I’ve noticed that many who self-identify as emerging or emergent Christians emphasize following Jesus, pursuing Jesus’ way, or living a life that imitates Jesus. I like this emphasis.
Of course, there are other aspects of being a Christian too. Christianity is also a social movement, affirms various beliefs, pursues particular practices, and involves institutions and organizations. But there seems something profoundly true about being committed first to following Jesus’ way of loving God and others and second to Christian institutions, creeds, and rituals.
The emergent/emerging Church voices have their critics, of course. Some criticisms are justified, but many more are not. I’m especially unimpressed when critics blast emerging/emergent church leaders for seeking new language, strategies, and methods to present the Christian good news.
I ran across a reprinted newspaper report recently that caught my attention. The report was of a sermon preached by an early Church of the Nazarene leader.
As I read, I noticed similarities between the leader’s sermon and the emerging/emergent church’s emphasis upon following Jesus. Here’s what the early Nazarene preacher said:
Notice that Christ does not say: “Accept the creed which I frame; observe the church forms or rituals I devise; join the church which I have found.” He only said, “Follow Me.” It is as though he had said, “Come, live my life with me.”
What does it mean? It means that Christianity is not a creed, not an ecclesiasticism, not a ritual, but a life.
It is this simple Christ life, which the world hungers for, and which gives birth to the cry that goes up from all lands: “We are tired of forms and creeds. Let us go back to Christ.”
It is this Christ life that we are to take out with us and teach and live in this city mission work that is our chosen field.
Yet the present question has been asked, “Why not do this work under present church lines with their machinery, instead of forming a new organization?” The question contains its own answer. It is because of the machinery. The churches are steadily withdrawing from this field.
Folks in the Church of the Nazarene congregation wouldn’t – and couldn’t – embrace every statement or idea advocated by those self-identified as “emerging” or “emergent.” Diversity abounds. I reported in an earlier blog about a letter from a denominational general superintendent seeking to identify differences and similarities between the denomination and the emerging/emergent church.
But there is a strong connection between the spirit of the early Church of the Nazarene and the cry for transformation arising from the emerging/emergent movement. The denomination and the movement share common cause and similar desires.
I also see similarities between critics of the early Church of the Nazarene and critics of the present-day emergent/emerging church. I have a hunch contemporary critics of the emerging/emergent church would have been among those criticizing the newly formed holiness denomination more than 100 years ago!
By the way, the leader whose sermon I quoted (and pictured above) is the very person who coined the denomination’s name, “Church of the Nazarene.” He was Dr. J.P. Widney, second president of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and the founding dean of the USC School of Medicine.
Even more interesting is that the quotation above comes from the very first sermon preached at the newly organized Church of the Nazarene congregation. Widney’s words above were reported in the Los Angeles Times after the congregation’s 1895 formation.
It seems accurate to say that a central theme in the very first sermon of the first Church of the Nazarene congregation – following Jesus’ way – is a central theme in the emerging/emergent church. And although it’s anachronistic to say it, J. P. Widney may be rightly regarded as the first emergent/emerging member of the Church of the Nazarene!
At the end of the day, I think history is of secondary importance. It matters, of course. But what matters more is that we follow Jesus.
But I hope I have reminded those in my own tradition that our birth and roots are not so different from the emergent movement we see arising today.
May we all seek to follow Jesus!
By Thomas Jay Oord
From his blog, re-posted with permission