Growing up, my siblings and I were often told we were going to hell.
My father is a Nazarene pastor, and I attended his church until the day I left home. Growing up in the church seemed great. I had friends, community, music, food, and weekly sermons. Being homeschooled, the church also provided social and spiritual fulfillment I wouldn't have had otherwise. The lessons I learned through the church informed my worldview; they were also the only lessons I received. It wasn't until I left my parent's watch that I realized how backward my worldview had been.
The Nazarene church is a conservative Christian evangelical denomination boasting over 2 million members globally. Here in the Treasure Valley, there is a prominent Nazarene college (Northwest Nazarene University) and nearly 20 Nazarene churches. The church officially banned social dances until very recently (they were deemed too scandalous), and many other commonly accepted social ideas are still taboo within the Nazarene community today. LGTBQ people, especially younger people, are criticized, talked down to, and prayed over as if they are "misguided," or simply "going through a phase."
Supporting my gay friends in high school was enough to be told I would go to hell with them. For anyone raised in a conservative Christian church, this is unfortunately normal. All of my LGBTQ friends have had incredibly negative encounters with "church people," and all of them were told they are going to hell for who they are.
Because I grew up in the church, I regularly encountered judgment from these same "church people." Criticisms ranged from my hairstyle and clothes, to the friends I brought to church. Being criticized so often, I learned to roll with the punches; however, I also heard judgments directed at social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights. Whether in whispered conversations about "the gays taking over" or shouted from the pulpit, these comments were much harder to shake.
There is an obvious disconnect between Christians and their holy texts. The Bible's New Testament is the entire foundation for Christianity, and the whole book emphasizes love and acceptance of social outsiders. Jesus regularly spent time with thieves, prostitutes, outcasts, and everyday blue-collar workers, while condemning the corrupt leaders of the church. Despite that, the church I grew up in had strange blatant hypocrisy. On the one hand, Church leaders told us to evangelize and invite people in; on the other, I would hear harsh judgments directed at visitors who didn't understand how to act "correctly" in a church. There are unwritten dress codes, times to stand and sit, times to be silent, and times where the congregation is expected to speak. No one ever explains these rules, but god forbid someone breaks one. There were underhanded remarks about how someone looked, acted, smelled, or sang in such an event. Unfortunately, I was not an innocent bystander in this; I was as guilty as the rest. Even though the gossip was "wrong" somehow, our church culture allowed it. Visitors coming in off the street were talked about behind closed doors by these "Christians" using a holier-than-thou tone. "That dress is NOT long enough!" "He looks like one of those bleeding-heart liberals!" These criticisms were often related to a stance on widely accepted beliefs, such as acceptance of anyone who is LGBTQ.
The Nazarene Handbook, which includes all of the rules set by the highest elected officials in church leadership (updated every five years), currently states: "the practice of same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to God's will for human sexuality." This stance among the Nazarene church comes from the top down, which means each church within their jurisdiction must hold to the same beliefs. However, recently there has been a paradigm shift. Individual Nazarene communities are moving away from the archaic views of the church leadership.
When I asked Sam, a local Nazarene pastor, about the stigma surrounding the modern church, she had this to say: "There's definitely a stigma, but I'm going to tell you right now it's definitely been earned." When we first met, Sam and her family were brand new in the Treasure Valley, and she had plans to become a Nazarene pastor one day. She's since gotten her undergraduate degree and is currently working towards her Masters of Divinity from Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa.
On top of her busy school schedule, Sam is also an associate pastor at a Nazarene church in Boise and a busy mother. I wanted to know what drew her to the Nazarene church in particular. "The more I dug into the main doctrines, the more I fell in love with the church. We're big on social justice, which is what Jesus was all about if you look at the scriptures," she said. "We've had our sign bashed in a few times because it said "refugees welcome."
"Jesus' teachings don't just fit neatly into a political party," Sam says. "But there's an expectation that if you're a Christian, you're probably also a conservative republican, and you believe x, y, z…." Pastor Sam firmly believes the "American Evangelical" church went wrong when it began getting involved in political partisanship.
