Who We Are
Our church was organized on September 7, 1903 by a small group of persons of Scandinavian descent. In 1906 it was incorporated as “The Scandinavian Evangelical Mission Church.” Because of its membership in the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, in 1931 its name was changed to First Covenant Church.
The Evangelical Covenant is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois and traces its origin to the spiritual awakenings in Northern Europe. It has been from its pioneer beginnings to the present a non-creedal church. While affirming the principles of the Protestant Reformation, it bases its life and beliefs on this statement of faith, “We believe in the Holy Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, as the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.” We believe in a personal and vital relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord, brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is the prayer of the people of this congregation that you may know the joy of salvation which is ours through Jesus Christ and that through the warmth of our fellowship you may grow in God’s grace and love. Welcome to First Covenant Church. It is great to have you share in our worship and other activities.
The First Covenant church is a member of the Lake Superior District of the Northwest Regional Covenant Conference. Together with the other District churches we own and operate Covenant Park Bible Camp in Mahtowa, Minnesota. This summer camp provides children, youth, and adults programs to encourage a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. During the school year, various youth activities are sponsored by the camp for the district churches. Annually the district churches hold a missions conference. Foreign missionaries from the Evangelical Covenant visit the churches, sharing their mission work from areas around the world.
First Covenant Church is a member of the Virginia Area Ministerial Association. This association of local churches sponsors ecumenical gatherings such as, Good Friday worship service, National Day of Prayer gathering at the St. Louis County courthouse in Virginia, baccalaureate service at Virginia High School, and a Community Thanksgiving service. Together with the area churches, we assist in various community outreach efforts through the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency and the Salvation Army.
The Evangelical Covenant Church has its roots in historical Christianity as it emerged in the Protestant Reformation, in the biblical instruction of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, and in the great spiritual awakenings of the nineteenth century.
We are an apostolic church. We confess the historic faith of the apostles. We believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, our Savior and Lord. We accept the Holy Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, as "the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct."
We are a catholic Church.
We see ourselves to be part of the universal church of Jesus Christ from the days of the apostles until now.
We a are a Reformation church.
We stand in the mainstream of the sixteenth-century Protestant movement which insisted on justification by grace alone through faith alone.
We are an evangelical church.
We were born out of the revival movement that touched all of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and came to flower for us in nineteenth- and twentieth-century North America.
Appreciating this classical Christian heritage and hungering for an ever more vital experience of new life in Christ, Covenanters affirm a number of evangelical emphases.
Among these are:
The centrality of the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, as the authoritative Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct. We believe it is essential to the life of the Church that it be a company of people who want, above all else, that their lives be shaped by the powerful and living Word of God. The alternative is clear. Not to be shaped by the Word is to be shaped by the world.
The necessity of the new birth for entrance into God's kingdom, and the importance of continuing growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ for sound spiritual health. Jesus said, "Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). He also said, "If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:31-32).
The Church as a fellowship of believers, characterized by mutual participation in and sharing of the new life in Christ. Membership is by confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It is open to all believers. Considerations of class or race, education or pedigree, wealth or prestige do not enter. Uniformity in creedal details is not expected. What is required is that one be "born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). "The doors of the church are wide enough to admit all who believe and narrow enough to exclude those who do not," said our forebears. We affirm no less today.
The ministry of the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son calls the Church into being, empowers its witness, guides its mission, and supplies the gifts needed by the Church and its members to exalt Christ.
The reality of freedom in Christ, who delivers us from the power of sin and moves us by his grace into a whole new experience of obedience and life. This freedom creates an ecclesiastical climate which allows for differences of opinion in matters of interpretation, doctrine, and practice within the context of biblical guidelines and historical Christianity. Such freedom "is to be distinguished from the individualism that disregards the centrality of the Word of God and the mutual responsibilities and disciplines of the spiritual community" (Preamble to the Constitution).
Affirmations like these are not to be taken as creedal statements. They are rather to be understood as true and valid descriptions of what Covenanters believe and cherish as they continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of God, awaiting that day when "the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 11:15).
A fuller exposition of these principles is available in the Covenant Publications booklet Covenant Affirmations.
But perhaps it is most meaningful to say that The Evangelical Covenant Church is the custodian of four values which, when taken together, seem to be unique. Other denominations have one or more of these values, but no other groups appear to hold all four with the degree of commitment that characterizes the Covenant.
1) we are evangelical, but not exclusive;
2) we are biblical, but not doctrinaire;
3) we are congregational, but not independent;
4) we are traditional, but not rigid.
