Passionate, mission-minded, revivalistic, evangelical, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus that started in a Glory Barn believing in the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit… That’s who we are. It’s who we’ve always been. It’s what makes us unique.
For some time it seems we’ve been struggling with an identity crisis. Some within our tribe lean toward Pentecostalism, others toward Anglican traditions, and many are left somewhere in-between. As we wrestle with diversity I hope we’ll remember what makes us distinct. If we ever lose our distinctiveness, we’ll lose our identity altogether. If we lose our identity, the Church of the Nazarene as we’ve known it will cease to exist.
In the early 1900s, visitors of Dr. Phineas Bresee’s congregation in Los Angeles, CA often testified of the powerful expressions of God’s glory. It’s been said, “You never saw anything like it. The people sang and shouted and stood up and said they were sanctified, and it was the greatest thing you ever saw.” These holy encounters empowered early Nazarenes to go into the world much like the believers did in the Book of Acts.
Dr. Bresee and other founders believed the Methodist Church had moved too far away from the message of holiness. They considered the Church of the Nazarene a faithful return to this essential calling. Their vision was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the experience of entire sanctification to all of society.
Now that we’re four generations in, it may be a good time to take inventory. Pastor Corey Jones of Crossroads Tabernacle provides the following generational descriptions. Although I’ve expounded on some of these portrayals, if you’d like more information on Pastor Corey’s original accounts you can contact him through his website at www.ctgiveshope.com. Now, let’s talk about the generations of the Church of the Nazarene.
First Generation: The Pioneers
Early Nazarenes were pioneers: revolutionary leaders who pushed forward like Israel out of Egyptian bondage to Mount Sinai (Exodus 24). They were prophets: catalysts of the holiness movement. They experienced God’s Shekinah glory and were consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Like Isaiah in the temple, the pioneers had a holy encounter with a Holy God (Isaiah 6). The sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit inspired them to take the gospel to the world with passion and courage. Like the early believers who waited in the Upper Room, the pioneers experienced the manifest presence of God. Like the prophets of old, the glory burned in their bones.
The first generation began in the desert of desperation. They sacrificed everything. They lived with a holy discontent. The corporate cry of their heart reflected the desire of Moses toward God, “Show us your glory.” They were relentless in their pursuit of an ongoing encounter with the Holy Spirit. Holiness was not merely a message to be preached, it was a reality to be experienced.
One historian wrote the following about Phineas F. Bresee: “For Bresee, the only thing of importance was the Shekinah, the indwelling presence of God among the people. Shekinah, in Jewish literature, referred to the direct presence or glory of God, as in the Tabernacle, the Temple, or in Jerusalem. It is the word underlying Revelation 7:15, ‘He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.’ One of Bresee’s oft-spoken exhortations was ‘Get the glory down.’” (Carl Bangs)
Second Generation: The Propagators
The second generation of Nazarenes grew up in the glory like Joshua in the Tent of Meeting or Samuel in the Temple. They treasured it like a precious possession. Holiness of heart and life was their soul’s deepest desire. They were propelled by the vision of the first generation and believed everyone should encounter the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. Steadfast in their call to proclaim the experience of holiness, they believed it had the potential to transform all of society.
If the first generation were pioneers who spoke prophetically, the second were propagators devoted to expanding the message at all costs. This generation also lived with a holy unrest. They proclaimed holiness from coast to coast, border to border, and beyond.
The second generation witnessed a numerical explosion of people and churches. Along the way, the need arose to organize and perpetuate the message of entire sanctification. Therefore, pastoral and biblical training schools began to surface across the country. Schools like Peniel were founded to prepare holiness preachers.
Toward the end of this generation, General Superintendent, J.B. Chapman shared a message called, “All Out for Souls,” at a district superintendent’s conference in 1948. This message warned of declines being experienced in the church. Chapman called the leadership to come back to the altar of prayer and fasting.