Sam tells me she's more often than not labeled as a liberal by "old-school" Christians. "Considering recent events, I no longer disagree, but I actually consider myself regressive." By this, she means she's "regressed" back to the original teachings of the Bible. Sam points out that Jesus was very progressive for his time, and somewhere along the last 2000 years, Christians seem to have forgotten that fact. "The reason I shrink away from the 'liberal' label isn't that I necessarily disagree, but more because it's become so partisan, and that partisanship is against what I believe." As things currently stand, Pastor Sam could lose her position within the church if she makes her "liberal" beliefs known to the wrong church leaders.
From the outside looking in, it's hard to reconcile this kind of modern Christianity with biblical teachings. Jesus is the defining figure of Christianity, and he was opposed to political partisanship. The only time he becomes violently angry is in response to free- market capitalists setting up shop in a temple. It seems contradictory then that so many modern "Christians" are so staunchly Republican. There is a common association between "Christians" and anti-immigration policies, homophobia, xenophobia, and anti- environmentalism in our modern society. In the New Testament, we see hundreds of verses condemning hypocrisy within the church, and not even a handful mentioning homosexuality. These outdated beliefs are remnants of a bygone era in the U.S., yet we still feel the repercussions in our government and some areas of our society.
In 2015 following the federal legalization of gay marriage in the U.S., the Church of the Nazarene put out an official statement that read: "We remind our people that while the civil law of yet another country has changed, divine truth has not changed. We will learn how this civil definition functions within the context of our constitutional and religious
This stance has not officially changed in the past six years, so while individuals within a church may believe in equal rights, the official view of the Nazarene church does not. Therein is one of the more challenging aspects of the evangelical church. Even within the same denomination (Nazarene, Baptist, Methodist, etc.), you may encounter wildly different beliefs depending on the church building you enter. So while an LGBTQ person will be safe walking into Sam's church, they may encounter problems attending another Nazarene church. It's unfortunately still a toss-up whether a congregation will be accepting and loving, or condemning and judgmental. Sam and the other leaders within her church actively preach against this judgment." But you can't just police everyone either," she says. "We try to create an environment where we can have constructive conversations for people to disagree. It's okay to have different opinions."
But while Sam encourages discussion and "different opinions," these are major social hurdles to overcome. If a church member's "opinion" is that gay people are condemned to hell, that church is no longer a welcoming place. "All we can do is love on them and try to build those relationships one by one," Sam says. "It's hard to open the door to people when they've been hurt so badly by Christians in the past." Sam mentioned she has several LGBTQ teens within their youth group, and the older church folk love them to death. Unfortunately, this love still isn't universal.
Anti-LGBTQ sentiments may soon be a thing of the past as far as the Church of the Nazarene is concerned. According to Pastor Sam, their church is currently re-training church leadership and having difficult conversations about changing with the times. "We may not want to say it, but it may be too late for some pastors," Sam lamented. Because of her optimism and accepting personality, Sam should be the model for new Evangelical pastors across the board.
Although Sam's congregation seems to be doing all the right things, in the court of public opinion, the damage may already be done. According to Gallup, 2020 was the lowest year of church membership in the U.S. ever recorded. This poll included church, mosque, and synagogue memberships in their data. This trend has been on a consistent downward slope since the year 2000. This reduction in memberships has been linked to a decline in religious beliefs. On top of that, there is a widening gap between old conservative Christian ideas and modern social sentiments.
The Nazarene Handbook will be updated this year, and with it, the church leadership will set a precedent for the next five years. How they choose to handle social justice in this edition could decide the future of this denomination. I hope this newest addition sees a return to the love and acceptance demonstrated in the New Testament because I do miss the community. I miss the food, I miss the music, and I miss making nerdy friends who will drink coffee and talk about video games while ditching a sermon. What I don't miss is the hate. I don't miss the backbiting and gossip. I don't miss the hypocrites, the doomsday preachers, the exclusion, and the backward beliefs. I genuinely believe there is a place for religion in the modern world, and I cannot overstate the importance of community, but it should never come at the expense of others. If we can't meet and unify over a meal, music, or sermon without being unified in hate, there is no place for modern Christianity.
Personal Interview with Pastor Sam
Nazarene.org. "Board General Superintendents Releases Statement on Same-Sex Marraige." 2015
Nazarene.org. "Church Nazarene Statement on Marraige." 2012.
Jones, Jeffery. "Church Membership Falls Below Majority For First Time." Gallup.com. 2021.
Michael Tremain is a student and a writer. His focus areas include modern Christianity, earth stewardship, and sustainable practices.