"Just what is the Covenant Church any way?" There are a number of ways to answer that question. The Covenant Church could be described in terms of statistics, or organizational structure, or doctrinal beliefs.
Evangelicalism is the direct heir of the Reformation. If there is one word that defines it, it is grace. Evangelicalism proclaims a gospel of grace as the only way to salvation; it treats the Christian life as an experience of grace; and it defines the church as a community of grace.
Evangelicalism was rediscovered by the great Reformation denominations - Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed - but it is not contained by them. It has overflowed into other movements, including the Covenant.
Unfortunately, evangelicalism also contains within it the seeds of exclusivism. Ever since the Reformation there have been attempts by the church to make our arguments foolproof and our congregations pure.
Some evangelicals have detailed the Christian life in manuals of discipline. Others have prescribed the experience of grace to make it conform to some sort of normative standard. Still others have drawn the boundaries tight around the community of grace, so that only those who conformed to a particular pattern of behavior, or who testified to a particular expression of the experience of grace, could be included.
But in addition to these "exclusive" evangelicals there are also "catholic" evangelicals (note the lowercase "c"). By conscious choice the Covenant places itself in this second group. There have always been exclusive evangelicals among us (we would hardly be catholic evangelicals if we didn't include them!), but our exclusive evangelicals cannot buttress their position with an appeal to church authority.
"Catholic" evangelical may be a new idea to you. It simply means a universal acceptance of all who are in Christ. An early Covenant leader wrote in 1910: "[The Covenant] maintains that the local church shall consist of only believing members, but at the same time have room for all believers without regard to their particular interpretation or controversial doctrinal teaching. This is to say that the local church shall in a great measure be a faithful portrait of God's Church at large." That is being a catholic evangelical!
The Covenant Church welcomes any baptized Christian into full membership on the basis of life and faith. There are many denominations where this isn't so:
Some exclude people because they haven't been immersed;
Some, because they impose standards of conduct to which the individual Christian's free conscience will not submit;
Some, because a person hasn't spoken in tongues;
Some, because a prospective member holds different views on the end-time.
Those who have equated evangelicalism with exclusivism may have difficulty understanding the Covenant Church, so our catholic evangelicalism needs explaining to those who are not used to it. But it has been with us from the beginning, and it is integral to an understanding of who we are.
From its founding the Covenant has been a biblical fellowship without entrenching particular interpretations of doctrine in its constitution.
Just as there are those who equate evangelical with exclusive, so there are those who equate biblical with doctrinaire.
We are biblical, which means:
There is a limitation on matters of doctrine. Nothing has validity in the areas of faith, doctrine, and conduct unless it accords with Scripture. We reject the notion that all "sincere religion" is on a par with what God has revealed in the Bible.
We give particular attention and prominence to what is clearly taught in the Bible, to what has been commonly taught in the Church since Pentecost, and both of these as reaffirmed in the Reformation.
We have the freedom to hear many interpretations of Scripture, and to enter into discussion when there is disagreement. We don't have to defend an "official" position.
Both clergy and laity are "Bible people." If we do not keep informed on the content and message of Scripture itself in each generation, we will have nowhere to stand.
Doctrinaire, on the other hand, means that the Bible is to be interpreted from a fixed doctrinal position. Though doctrinaire persons may have a firm belief in the Bible as the Word of God, they cannot in all cases allow the Bible to speak freely and clearly - for they have already made up their minds in these cases. Rather than allowing the Bible to test and correct their doctrine, their doctrine determines in advance what they are willing to hear from Scripture.
Ironically, believers often become doctrinaire at the least defensible points of their doctrinal systems. The clearer a biblical doctrine is, the less need there is to be doctrinaire about it, for there is common agreement as to its meaning. But as clarity and importance decrease, argument and dogmatism increase. Denominations and movements become founded on doctrinaire interpretations of a few passages of Scripture.
Sometimes people wonder if we aren't in danger of making private interpretation too important. We agree that personal opinion on the meaning of Scripture must be tested against other opinions in communal Bible study. The understandings of others who have gone before us and those who are our contemporaries must be given serious attention.
We also stand open to the accusation that we don't know where we stand. But in reply we must ask, isn't the Bible itself clear and dependable? Can it not be taken on its own terms as the Word of God? We stand where the Bible stands, wherever it stands. We don't tell the Bible what it should mean, or give confessional authority to interpretations upon which there is significant disagreement among Christians.
It is not common in church history to be biblical without being doctrinaire. That is why we dare to assert it as a distinctive.
Congregationalism is a representative democracy in which the final authority in the church's affairs lies with all the people, not with ministers and other officials. It can embrace a wide range of individual styles, from entire local church independence to a high degree of centralization.
