Covenant Growth Presents Challenges, Opportunities

ST. PAUL, MN (June 25, 2010) – Evangelical Covenant Church President Gary Walter today said that the dramatic growth of the denomination over the past 25 years is presenting new challenges that will require structural change and new approaches to ministry.

His remarks came during the president’s report as part of the 125th Annual Meeting business session. Click here for video coverage.

Walter said the denomination actually would have declined since its 100th anniversary in 1985 if Covenanters had been self-satisfied with the growth up to that point; but they believed that the mission was not finished, which has led to extensive new ministry.

To illustrate his point, he cited the following potential outcomes had the denomination not decided to move aggressively forward:

  • Of the 602 churches that existed in 1985, there would be only 477 today. “But because we kept forward in mission, we are a fellowship of 819 churches.”
  • The average attendance would have remained stagnant at roughly 83,000, but today the aggregate attendance on any Sunday is now 176,000.
  • The 43 churches that were populations of color or intentionally multi-ethnic would have declined to 30. Today there are 201.
  • In 1985, the Covenant was involved with ministries in seven countries. The denomination now has partnerships in 38 nations.

That “dynamic of momentum” is presenting new challenges, Walter said. Systems and structures that worked well when the denomination was smaller are strained, opportunity outdistances finances, the multi-ethnic growth will require congregations to be more intentional in hearing viewpoints different than their own, vocational ministry is becoming more complex, and the world is becoming more interdependent and connected.

“Along with those challenges, this is a time of unparalleled opportunity,” Walter said. He added the denomination is poised to meet the challenges in ways that honor its history and yet are flexible and innovative.

“We are at a critical moment in our history. This is our time to step up boldly.”

The president focused on challenges for local churches, denomination, and the mutual ministry of all Covenanters.

Speaking to challenges for local congregations, Walter asked, “Are you willing to ask hard and deep questions about what it means to be making more disciples among more populations for a more just and caring world?”

To address challenges facing the denomination as a whole, Walter announced that innovation groups are being formed to focus on “five smooth stones” (an analogy from David’s battle against Goliath):

  • Make and deepen disciples
  • Start and strengthen churches
  • Develop leaders
  • Love mercy and do justice
  • Serve globally

“If we are not about these five things, we will fail in the mission,” Walter said.

Evelyn M.R. Johnson, who most recently served as superintendent of the Pacific 
Southwest Conference, will guide the process when she assumes her new duties in the president’s office this fall as the director of special projects. “She will be our innovation czar.”

Walter also addressed the challenge of how to live our lives in mutual relationships. “Interdependence is the biblical pattern, it is the biblical call, it is the biblical ideal,” he said. “It is a truth that has permeated the Evangelical Covenant Church since our inception in 1885.”

He listed ways in which the denomination and local churches serve each other. For example, the denomination develops clergy, supports lay leaders through training, provides educational and financial resources, and communicates the mission. Local churches encourage members to serve in regional and national leaderships and foster fellowship and joint ministry among clergy and sister churches serving in close proximity. “You encourage the health of the whole.”

Walter added that the encouragement also comes through financial commitments. “I don’t apologize for asking for your financial investment, either,” he said. “Giving to the larger denomination models the generosity and commitment each church expects of its own members. Those contributions enable the denomination to serve all of the churches.

“As we live into the biblical idea of interdependence in the body of Christ, we will indeed be at our best – one church, in it together, to live with God and for God.”

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