Message the Same – But Questions Have Changed

By Stan Friedman

ST. PAUL, MN (June 27, 2010) – This morning’s worship service celebrated the ordination, commissioning and consecration of new ministers and missionaries as they prepare to further their work in sharing the gospel with a rapidly changing world.

The service also brought to a close the four-day 125th anniversary celebration of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Cha, an ordained Covenant minister who serves as an associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, noted a dramatic shift in the questions asked by people outside the Church.

Cha recalled that when he attended seminary in the 1980s, ministers were reading books written by Paul Little, director of evangelism for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), as they considered the best way to respond to the world’s needs. Little had interacted with students on hundreds of different college and university campuses, asking what the students most wanted to know about Christianity.

Previously, college students asked questions primarily focusing on issues of doctrine and the nature of God and Christ: “Is there a God? Is Christ God? Did Christ rise from the dead? Is the Bible reliable? Is it full of errors?”

Recently, Rick Richardson, a contemporary leader of IVCF, has been asking the college students about their religious questions. Their focus had undergone a dramatic shift from Little’s days. Today, students primarily are concerned about how the church responds to the world and how it uses its power: “How can I trust the church that has done terrible things in the name of Christ? Does your religion help our society, especially those who suffer and are marginalized? Aren’t you just another self-serving group? Doesn’t the church justify and maintain racial and gender hierarchical structures in the society?”

Cha added, “There is a deep sense of suspicion and even accusations that shape the questions that are being asked today.”

Because of that suspicion, Cha asked his own question of the ministers being commissioned and ordained today: “So how are we to proclaim and live out the good news of Jesus in a time such as ours?”

Cha offered his own answer based on his reading of Isaiah 58:6-14. “The passage powerfully calls us to be the light of the world,” he said.

The prophet says the light shines when justice and mercy for the broken prevail. The passage twice says, “Then your light will….” Cha noted. Doing justice and mercy have been central to the messages given throughout the 125th Annual Meeting as the gathering focuses on the “Whole mission of the church.”

Cha contrasted the response of the church in two Asian countries and how they affected the spread of the gospel. Christians in Great Britain did nothing to challenge the opium trade from their country to China in the mid-1800s, he observed. British companies profited greatly from the sale of opium that had been introduced to and forced on China. The opium led to widespread addictions.

Famed missionary Hudson Taylor was one of the few who protested the evil actions of his country, writing in 1882, “The opium trade made England’s profession of Christianity hollow and sincere.” His voice fell on deaf ears.

Because the Chinese came to associate the church with the opium trade, Cha said, “Becoming a Christian was tantamount to being a traitor to your people.”

The opposite happened in Cha’s native Korea, even though the country shares a Confucian-based culture with China. Missionaries coming to Korea found a people in despair because of a growing Japanese influence over their country.

Unlike in China, the missionaries brought a gospel of hope. They built hospitals and schools, including universities for women. Japan was closing many Korean schools, but they would not touch the missionary schools for fear of offending the United States, Cha said.

Most of the graduates of these schools not only became fine Christian leaders, but also became leaders of the independence movement in Korea. The gospel had encouraged them, not only the hope of eternal life for individuals, but also offered a hope of freedom for their colonized nation.

Cha said he was glad to be part of a denomination that takes seriously God’s mandate for justice and mercy. To not include that work as part of evangelism is to embrace an incomplete gospel.

Cha also urged ministers to pay attention to their own spiritual life with God so that they would “love God with our whole selves.”

The symbol of the cross is appropriate for Christianity because it was the means by which Jesus sacrificed his life, but also because it is an intersection of vertical and horizontal lines. “As Christ followers, we are to carry our cross – be attentive to both our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with our suffering neighbors. However, if we are not careful, instead of carrying a cross, we can carry a stick and use it to beat up others.

“As long as we continue to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God, I am certain that the mission of the Evangelical Covenant Church will bear much fruit because that is what the sovereign God promised,” Cha concluded.

Following the sermon, the newly ordained, consecrated, and commissioned ministers were prayed over and received vests, which are an ancient symbol of being yoked to Christ’s ministry.

A string-tying ceremony also was demonstrated by long-time missionary Paul De Neui, along with Khampan Sudcha, president of the Thailand Covenant Church, and his wife, Tipawan Sudcha, also a leader in the denomination.

The Asian blessing practice, which dates back to at least 300 years before Christ, was added. It symbolizes a bond between people going through a significant transition. Following the service, those in the audience tied strings on the wrists of the ministers and pronounced a blessing on their transition into a new phase of ministry.

Editor’s note: The accompanying photos show the 1,800-seat auditorium where the worship service was conducted, Peter Cha preaching, and newly installed superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference, Efrem Smith, with other ordinands as they prepared to process into the auditorium.

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