The Church of the Nazarene (USA/Canada): A Big Tent or Little Camps

I’ve heard it (even taught it) that the Church of the Nazarene is a Big Tent. Historically I think the idea that the Church of the Nazarene is a Big Tent came from our earliest days when in a big tent at Pilot Point, Texas three groups laid aside some minor differences they may have had and joined together so that the message of holiness might be proclaimed throughout the U.S.A. and world. The Big Tent mentality was illustrated in a quote of P.F. Bresee (but St. Augustine said it first): “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; and in all things charity.” So differences over the second coming of Jesus and the minutia of holiness were laid aside for the greater good of reaching our world and making Christ-like disciples.

Fast forward 106 years and the question is: Is the Church of the Nazarene still a Big Tent or have we become little campsites on the same campground (some might say, “Forget being on the same campground are we even in the same universe)?

It appears that it’s the latter. We have gone to our own camps. We still want to talk about “holiness” (we are still on the same campgrounds– although what exactly “holiness” is and how ”holiness” is expressed is vastly different among our people). Our differences over essentials and non-essentials have seemly caused the Nazarenes to circle around their particular issues in their own little camps. It would seem that Augustine’s (sorry Dr. Bresee) quote to be accurate for today’s Nazarenes should be modified as: In essentials unity; in non-essentials—there are no non-essentials; and in all things (if you agree with me about the essentials and non-existent non-essentials) charity. The quote doesn’t have the same beautiful simplicity; nor does have the heart of holiness, but that’s where the Church of the Nazarene finds herself.

There are several reasons for the disintegration into our differing camps. American politics, the ease of disseminating differing viewpoints via the Internet, the angst in the American culture, the lack of Nazarene based (or even Wesleyan based) education in the majority of Nazarene clergy, an influx of fundamentalism, an ecclesiastical identity crisis over several theological and social issues, and the recent Nazarene Publishing House debacle are only some of the factors. These and other influences have sent Nazarenes to their own little camps, circling the wagons around their ideas and notions and looking with a suspicious eye at anyone who disagrees with them. The Big Tent has been un-pitched.

Here’s the problem: When we had laid aside our differences; when we were concerned about proclaiming holiness; when our focus was on reaching the world and making Christ-like disciples; when we were a Big Tent (in other words) the Church of the Nazarene was growing. People were finding Jesus and holiness was being proclaimed. It doesn’t take a statistical genius to look at the flattened and now declining membership numbers in USA/Canada to conclude that when we started heading to our own little camps and casting stones at those in other camps that’s when our decline began. We may have a mission statement that reads: “To make Christ-like Disciples in the nations” but in the USA/Canada it seems our mission statement has become: “To make the rest of the church think like we think and if they don’t think like we think to make them out to be friends with the devil.” Again, its not a catchy slogan but that seems to be where we are and why we have lost our way.

So what is the solution? We’ve got to leave our individual camps and join the Big Tent again. Let’s get back to Augustine (and Bresee). Refocus on the essentials; quit making non-essentials essential; and remember charity. Holiness is all about love. Love presumably includes loving individuals and leaders with whom you may have a disagreement. Love includes loving those in society who disagree and loving those in the church with whom we disagree. Love is the door to the Big Tent.

Big Tent people love one another.
Big Tent people don’t get caught up in the minutia.
Big Tent people recognize that if we aren’t together we will never win the world for Christ.
Big Tent people understand that the message of holiness in this unholy culture is vital.
Big Tent people are holiness people.
Let’s get back in the Big Tent.

15 thoughts on “The Church of the Nazarene (USA/Canada): A Big Tent or Little Camps

  1. Clark Armstrong

    Although the writer has clearly identified the problem, I am not sure that the solution is as simplistic as calling everyone back to the “Big Tent.” As noted, everyone thinks that their camp is the one that everyone should “return” to and many of those camps are not just pup tents anymore. Secondly, it is not just fundamentalism that has made a strong thrust into our Big Tent. For instance, the “little” camp of Wesleyan Catholicism has not been small for twenty years now, having made a giant influence through our seminary faculty. It is almost impossible to be a simple Wesleyan-Arminian Nazarene now when the river sweeping us to Wesleyan Anglicanism is so wide. Having come from the American Sunday School Union joinder with the Nazarenes in 1948, I am very aware of the twelve other (than Anglican) branches of Christianity that found unity under this Tent. Finally, I am not sure that some camps or branches can return to the big tent without a formal apology for reconciliation to occur. I will just leave that comment to stand alone without explanation. But suffice it to say, that some definitely rude, unkind and denigrating things have been taught and said by the Wesleyan-Rausenbuschers, the Wesleyan Postmoderns, the Wesleyan Worship at N.T. Wrighters, the Wesleyan Concerned Nazarenes, the Wesleyan Neo-Reformed Branch, the Wesleyan Keswickians, etc., etc., etc. which need repair before unity can ever come again. Much prayer is needed, brother. I couldn’t agree with you more. Yes, much prayer is needed if that is ever going to be realized. It won’t come just from a call to come back under the Big Tent, but that is a start. A much needed start. I saw Dan Boone’s book A Charitable Discourse as a real attempt to move there. And I now here a clarion call rising from the ranks. Thank you.

