Last week I participated in the 2015 Midwinter ministers’ conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church. During the day, I took part in a Covenant History course, required for my ordination in the Covenant. This week I had to write a reflection paper on my class experience, so I thought I would share it on my blog as well.
Our family became acquainted with the Covenant after a difficult parting from our previous denomination. Admittedly, we were seeking a “better” church tradition, so it is no surprise that we were enamored at first. We probably looked over many Covenant faults and failings too. But over the last 18 months, we have been consistently and graciously “grafted in” via several pastors, missionaries, and church-planters. The Covenant History class was a great orientation for those becoming a part of this ongoing history.
The Covenant is a church that draws particularly from the Pietism stream of the Protestant Reformation. Their ancestors were primarily hard working common people in Sweden. They were Lutheran state church members who were awakened to a more responsive and experiential faith in the 1700 and 1800s.
At first, these Christians organized in “conventicles,” or small lay gatherings (i.e. sans priest or church building). They remained under that structure and confession of the Swedish Lutheran church… at least until tensions grew. These vibrant groups were eventually outlawed in the early 1700s, lasting until 1858.
Swedish immigrants brought their pietistic sensibilities to the United States in the 1800s. This ethnic community continued to develop around the conventicle or “mission societies” in America. In fact, they took the name “Mission Friends” and became involved in ministries of evangelism, caring for orphanages and immigrants and sending out missionaries.
Covenant affirmations today reflect their earliest pietistic values. The church affirms:
- Centrality of the word of God
- Necessity of new birth
- Commitment to the whole mission of the Church
- The Church as the fellowship of believers
- A conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit
- The reality of freedom in Christ
But, it is not these theological affirmations that make the Covenant unique today. Many movements hold dearly to some or all of these same affirmations (including my denomination of birth). What makes the covenant unique today is their elasticity in ministry. What began as a small immigrant church has recreated itself as a vibrant, multi-ethnic, and gender balanced church, focused on living out a robust Gospel in society.
This was not always evident however. The church faced an identity crisis when the first generation of Swedes in America gave way to a second generation. Challenges of modernism, fundamentalism, and extreme American revivalism pressed in on the church’s Swedish Lutheran and Pietistic spirit.
Ultimately, the church was able to harness valuable skills learned from their European experience. In Sweden, they learned to negotiate their Lutheran values with a Pietistic pulse beating strongly at a time of rapid social change. They learned to create middle roads, “both-and” solutions.
This ability transferred to the US and is vividly seen in the 1885 meeting establishing the group. Three paths emerged for the group to follow:
1) Lean in toward their Lutheran roots (they would have likely become a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America)
2) Follow a Free Church path (as was the case of the Evangelical Free Church of America)
Or, 3) Be absorbed into the rapidly growing Congregational movement (a very tempting route for any immigrant group ready to take on a more American identity and polity).
Each option had its drawbacks and could have been devastating to the group’s ethos.
So… they simply created their own path forward and established the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant of America (quite a mouthful, but I’m sure it was much shorter in Swedish).
In Modern Times…
The Covenant has demonstrated remarkable plasticity. They have championed the cause for women in ministry, racial righteousness in the church, as well as ministries of mercy and justice (compassion and social justice concerns). The Covenant claims to be:
- Evangelical, but not exclusive
- Biblical, but not doctrinaire
- Traditional, but not rigid
- Congregational, but not independent
Where as much of the American church has fallen into either theological fundamentalism or liberalism, the Covenant is postured somewhere in the middle. When the church was pressured to decide between infant baptism followed by confirmation (as with other Lutherans) or believer baptism… they decided to adopt a both/and position, recognizing the merits and limits of both traditions.
Another Lutheran throwback is their sacramental focus on the Lord’s Supper. Additionally, liturgy is not a dirty word in the church. Neither is being relevant and contemporary. The Covenant Book of Worship provides a guide for rich and creative liturgical services drawing from a number of church traditions (including Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) and the atmosphere is often as that of any other Evangelical church service.
Posture for the future
The Covenant church also makes it easy for outsiders to find their way in to the center of activity in their denomination. Ministerial events are welcoming and affirming. Clear channels exist for ministerial credentialing and service.
I believe the Covenant is well positioned to reach those who are tired of rigid conservatism or stale mainline confessionalism. The Covenant will also be a welcome place for those more socially minded or ill at ease with more politically nuanced Evangelicalism. They are not hung up on a literal hermeneutic (interpretation) of Scripture and allow room for difference where Scripture allows it. They are also not anti-education and have a high standard for ministerial credentialing. A master’s degree in theology or divinity is a minimum standard for full ordination as well as completion of the official Covenant Orientation (four additional classes on Covenant history, theology and practice).
The Covenant considers themselves Apostolic (in that they hold to the teaching and witness of the Apostles concerning Jesus), Catholic (in that they are a part of the universal and historical Church), Reformational (in that they adhere to Reformation ideals like justification by faith, priesthood of the believer etc.) and Evangelical (in that they have that pietistic missional impulse and highly value spiritual rebirth).
Much of their ethos is wrapped up in this guiding verse,“I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts” (Psalm 119:63).