By Stan Friedman
ST. PAUL, MN (June 24, 2010) – In 1885, a group of 62 delegates from a Swedish immigrant background gathered in Chicago, inspired to start a new movement.
Tonight more than 1,300 people from around the world attended the opening worship service of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s 125th Annual Meeting at the St. Paul RiverCentre. Click here for video coverage.
They celebrated the past while also being exhorted to face the challenges of the future – challenges as ancient as those faced by the apostle for whom this city is named.
The night evidenced the expansion of the denomination. The service opened with a procession of missionaries and leaders of international Covenant churches carrying flags of the countries where they serve. Students from Alaska Christian College performed. The Community Covenant Choir provided a prelude of gospel songs.
Long-term and short-term missionaries were commissioned. The worshipers gathered around them throughout the room to pray.
Drawing from Galatians 2:1-10, President Gary Walter exhorted the gathering to address three critical challenges that have faced Christians since the gospel was first proclaimed: to share a gospel of unconditional love, to be inclusive of different cultures, and to live compassionately and justly.
Paul had to confront Judaizers, who wanted to overlay the good news of God’s grace with Jewish law that they contended believers still must follow, Walter said.
“For Paul the theme is grace alone,” Walter said. “For the Judaizers it was grace plus effort. For Paul, it’s ‘I’ve got some good news;’ for the Judaizers it is ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’ For Paul, it is God accepts us right where we are. For the Judaizers it was clean up your act first.”
Walter added, “If the Judaizers were to win out, the gospel was no gospel at all. God’s unmerited love would be tied to our earning it.”
Many Christians are afraid to do evangelism, a word that has become laden with false connotations. “Evangelism is simply recognizing that in addition to the searching heart of God, there is a longing heart within each and every person yearning to know that there is more to life than what is going on around them, that they are loved unconditionally by the very God of the universe.”
Walter asked, “In following the heart of God into the world, how are you, how is your church, helping those far from God to hear from God: ‘I know you, I love you, and you were meant for this relationship?’ ”
The evangelistic outreach also means being open to welcoming different cultures into the church. Walter noted that Paul had been called to evangelize Gentiles, people who had been outsiders.
In the same way, “The Covenant has been committed to being about the whole map of the mission,” Walter said.
“One of the very earliest decisions of the Covenant was to send missionaries to China and Alaska. We jumped, like most groups, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.”
That commitment has changed the face of the Covenant. “In fact, if you were to gather together all of the hundreds of thousands of people from around the world connected to the Covenant in one way or another, the most common person you would run into would be a Congolese woman who speaks Lingala,” Walter said.
“Our friends from Congo really liked that illustration,” Walter quipped.
The cross-cultural mission is not focused only on traveling to the ends of the world, but also reaching people from the ends of the earth who have come to North America. Because of that commitment, the denomination is one of the most diverse in the United States, Walter added.
He asked, “In following the heart of God into the world, will you cross cultures nearby and far away as you do, even when it is uncomfortable, because at the cross we see our common worth, that Christ died for all?”
That missional work also will mean living out the same commitment as Paul to doing compassion, mercy, and justice. He quoted Galatians 2:10, in which Paul recounted of church leaders’ reaction to his ministry. “All they asked was that I should remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.”
Walter added, “We cannot affirm the centrality of the Word of God, and at the same time dismiss one of the central themes of the Word of God.”
He acknowledged that determining the best way to live out that theme is difficult. “There are no easy answers. I have tried to find them and I can’t. But just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we don’t do the things we can.”
Doing mercy always has been central to the mission of the Covenant, Walter said. “One of the very first missional decisions of the Covenant following its founding was to band together to establish the Home of Mercy. In a society that had not yet created safety nets, these poor immigrants banded together to help those even poorer and more at risk.”
That decision has lead to the development of two hospitals, a network of retirement communities, several group homes for the adult handicapped, initiatives in world relief and human trafficking – and on and on it goes.
“In following the heart of God into the world, will you, will your church, not just speak about the compassionate love of God? Will you live it out just as surely? Will you help the hurting and address the causes of that hurt?
Walter added, “In case you haven’t noticed, the world is tired of angry and cranky evangelicals. And so am I.
“We can show – the Covenant can show – the world a renewed kind of evangelicalism, not that arrogantly and angrily shakes a stick at people in anger, but that takes the cross in love and hope and courage into the pain of this world, just like our evangelical forebears in the 1800s, whose faith compelled them to be at the forefront of abolition and suffrage and temperance (we’d call it addiction today), and education, and care for the sick, and care for the handicapped and care for the elderly.”
Walter concluded by exhorting the attendees, to “dream no small dreams in seeking God’s compelling future. And in dreaming those dreams, may we do so not arrogantly, but simply as obedient, humble servants. That’s who we are at our best. That’s who you are at your best.”