Old Parish

I’ll have more here when I figure out which parts to port over. For now, here’s the most recent post.

You Keep Using That Word

Rather than try to address on facebook the conflict I have created concerning the Nazarene congregation that will soon be moving to my neighborhood, I thought it better to revive this tired, old blog, especially since it was central to my writing and thinking that led to my departure from the Nazarene church and Christianity. To recap quickly, the Midtown Nazarene Church has secured the old church facility at NW 8th and Lee in Midtown Oklahoma City, and they will spend the next year and approximately one million dollars (or more)–according to Doug Samples’s facebook post–refurbishing the old building. That alone should give everyone pause, but that is not the point of this response.

Midtown church

I heard of the purchase, and since Midtown/Downtown has been my home since October 2011, I commented on the desirability of what I called “an anti-LGBT, teetotaling denomination” in Midtown. Somehow, this description of the Nazarene denomination has met with consternation, and yet it is accurate. No one has quibbled with the teetotaling part of the description, as I think every Nazarene knows that the leadership of the church continues to enforce a restriction on alcohol over which Jesus himself would have surrendered his sanctification. It’s a silly, ridiculous restriction, and yet they seem to demand it be a tenet of the faith. Welcome to 1920, I suppose.

More important was my insistence that the Nazarene denomination is anti-LGBT. I’m not sure what else to call it. Are there congregations that “accept” LGBT persons in their community without insisting they undergo conversion therapy? Sure. Many Nazarene people have wisely decided that ungaying is not a reality, and may their tribe increase. However, offering hospitality to gay and lesbian people on an erratic, unpredictable, local-church basis is not even close to full inclusion, which is to say, not even close to treating them like human beings whose dignity is allegedly grounded in the character and nature of God.

As evidence of this openness, two commenters discussed the giving of water at the annual Pride Parade. While giving water to hot, tired people is certainly a gracious act, and I in no way want to say it’s not a ministry, it is also not necessarily pro-LGBT. If the final defense at the throne is, “Lord, we gave them water,” you might want to reconsider what form of Christianity it is that you are practicing.

Here’s the problem. The Nazarene denomination remains staunchly opposed to the full inclusion of LGBT people, because, and this is the entire basis of their anti-LGBT position, the leadership also believes that same-sex sexual acts are sinful. I honestly don’t want to parse this nonsense. I left the faith in 2006, not the Nazarene faith. I left in part because theism is incoherent, and it’s incoherent largely because of ideas like this one: God somehow gives a shit about what kind of sex happens between consenting adults. To call that primitive thinking would be kind.

The tradition–and that’s what we’re dealing with here–insists on a certain way of viewing the world. Opposition to the tradition can happen from within, and so can reform. However, to offer minor glimmers of light as a sign of overall health is hopeful to the point of delusion. Restrictive traditions generate opposition because sane, intelligent people fight the tradition on the way out. Many of them simply don’t know they are no longer actively members of the tradition, with the exception of the relationships they maintain within the community. They are not outliers nor do they occupy boundary positions; they are speaking from outside the traditions; they simply have not admitted it to themselves yet. There comes a point at which separation is the only thing that makes sense, but epistemological courage is not part of religious traditions, as a rule, and so they ultimately leave or stay and compromise, and not the compromise that leads to reform.

As I said to a friend who was trying to explain the Midtown congregation’s philosophy, “Traditions tend to take the dreams of the young and crush them.” It’s funny because it’s true. Traditions care more about the furtherance of the status quo than about change and growth, unless growth comes–in the manner of that noxious phrase “church growth movement”–by adhering to a cultural status quo, one that is defined by the parent culture of the religious tradition. Like it or not, this is what the grandfathers of church growth–Hybels and Warren–did. They were not revolutionaries or visionaries; they were men who understood the culture and helped the church conform to it for the sake of numbers. They were guilty of the Wittgentsteinian sin of attempting to combine the grammar and form of life from two radically different communities of reference.

And so this new congregation is “different.” Of course it is. Aren’t all church plants somehow different? They want to minister to the poor of the city. Noble. Honorable. Missional. Absolutely. And consistent with Nazarene roots. However, spending a million dollars to minister to Midtown is not exactly missional. It’s not even good logistical or strategic thinking. Do they think the poor can still afford to live in Midtown? Did they miss the wave of gentrification that drove the poor south and west? Off the top of my head, I count ten churches within a half mile of NW 8th and Lee–twelve if you count two congregations meeting in one building. Why does the area need another church? It’s mystifying.

Who else do they intend to reach in Midtown? The temple of misogyny that is the Acts 29 church on the east side of Midtown has already locked down all the cool kids and most of the creatives, including, inexplicably, women. The older professionals and remaining creatives are at St. Luke’s UMC, St. Paul’s Episcopal, or First UMC. Is it new growth they want? Excellent. And so to the importance of their tradition.

Telling Midtown and downtown dwellers that your tradition is teetotaling is sure to elicit confusion and laughter. That’s a minor issue, really. Parishioners do what they want, which for Nazarenes and Southern Baptists usually means drinking in spite of proscriptions from the leadership. More importantly is the values conflict over LGBT rights and equality. Any church that means to minister in an urban context dense with millennials has already lost the battle if their church leadership is not inclusive of LGBT persons in the fullest sense of the word. The conflict about LGBT rights, marriage, equality, etc., has already been decided, and traditional theists lost. If you are in ministry at a church and support inclusion but cannot make that happen in your church, you are no longer part of the tradition. The sooner you admit that to yourself, the happier you will be. If you are in favor of inclusion but fear the leadership’s response if you speak up, well, I guess I’m curious about your definition of “Christian.”

For now at least, the Nazarenes need to quibble less with me about whether or not they are anti-LGBT–they clearly are–and worry about how a tradition founded on holiness, sanctification, and care for the poor and marginalized generated “Christians” and superintendents and pastors who voted for Trump, how the percentage of pulpits filled by women does not come close to a fair representation of the number of women in the pews, how the church remains painfully, stubbornly white (there’s a clue about Trump voting in that statistic somewhere), and why they still proscribe behavior that Jesus himself was comfortable with. Seriously. You think you’re ready for Midtown? The denomination isn’t even ready for 1995.