Written by Russ Fairbanks – Pastor, Ooltewh New Start, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
God placed a dream in my heart, many years ago, to plant a church in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area (USA). My family and I left a wonderful church in Ohio three years ago and began a project that is still so much bigger than me. I am one more cautionary voice telling all pastors that starting a church isn’t for the “sounds like a neat idea” crowd. Regardless of interest or idealism, the only reason that anyone should ever think of starting something from scratch is because they feel that God is calling them to that specific assignment. I say this because there is a stark difference between starting a church and entering the pastorate of an existing church. When I began as a Lead Pastor in my former church, I had a well-defined game plan that was ready for action before my first day. In contrast, planting this church has required me to have a great deal of patience as I allow the community’s culture to shape my approach in a much more significant way.
Planting a church in the South (southeastern United States), and starting out with no core members, is an interesting venture. One of the biggest issues I have faced is learning the culture and perceptions that the community may have regarding Wesleyan holiness churches. It did not take long to realize that our persuasion is in the minority in Chattanooga. It was also clear that there are even some perception issues among former Nazarenes and those looking in, from the outside. Some perceptions have been earned by methods of the past, and some have to do with the individuals’ own issues. Regardless, it is important to be introspective as we learn how to welcome the lost and those who have lost their way. I believe that it is possible for walls to come down, allowing people to embrace who we are without changing our principles and values.
There are two main types of non-churched people that I have dealt with in our area. There are those who have no concept of who we are or for what we stand, and there are those who think they know exactly who we are. Many people find it difficult to grasp who we are and feel like they may not be able to measure up. Also, there are those who have built up walls, because their run-in with holiness appeared to them as legalism. The perception that some have is that the people of the Church of the Nazarene are driven by rules, too judgmental, and believe that they are “perfect”. There are many who used to call the Church of the Nazarene their home, but have left the church. Many have expressed that their past experiences gave them the view that there was a great deal of focus on legalistic issues. There may be some validity to these thoughts, but that doesn’t tell the entire story of the great heritage,caring pastors, and good people that typify the Nazarenes of this area.
A Biblical Response (Psalms 24 and John 8)
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalms 24:3-4 ESV). Preaching this to the two different non-churched groups above might be enhanced by acknowledging that “clean hands” has often been understood in a legalistic context. I have used John 8:1-11 with Psalms 24 with our gathering to show what Jesus expects from us.
1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap,in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stoneat her.”8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Briefly, there are two main points in John 8 that provide a roadmap of how God wants us to respond:
1. Jesus demonstrated that he expects clean hands (vs. 11).
Clean hands are important to God as they demonstrate obedience to His will and show the world that there is, indeed, power to live the Christian life. Just as Jesus called the woman to leave her life of sin, so there are biblical imperatives that Jesus calls us to follow, regardless of what it may cost. There are also guidelines that the church has adopted that identify pitfalls and practices that detract from moral character. Failure to acknowledge the relationship between imperatives and church guidelines is what has led to skepticism and caused many of the perception issues that we face today. Although denominational guidelines rarely attract anyone to our doorstep, our people will eventually deal with them. We must help them understand that our guidelines aren’t there to make Nazarene’s exclusive or to be a denomination based on rules. The goal is that the church’s collective wisdom and biblical understanding will help lead people in the direction of the clean hands that Jesus calls us to. We do this because God desires for his people to live in freedom.
2. Jesus wants clean hands and pure hearts (vs. 7).
Jesus called the Pharisees out when they were about to take harsh action for the woman’s offense. The men in verse 7 may have understood Jesus to be speaking to the immediate situation by, in essence saying, “You who haven’t thought about doing the same thing with this woman; throw the first stone.” Jesus pointed his finger right where they were living. These were people who understood the code of conduct, had the rules down pat, and followed them to the letter of the law. The only problem was that their identity was wrapped up within following their own religious code externally and didn’t make it a matter of the heart internally. Jesus turns the tables on all those who get caught up in enforcing moral code outwardly, but don’t understand that all of our attempts to be holy outside of having a pure love for God inwardly, and by being filled with His Spirit fall short of what He desires.
