Friday, July 23, 2010

Seminary Stereotypes, Concerned Nazarenes, and the Emergent Church

I am a student at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. In recent months, I (along with several other students) have fallen prey to demeaning stereotypes and generalizations. I am sharing these cases for two reasons 1) It makes me mad when people stereotype me and 2) Make public the erroneous stereotypes that are being made in hopes to correct the problem.

Stereotype #1: The only thing seminary students care about is seminary. I was recently interviewing for a second job at another Nazarene Institution (my first job being Community Outreach Pastor at Victory Hills Church of the Nazarene). Right in the middle of the interview, the woman interviewing me went off on a long monologue: You moved here to go to seminary and that's your main focus, I need to hire someone who will be focused on this job. And of course you're graduating in two years and I don't want to hire someone who is going to leave in a year or two, because it takes a long time to train someone. (Paraphrase) She assumed that the only reason I moved to Kansas City was to attend NTS (which it's not). She also assumed that my tenure here in Kansas City was necessarily contingent upon my graduation from NTS (which it's not).

Stereotype #2: Seminary students who are on staff at a church during seminary are students first and pastors second. They are only on staff because they need a job while in seminary. I've heard mixtures of this from various pastors, professors, and lay people alike. Some individuals who are enrolled in seminary might actually see themselves as pastors first and students second (like me!).

Stereotype #3: All students at NTS are a part of the Emerging Church Movement and are, therefore, heretics. There are several members of the Nazarene church who are concerned by what they call "The Emergent Church." The members of this group have called anyone who belongs to or supports this group "naive and ignorant" and have called the "movement" heretical. Several Nazarene Institutions have been targeted by this group. Some dialogue politely about their concerns, others are quite rude and un-Christlike. The difficulty is, there isn't really such a movement; the "Emergent Church" doesn't exist as any type of structured "invasion" of the Church of the Nazarene or the Church Universal in any way. What seems to be happening is that any belief that is contrary to an extremely conservative interpretation of Scripture (perhaps even Fundamentalist) is being called "Emergent." My latest read included political liberals (democrats), process theologians, environmental activists, and experiential worshippers into one category -- emergent (although they have very little in common). Obviously there is a problem here. The moment we equate orthodox Christian theology to a political party of the United States of America we have gone beyond what Scripture declares as Christian-living. ((The Bible says absolutely nothing about patriotism and the early Christian church didn't even allow its members to serve as soldiers -- the occupation held in the highest esteem in American Culture...Christ's Church is both global and universal and is not synonymous to any nation or political party. We are citizens of a Kingdom of a different kind and should never elevate a single nation above any other -- for all people of all nationalities are equal in God's sight and can have an equal part in the Body of Christ, should they accept Christ as Lord (Iraqis, North Koreans, Communists, and Socialists alike)) A second problem with the "Concerned Nazarenes" is that many of its members base their concerns and feelings upon the words of others and do not investigate the matter themselves. For example, I have read that some believe that Rob Bell a heretic. I am assuming this is because he brings up some alternative interpretations of Scripture in some of his writing. However, if one did any biblical research from any of the main commentaries that have come out in the last 20 years or so (with the exception of Fundamentalist-type Commentaries), he/she would see that Rob Bell is one of the most Scriptural Preachers in the forefront of Christianity today. (The New Interpreter's Bible, New Beacon Bible Commentary, etc). Since many members of this group of concerned Christians learn and pass on information by word of mouth, the movement resembles a childhood came of "telephone;" the message starts off clear, but gets altered or exaggerated along the way.
To be sure, some of the concerns of this group are legitimate. From the little I've heard about process theology, for example, I too have concerns about this theological stance. However, we must not forget who we are as a denomination. The Church of the Nazarene is a Wesleyan church that believes that the Bible is inerrant theologically (every thing having to do with our relationship with God), it is not primarily a scientific or historical book. This has been the stance of the denomination since its birth -- "In the essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity" (Bresee). Any theological stance that is not biblical when utilizing the Wesleyan way of reading Scripture (Scripture, as the revelation of God, is authoritative as it is interpreted by tradition, reason, and experience) we should be concerned about. But if the same stance is a viable option in Scripture (such as the Democratic party's care of the poor or social justice), we cannot name it heretical. The Church of the Nazarene has never been a Republican, Fundamentalist, or Calvinist denomination. In hoping to "save the denomination" we cannot try to make it something that it never was to begin with. "We are a Christian People. We are a holiness people. We are a missional people." (I will surely be writing more on this broad topic in the future)
Some have concluded that since NTS is under scrutiny these days, that all (or at least most) of the students must be heretics. It is often assumed that when an institution has a professor that believes differently than "the norm," that all of the students must believe the same way. Indirectly, this belief implies that the young people of our denomination are not able to hold on to their own biblical beliefs if a professor teaches something differently.

Stereotype #4: Seminary students are un-professional. In the same interview I mentioned before, the woman interviewing me was surprised to see me in a suite because she often sees seminary students in jeans when they come for meetings. She felth that this is tacky and inappropriate.

Clearing Up Some of These Stereotypes:
1) Seminary is only one portion of my life, not the whole thing
2) My ministry at Victory Hills is more important to me than my schooling
3) If "The Emergent Church" did really exist as a movement as described by those who have named it, I would still not be properly labeled "emergent" and absolutely not "a heretic"
4) I am just as capable of being professional as any other person
I am a seminary student. I do not fit the stereotypes. Thus, the generalizations are false.

What is the Solution:
1) The first and most obvious is: don't make generalizations!
2) If you hear a generalization, don't pass it on
3) Talk to me, get to know me. If you and I talked about theology for even a few minutes, you would find that I am "in love with" the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and am among the first to test any belief with Scripture.
4) Christians are constantly thinking, writing, growing closer to Christ, and learning new things about who God is and what Scripture says. If you want to take part in theological conversations, it is always helpful to be reading both foundational works of the past and insightful works of the present.
5) Never make a judgment about a person until you get to know them (or at least talk to them about the subject)
5) This is my most blunt solution, and I am quite sad that it even needs to be said: Publicly insulting and ridiculing other people (Christian or nonChristian) should never be a part of a Christian's search for truth or expression of concern. There is no simply no excuse for a Christian to utilize such hurtful and disrespectful language.


  1. good stuff. thank you.

    personally, i find myself aligned with both the nazarene church and the emergent movement.

    i wouldn't find it hard to believe that many of these same things may have been said about luther or wesley (if not exactly, at least in concept).

    i think that, simply stated, we need to stop being so frightened. if you believe something different than me, let's dialogue.
    because truth shines light into the darkness, and if i am incorrect or misinformed, revelation will occur as truth is revealed to me.
    as christians, i think we believe we have some kind of strangle hold on 'the truth' and we can do what we want with it. but in reality, it should be the other way around. the truth should have a hold of us...

  2. Keith,
    This was wonderful and sad.

    I miss seeing you guys, I hope you like your baby okay!

  3. Excellent post. Very well-written and thoughtful... I definitely agree!


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