Centrism in congregationalism does not imply a direct control over local churches. It involves a central control over the missions and ministries that the churches have in common. The denomination may have control of its missionary work, but it has no control over the mission work done by the local congregation.
The Covenant tends to be centrist in its congregationalism, because that is the reason it came into being. The people who have made the Covenant - past and present - have more than enough in common to carry on an effective mission together. Our purpose is to do things cooperatively that cannot be achieved by independent congregations. So the structure from the beginning, as today, is not around a person, or a system of government, or a doctrinal position. It is around mission.
The Covenant exists to make the mission and institutions we have in common as effective as possible. It doesn't interfere with the freedom of local churches to run their own local programs and property.
At each level in our structure the congregation of the people is the final authority on how the mission and institutions will operate at that level. The local church is a congregation; the regional conference is a congregation; and the denominational annual meeting is still another congregation. Each level is part of a whole and each level needs the others, but the entire structure runs on mutual promises and trust, not on one level reaching up or down to exercise legal control over another.
Independence stresses individual experience and local identity, often at the expense of a commitment to a larger body of believers. It values the present moment so highly that it devalues the history of the movement that brought it into being. The local church is severed from its ancestors.
Because of this it has no automatic commitment to a particular mission. Often it contributes to missions over which it has no influence at all.
Our distinctiveness does not lie in the form of our government. Other denominations are organized along similar, if not identical, lines. Rather, it lies in the degree to which we have established a strong central identity and mission without sacrificing the freedom of the local churches.
Tradition is that which is handed down to us from the past. This process is neither good nor bad. It simply happens. If we were not traditional we would spend our time reinventing what has already been invented and rediscovering what has already been learned. We are all content to be traditional when it comes to indoor plumbing and air-conditioning.
The Covenant Church is consciously traditional in its faith and practice. We do not change for the sake of change. On the other hand, we have usually rejected a form of tradition that can be called rigidity. Tradition says, "The old ways are good; we won't change until we can improve." Rigidity says, "The old ways are best; we will not change. In fact, the old ways are right; we must not change." Rigidity gives emotional and even constitutional authority to tradition.
Some parts of our Covenant heritage have faded because they do not fit our changing circumstances. But others remain because we have found them to be good, or instructive, or efficient, or beautiful. Among them are:
1) our distinctive hymns;
2) our high view of the sacraments;
3) our freedom in the practice of baptism:
4) our strong confirmation program;
5) our love for celebrative traditions; and
6) our recognition of the value of the "church year."
It is easy to fear tradition. But we must remember that even formlessness is itself a tradition. Our unity does not lie in all Christians having identical traditions, for that would mean changing history. It lies in our having the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism, the same God and Father of us all (Ephesians 4:5,6). The traditions listed above don't prescribe what must be in the Covenant; they describe what is that has come to us from previous generations.
This is not all there is of the Covenant. Much of what is in the Covenant today is new in our generation. But there are other parts that we cherish from our past as well.
We have been dealing with Covenant distinctives. The really important things of the Christian faith - salvation by faith and the incarnation, for example - are not Covenant distinctives. They are Christian distinctives. We hold these, and much more, in common with the whole Church of Jesus Christ.
Covenant distinctives are not nearly as important as Christian distinctives, but they are important in describing the way that we do things. They are values that have shaped our past; values that still motivate and inspire us as we move into our second century.
They are one way of answering the question: "Just what is the Covenant Church, anyway?"
Written by Everett L. Wilson and Donald Lindman
Copyright © 1988 by COVENANT PUBLICATIONS
3200 West Foster Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625
Phone: (312) 478-4676; 1-800-621-1290
A fuller exposition
I APPRECIATE THE COVENANT CHURCH by KENNETH V. LUNDBERG BARRINGTON, RHODE ISLAND
I am a Covenanter by birth and by reaffirmation. Raised in a Covenant home, circumstances of employment following college moved me into other church affiliations. Several years ago I came back, appreciative of my pilgrimage but grateful for the freedom and nurture I could once again experience in the Covenant. My pilgrimage had taught me that the toughest part of being a Christian is belonging to a church. The ultimate test of discipleship has been the growth struggle involved in becoming a part of the body of Christ.
This is one of the many paradoxes that fill the Christian life. Young Christians are often led to believe that the most severe test of one's committment to Jesus Christ will be living in the "world" - that the hard part about being a Christian is living the Christian life at school or on the job among non-Christians. Not so! It is relatively easy to work out reasonable accommodations within our secular culture. Our American culture is extremely tolerant of deviance. The committed Christian, like the devotees of hundreds of different causes, is just "doing his own thing."
