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.