Jun30FriJune 30, 2017
Five Reflections on General Assembly 2017
I watched a crew of workers remove the General Assembly logo from above the doors of the convention center, and I will admit that it made me a bit sad. Granted, the week our family spent in Indianapolis was a tad on the exhausting side – attending GA as a family is a whole new reality for me. Still, I felt the slightest twinge of sadness swell up inside to see the large hall where we had met to worship transformed into a cavernous, empty shell.
That sadness, though, signaled that some good things had happened at the most recent global gathering of Nazarenes. That’s a trend I’ve noticed recently at large denominational and regional events. Two years ago, I came away quite hopeful for what had happened at M15 in Kansas City. General Assembly has reignited that hope, and fanned the flame. Here are some of my basic observations and reflections about General Assembly 2017:
1. We Wouldn’t Give Up on Unity – As resolutions were debated, I began to detect a general sense of resolve that we were not going to give up on one another. The unity of the global church itself is a gift of God, a living symbol of a way of living that doesn’t depend on forming coalitions over against others. The Church of the Nazarene seems to be intent on humbly receiving the gift of unity that the Holy Spirit is giving. When there were challenges and disagreements, they often had something to do with a lack of global input and representation.There was genuine celebration among my American friends upon the election of the denomination's second African general superintendent. I saw delegates in historically majority demographic groups advocating for a voice for non-majority groups, and it made me wonder if, in an age where fractures and power plays factor so heavily into denominational gatherings, that the global body of the Church of the Nazarene opted to cherish God’s gift of unity. My strong hope is that such a gift will not be ours to possess as a trophy, but be immediately put into use as a tool for the sake of a world that is anything but unified.
2. We Told a Better Story – I created my Twitter account because of General Assembly some years ago. I don’t think I enjoy live tweeting anything more than General Assembly. Somewhere among the #GA2017 feed, someone mentioned that General Assembly was created for social media engagement. It was certainly engaged online this time around. But what I saw was incredibly promising: clergy and laity alike were telling a better story about the church that has become their home. About a year ago, my friend Tara Smith, co-lead pastor of Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene, preached a sermon that has stuck with me. In it, she addressed slander and gossip. Those acts, she said, are not necessarily saying things that are untruthful, but they are more like deciding to tell the worst version of another person’s story. Overcoming gossip, then, is opting to tell the better story, not by ignoring problems, but by speaking in a way that opens the possibility of redemption. Now, there are plenty of things in the life of the church that are frustrating, painful, or even demoralizing. I don’t want to deny for a moment the reality of those things, nor am I advocating for telling a saccharine-sweet utopian Mayberryesque narrative that can’t possibly exist in real life. But what I saw this past week was a church that really wanted nothing to do with being frustrating, painful, and demoralizing, and a whole bunch of people who were helping to tell that story. One of my favorite moments of this was J.K. Warrick’s remark on Sunday morning: “I love this church. We’re a mess, but I love it.” I want to follow his lead there, and I don’t think I’d want to make my home in a church that doesn’t acknowledge how much of a mess it is, naming what is making that mess, and then telling the story of how we are open to being cleaned up. The church I saw in the story being told this week is the one I knew I loved – the mess, the hope-filled, barely-holding-it-together group of folks in a foot-pounding pursuit of a Lord on the move. There are anomalies from that in the life of the church, yes, but this week allowed for the better, new-creation story to be told.
3. We Took Another Step Toward Theological Coherence – Among all of the resolutions that were passed, the ones on the Articles of Faith and the Rituals were the most exciting to me. That probably tells you everything you need to know about me, if we aren’t already friends. One of my favorites was a change to Article XIII on communion (JUD-802). For decades, this article has referred to communion as a “memorial,” a fairly innocuous term on its face, though loaded with theological significance.
It has its roots in the theology of Ulrich Zwingli, a reformer and contemporary of Luther. (Their debates were epic, and are worth reading about.) Like Luther, Zwingli wasn’t convinced that the Roman Catholic understanding of Christ’s presence at the table carried adequate support, and so he advocated for the Lord’s Supper being understood as a memorial supper, mainly based on: 1) God’s use of unilateral sovereign power and 2) the absolute authority of Scripture. If God has unilateral power to offer salvation, goes his argument, and if we find a testimony to that power in Scripture, we really don’t need to drag out the philosophical debates over Christ’s presence at the table. Therefore, it’s not bad to have communion, but what’s taking place is our memorializing Jesus.