The vital relationship demanded in the fellowship of believers is achieved by something other than accommodation. It involves a dying to self, taking up the cross (church membership?), and following him. It involves processes more familiar to the smelter or refiner than to the file-card arranger. No wonder the sensitive, thoughtful young Christian may often feel that it is easer to "go it alone."
Our founding fathers appreciated this difficulty and were moved to establish a denomination and constituent churches on the principle that the Gospel set men free from the stifling constraints of tradition and rule by the self-chosen few. The Christian believer needed a theology, an organizational polity, and forms of worship that nurtured spiritual growth for unique individuals in the sight of God, even while they supported the process of being knitted together into the fellowship, the body of Christ.
Our founding fathers believed that in God's holy design the individual held a sacred position and that this had been demonstrated by God's creation of man in his own image, by his grace in human history, and in the promise of our being transformed as heirs of God, from one degree of glory to another. God had placed upon man the responsibility of preserving the apparent tension between individuality and corporateness. We were to become one in the unity of the body of believers, without destroying or diminishing the freedom and dignity of the individual. In Christ we were to have the freedom to choose our own destiny, constrained only by his Lordship, his Holy Word, and a love for the saints.
This is a risky and dangerous truth. Throughout history it has been tested and challenged by those ideologies that insisted on the need for for external standards of authority. Always there have been those willing to exchange freedom for security and others who, for many reasons, have wanted to take it away. The principles chosen to guide the Covenant were designed to enhance and protect this freedom - deliberately avoiding the protections afforded by rigid orthodoxy and freely facing the risks of freedom.
We "covenant" together to share the Christian life and expect that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we will, individually and collectively, be brought to the truth. We demand respect for each other in the common search for truth and for each believer's present station in the pilgrimage. Creeds, and required allegiance to creeds, give protection from the friction of variation in doctrinal belief but at the cost of conformity and sterility of thought that often accompanies "arrival" at the truth.
We submit to each other, under one Lord, not to any form of centralizing authority. We call pastors to bring rule to the church, as enablers, not commanders of that rule, teaching and demonstrating the principle of rulership, not the personal exercise of rule. We join together in conferences and in a national Covenant, not to increase our political power, but to increase the dimensions and effectiveness of local ministry. This form of church government is a fragile form, and we are continually exposed to those "who would spy out our freedom and again return us to bondage" (Galatians 2:4). But it is a holy fragility - one that preserves the capability of a local church in becoming a fellowship of ministers in ministry, under the power of love, not the authority of men.
We are a worshiping community freely bringing our praise, thanksgiving, and adoration to a holy God. The absence of liturgical form invites the risk of intrusion by those who equate frivolity and novelty with freedom and would destroy the dignity of worship. But the protection of directed worship limits the variety of expression of the human spirit. God's holy nature demands both an awe for his presence and the spontaneity of the joyful heart. And this holds us in the bond of responsibility for the spiritual health of the whole congregation.
We are an evangelistic community, witnesses to the Good News - persuasive, but never coercive; enabling, but never controlling; impelling, but never compelling. It is here that differences in denominational style become most apparent and distinctive. Some would interpret the command to "go forth" as justification for a reckless abandon of oneself in winning others at any cost, including the costs of a bruised spirit and a damaged soul. Too many evangelicals follow the principle that if it works, it is good - responding to standards of measured success rather than obedience to his Word. This pragmatic attitude lends itself to manipulation and control - manipulation by use of guilt and fear, and control by clever use of emotional mood, vain repetitions, and crowd appeal. We avoid those techniques which lead to decision by coercion and clever device. Rather, we are guided by a sensitivity to the holy vulnerability of the human will and its response to sincerity, genuine love, and the gentle persuasion of the kindred soul.
We are a pietistic people, believing in the necessity of the changed life. We believe in the uniqueness of each life and its experience in Christ. We avoid standardized expectations for spiritual growth. We accept the responsibility of each individual to live out the life within him - delighting in and even relishing the differences we note among us.
We in the Covenant need to remind ourselves of these principles, often. We need to understand that most people prefer a safer, more secure variation of the Gospel, and that this may preclude the denomination from ever becoming large. We need to protect ourselves from those who wish to put us under constraints that deny the command "to be free." We need to teach our children to be proud of their heritage and encourage them in preserving this freedom.
We have a precious heritage, a unique combination of those qualities which enable a Christian to truly respond to his calling unto freedom in Christ. This is why I appreciate the Covenant!
- KENNETH V. LUNDBERG BARRINGTON, RHODE ISLAND
3200 West Foster Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625
Phone: (312) 478-4676; 1-800-621-1290