propagating through the ability to start new churches themselves. The roots of this approach in the Church of the Nazarene go all the way back to founder Hiram Reynolds, who as a mission executive and then General Superintendent sought to make this approach to mission standard policy for Nazarenes.

This emphasis on creating three-self churches which remain part of a worldwide denomination (rather than become autonomous) has led to a long history of self-reflection by Nazarenes on what it means to be a global denomination. There are many milestones on this path, including important decisions in favor of “internationalization” in 1980.

An emphasis on three-self churches is still part of Nazarene policy. Nazarenes make distinctions between three types of districts: Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3. Phase 1 districts are for new mission work. Phase 2 corresponds to a certain amount of growth in size. A district doesn’t become a Phase 3 district, however, until it is “100% self-supporting in regard to district administration.”

This means that once a district becomes a “Phase 3 district,” no matter where in the world it is, it is able to take its place as a full equal to other Phase 3 districts throughout the rest of the world. A Phase 3 district in Africa is not financially dependent on districts in the US, in the same way that many UMC annual conferences in Africa still subsist on donations from the US to cover basic expenses such as pastors’ salaries. American Nazarenes may donate to charitable work in Africa or elsewhere, but as far as the basic operations of the church, those are fully in the hands of locals.

Of course, the process of internationalization is on-going work in the Church of the Nazarene. Questions about use of the English language and delegate visas for General Assembly still remain. General Assembly is always in the US, as is the denomination’s headquarters. Most of the General Superintendents have been white American men.

However, at the most recent General Assembly earlier this summer, Nazarenes elected two new General Superintendents, both originally from outside the US. That gives the Church of the Nazarene a majority of non-US General Superintendents for the first time ever. Watching the Twitter comments about General Assembly as a whole, one noted the frequency of positive references to the global nature and racial, ethnic, national, and linguistic diversity of the church.

While the Church of the Nazarene still has work to do in its process of internationalization, it is clearly well on its way. Indeed, it may well deserve the title of most global of the Methodist/Wesleyan denominations.

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