Third Generation: The Perfectors
The third generation saw glimpses of God’s presence. They heard stories about the Glory Barn, but most never experienced it in the same way as the first and second generations. The third generation spoke largely of what they had heard. They received the holiness message as a heritage to be preserved.
This generation produced some of the greatest theologians in the history of the Church of the Nazarene. By default, with a new emphasis on perfecting the message, scribes replaced prophets. Increasingly, they spoke of what they had read more so than what they had experienced. The Holy Spirit became a doctrine to be articulated more than a Person to be encountered.
This generation shifted away from holy encounters toward intellectual understanding. Incidentally, the need to develop new strategies on how to grow churches began to materialize. Until the third generation, there had never before in the history of the movement been a focus on church growth.
During this period the Church of the Nazarene began to decline. The Department of Evangelism was renamed the Department of Church Growth. Ironically, when a movement has to start talking about growth, it typically means it’s stopped growing. When the church shifted away from focusing on God’s presence to methods of perfecting the doctrine of holiness and how to attract people to a building, it went into decline.
Fourth Generation: The Protestors
This generation, by and large, has never experienced the manifest presence of God. They have only heard whispers. The stories of God’s glory resonate like folklore with the fourth generation. Sadly, they have increasingly departed from the church. Many of those who have stayed have resisted the notion of a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit.
The fourth generation could easily be called one of protest. Although that’s not indicative of all, it’s not a secret that they often dispute the very things the first and second generations fought for and believed in. They also contest much of what the third generation wrote about, especially as it pertains to the experience of entire sanctification.
I’ve personally engaged conversations where some from this generation have called revivalism a “failed experiment.” They say that the American Holiness Movement has done more harm than good. They often leave me scratching my head. I wonder what Bible they’re reading that leaves them void of considering the manifest presence of God? It seems the primary convictions of the first generation have become the main points of debate for the fourth.
Generally speaking, this generation grew up with very little manifest presence of God. Thus, they protest something they’ve never experienced. They’ve heard messages about holiness without evidence. They’ve been told about entire sanctification devoid of an encounter with the Sanctifier. There is a form, but it denies the power.
This generation is hungry for an encounter. They’re desperate for God’s glory whether they realize it or not. They’ve sought his presence out of tradition rather than experience. Tradition has left them wanting. Sadly, we have lost the vast majority of this generation, not simply from the Church of the Nazarene, but from Christianity altogether.
How do we become a Holiness Movement again?
“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it…” Phineas F. Bresee preached this message from Jeremiah 6:16 as it related to the early Nazarenes. For Bresee, holiness is the ancient path. For the Prophet Jeremiah, the call to prayer is the first step.
So, here we stand, but what will we do?
Return to the ways of the pioneers. Become prophets that proclaim the possibility of an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Pray for an uprising of visionary leaders that are willing to do the hard work of blazing a new path in the spirit of the first generation.
I’m not calling for some irrelevant form of old-fashioned religion. In fact, I don’t think any of us have experienced God the way the first generation did. Yet, I believe it’s possible. Call me crazy, but I think we need the power and presence of the Holy Spirit more than we need anything else. Maybe we need to pay more attention to what’s happening in the southern hemisphere.
I’m advocating for something as new to us as it was to the first generation. If we get a glimpse of God’s glory we’ll never have another conversation about church growth. However, for this to become an authentic movement we must return to the abandoned altars of corporate prayer. We must unapologetically preach the experience of holiness and believe that the manifest presence of God has the power to change absolutely everything.
(Sources: “The Generations of the Church of the Nazarene and How We Lost the Glory” by Pastor Corey Jones; “Phineas F. Bresee” by Carl Bangs; “Our Watchword and Song: The Centennial History of the Church of the Nazarene” by Floyd Cunningham, ed.)
(Background: Rev. Corey Jones provides these generational descriptions. They are based on a vision he received in October 2010, 70 miles south of Pilot Point, Texas, 102 years after founding of the Church of the Nazarene)