The writers of the new Article XIII recognized that Nazarenes don’t walk in step with Zwingli on his doctrine of God, or his view of Scripture (we do affirm a sovereign God and the authority of Scripture, just differently than Zwingli did), and so adopting his theology on communion introduced a theological inconsistency to the Articles of Faith. For years I have mused in the courses I teach that we Nazarenes officially held a memorialist view of communion without holding to the theological rationale that undergirded Zwingli’s position on communion. I’m glad I don’t have to muse about that any more. The change to Article XIII draws the Church of the Nazarene more fully in line with what our theological forefather, John Wesley, held to and taught. Incidentally, the new language affirms Christ’s presence at the table through the Holy Spirit, which means that communion isn’t about what we are doing anymore, but about who we are encountering in the Supper.
Similar changes were made to Article XII, concerning baptism. I’ll spare you the commentary here, but the new language places emphasis upon what God is doing to affect a real change in person as they participate in the sacrament. Rather than baptism being a display of “going public” with their individual beliefs, the new language of Article XII emphasizes incorporation into the Body of Christ, and entrance into a new way of being called to holiness.
The new Rituals adopted are a pastoral outworking of these theological changes, and even though they passed easily among silence on the General Assembly floor, I was joyfully celebrating the step we took along the line of theological coherence.
One more thing: I noticed that of the resolutions that were submitted to the committees, none were actively attempting to make the Church of the Nazarene adopt positions on theology that were beyond the scope of our Wesleyan heritage. In past assemblies, it seemed like there were a consistent few resolutions concerning theology that would have presented challenges to theological coherence, even though they were rejected by the committees. Those didn't show up this time around, which has me hoping that we are becoming more interested in a coherent theological language than attempting to remake the church in a different theological image.
4. We Are Opening Avenues of Ministry – It was pretty thrilling to me to see so many young folks engaged, not only in the observation of the assembly, but of its operation and the offering of substantial contribution. While I will probably age out of the ‘young clergy’ category by the next assembly, I saw my contemporaries and friends – college classmates, wedding party members, seminary colleagues – stepping into ministries that most of us never would have expected at the last assembly. I’m not talking here about the ecclesiastically visible roles – though there are some of those – but of the kinds of ministries that remind me of Jesus. One point of particular joy for me was joining the Young Clergy meet-up one night, a packed house of Nazarenes on the younger side of life. They were giving out copies of a book Shawna and I wrote a few years back about young people finding a place in the church, and the next night, I got to connect with a young woman whose story we told in that book. Five years later, she’s giving up the life she’s known and built in the US, taking her husband and baby, and heading abroad to work with the vulnerable. A lot can happen in four years, and it was a particular joy to see so many young folks engaging in ministries now that most could not have imagined the last time we were together.
I’d like to think that we also moved toward opening more places for women to serve in ministry. Electing a woman to the Board of General Superintendents was a good step toward helping our church be able to envision a woman in a role of pastoral service, and if I know her, she will continue to open more avenues to others. It was joyful to me that a retiring general superintendent would craft his final address in such a way to involve women telling stories of good news, a model of opening avenues of ministry. We are far from what we once were in terms of enabling and calling upon women for service and leadership, but the same insistence that we receive God’s gift of unity seemed to be functioning in regard to allowing our sisters to serve: God is giving gifts, and we don’t want to miss them. That leads me to my next hope…
5. We Still Have Work to Do on Our Ecclesiology and Theology of Ordination – There were quite a few times during the discussion of resolutions that I thought would have not been as perplexing as they appeared had we had a more robust ecclesiology, and a fuller understanding of the theology of ordination. A lengthy debate on the floor of the assembly concerning a technical issue of voting in church meetings signaled to me that we probably still aren’t altogether clear on what the church is, and I’m hopeful that some additional work would be of use to our global body.
The same could probably be said of ordination. Of course, I think there’s unity on the notion that ordination is a good thing, but among the debates over issues of ministerial titles, I began to wonder if some additional work on a theology of ordination might help us with some of these questions.
There are lots of other things to be said, and I won’t get to them here. I’ve certainly overlooked something, and maybe even said something you’d disagree with. After this past week, I think that’s alright because, in the words of some of my friends who pastor teenagers around where I live, “I love you, and there nothing you can do about it.”