  2. Jesse Middendorf

    Excellent analysis! It will not be easy to resolve these painful, deep divides, but the message and the mission demand it. I pray your passion for this will spread!

  3. rprince233 Post author

    I agree Clark the trip back to Big Tent will not be an easy one. But we must begin by finding common ground. Our world’s great need and our message’s great hope demand that we find a unified heart to live out our stated mission statement of “Making Christ-like disciples in the nations.” As our continued confused priorities and arguments drone on– men and women are dying without Christ. The stakes are too high to continue on the same path.

  4. David Verzyl

    Not sure why you include the NPH debacle in your list. All the factions you name deserve effective and professional leadership without conflict of interest. It is hardly an external factor or cultural pressure placing pressure on the organization, although it does merit repentance, a sorely missing response.

  5. rprince233 Post author

    David,I included the demise of NPH in the list that is leading the Church of the Nazarene away from the Big Tent for a number of reasons. While the BGS have admitted mistakes in the handling of NPH (mistakes that may or may not have had less than holy intentions. I am not aware of all of the factors so I can not say the intention or the scope of the mistakes), I have observed that the reaction from the rank and file to the debacle has been equally or even more harmful. Gossip, rumor mongering, character assassination, a lack of kindness and goodwill, an eagerness to find a conspiracy, pride, self righteousness are just a few of the less than holy attitudes I have witnessed in this whole mess. A holy church in a big holy tent does not respond this way. Repentance from many corners of the camps seem to be what is needed.

  6. Greg Crofford

    Hello Rob, thanks for this blog. Two observations:

    1. The quote Bresee used re. essentials, non-essentials, and all things, has actually been traced to 1627/28 from Rupertus Muldenius, a German divine. You can read more at this link:

    2. Having just read Phineas Bresee: Pastor to the People (Beacon Hill, 2013), I was pleased to see that Bangs and Ingersol did not paper over the deep-seated disagreements in the Church of the Nazarene including the split-off by Seth Rees (1912-1917). Keith Drury provides an interesting summary of that incident:

    I raise this to underscore that it’s a temptation to look back on our 20th century history and imply that we need to “get back to the good old days.” The fact is, our ecclesiology from the beginning has been marked by various streams. P.F. Bresee, for example, was cold toward divine healing, and had no mention of it in his Manual. Language was only added in 1907 when the Holiness Church of Christ came into the picture, and then officially merged in 1908. Concessions come at a cost and always introduce something new to the mix. The “camps” have been there for longer than we might care to admit.

    But I think you are correct that in the midst of this diversity, the focus on our mission is all the more important. The statement “Making Christlike Disciples in the Nations” should rally us. I’m indifferent about how individual Nazarene congregations do church, whether revivalistically or liturgically. The question is: Are we becoming God’s holy people, or to use John Wesley’s term, are we moving on to perfect love? Isn’t that the bottom line?

  7. Billy Cox

    Regarding this:

    “It doesn’t take a statistical genius to look at the flattened and now declining membership numbers in USA/Canada to conclude that when we started heading to our own little camps and casting stones at those in other camps that’s when our decline began.”

    I’m curious as to what time period you would attach to this?

    As with all cause-effect relationships, what one thinks to be the effect could very well be the cause. For a young denomination that had known only growth and expansion, a sudden, unexpected decline could have sown seeds of discord in a way that only existential anxiety can do.

  8. rprince233 Post author

    Billy, I do not work at the Nazarene research center, I was simply noticing the attendance decline in the last twenty years; the cultural/societal shifts in my time as a pastor; and general decline in commitment to the cause of Christ. No doubt there are many factors that has led us to this point, but my conclusion is that there is a lack of love in our ranks.

    This lack of love is evident in the way we speak to one another; the way we draw conclusions and spew ideas without the facts; and the general attitudes in which old timers would have labelled “carnality.”

    I know neither the past nor the present is perfect. There was/is plenty of bad theology floating around. I am simply calling our church to love more. It seems simple doesn’t it? Can’t we love? Give the benefit of the doubt? Strive for unity? Can’t we determine that the cause of Christ is more important than winning a petty argument that in the long run won’t really matter?

    I certainly don’t claim to know all the answers, but I think if we lived out love more and more in our every day lives (isn’t that what holiness is) our church would be a better place


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