APPLICATION IN MY CURRENT MINISTRY SETTING
Identifying with those who have no clue who we are or what we stand for:
Growing up in the Church of the Nazarene is my normal. Many of us who grew up in the church know where the formal and informal lines are drawn. When it comes to the words and actions that are considered taboo, those who have been in it long enough know how to keep the “code” (lifestyle issues innately understood by lifelong Nazarenes). God must stretch those who want to reach and keep people who haven’t been brought up the same way. They don’t accept the rules as readily as “lifers” in the Church of the Nazarene. They want to know why we take stances on certain things and ask us to find real and true Scriptural basis for the lines we have in place. They are reluctant to accept the idea that not smoking a cigarette or abstaining from alcohol is a holy requirement when there has never been a word in the Manual about chocolate!
Starting a new church with a new mindset isn’t easy, regardless of the geography, because there has to be sensitivity given when it comes to handling and talking about the protocol that long-time holiness people are used to. The danger of knowing the set of norms too well in any church setting is that it can become the litmus test of Christian devotion. Even though we may love people who are different, often we can keep people at arms-length until they have mastered the prescribed lifestyle. Only then can they be allowed to be a truly integral part of our ministries.
Al Winseman in his book, Growing The Engaged Church, explains that engagement in ministry is often what spurs people forward towards Christ-likeness. To take it one step further, he is saying engagement often leads pre-Christians to become fully devoted followers. If the church becomes the place where only those who know the code feel comfortable and needed, then the core of the church has turned into the Pharisees that Jesus warned about in the Scripture.
The people who don’t know who we are need to see love in action and then be able to participate. They need to see holiness lived out from those who have pure hearts overflowing with love and compassion for those who are bound in sin. I found it interesting to visit Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, CA many years ago and discover how they responded to one of the social issues of our day. They chose to be true to their convictions on homosexuality issues, but spoke love to their community by being one of the greatest helps in their area when it came to caring for and combating AIDS. The people of that area will experience the love of the Saddleback people long before they ever step foot in the church to hear the commands and expectations of the Lord.
Connecting with those who think they know exactly who we are
Our desire is that those who are deeply involved and connected in their own church would remain active and growing where God has placed them. However, there are many who have disassociated themselves from the church or are loosely connected somewhere. Some of these people are dealing with issues that they and God need to deal with. There are many who have negatively viewed the Church of the Nazarene, because their vantage point made them see piousness instead of love made perfect. We must help those who think they know who we are to see things in a way that makes them look again.
The start of the Church of the Nazarene is interesting, as out of many, we became one. This happened with a lot of different groups debating and arguing over many issues. Some of the issues led our first assembly to some interesting moments. Phineas Bresee did his best to point our church to the belief that rules were much less significant than the power of the Holy Spirit. He preached that once the Holy Spirit got hold of someone, then their lifestyle habits would follow. Dr. Bresee was hitting on the very thing that our church is trying to embrace today in order to win back those looking on from the sidelines. Our preaching and our church’s culture must have the tenor and the tone that draws people to holiness of heart with the belief that He is the one who will cleanse them from the inside out. God is calling all of our churches back to what we do best: Loving the ungodly. We must help heal hurts of the past where some good and godly people thought that reproach was the best way to deal with people. What was most often missed was that it grieved the heart of God as much to see judgment from the believer as it did to see the person who was blatantly sinful in their actions.
Every pastor must take his or her cultural setting into account, but many of us who have perception issues need for the people around us to take a second look and realize that rules aren’t our religion. The “code” isn’t the goal of Christianity. “Perfection” needs to be looked at again as a state of devotement, not a state of infallibility. We can reclaim those who have misunderstood sanctification as a standard to achieve, and proclaim the point that we are sanctified because God is making His appeal to the world through us!