In my service at Covenant Offices over the past twenty-seven years in three different roles, I have had a front-row seat watching this fellowship move from being a small obscure denomination wondering about its missional impact to being a small obscure denomination that fights above its weight class.
In the early 1990s Paul Larsen was president and Glenn Palmberg was chair of the Council of Superintendents. Internationally our mission was strong. However, domestically there was a disquietude arising from a multi-year trend that could be characterized as merely bobbing along. The unease was not based on fear of potential decline, but on a holy discontent that God had more for us to do. Those two leaders galvanized the Covenant to recommit to our mission here at home. It would come in no small part through a renewed focus on church planting, recognizing that the local church is God’s basic strategy for impacting the world. Practically, under then recently retired executive secretary for church growth and evangelism, Robert C. Larson, and his successor, James E. Persson, several foundational church planting resources were already in place to leverage.
And while church planting to this day remains a significant engine, other pronounced emphases also decidedly contributed in the intervening years. By no means exhaustive, other groups do look to the Covenant frequently around multi-ethnic advances, love mercy–do justice commitments, congregational vitality, church planting, clergy resourcing, life-stage discipleship, and the scope of our global partnerships. Moreover, we have industry-leading institutions in National Covenant Properties, Covenant Trust Company, Covenant Retirement Communities, and Covenant Ministries of Benevolence. North Park University is positioning itself with the aspiration to be the leading Christian city-centered university, while the seminary is experiencing a surge in enrollment. And did I mention the Companion is the number-one-rated denominational magazine?
Yes, our shortcomings and gaps are all too evident. But because Covenant leaders in the early nineties were not satisfied, today we are better striving to be more reflective of the whole kingdom and mission of God.
While it might seem natural to look to strategy to explain advances, there is something more foundational—a Covenant culture of aspirational discipleship. Every time the Covenant has made a major advance, I have noticed three constants. It is biblically grounded. We are a biblical people; we yearn to be shaped and led by God’s heart, wisdom, promises, and priorities. We want Scripture, not good ideas, to be the central motivation for life and mission. We search Scripture and then do our best to align with its truth and call. We are compelled by biblically derived direction.
It calls out the best in us as disciples, not points out the worst. It is oriented to urging and encouraging us toward our “better selves” as faithful followers. We spur one another on with a sense of “we can do this.” That doesn’t mean we ignore areas to lament or avoid honest assessment of progress. Instead, we live Paul’s words to Timothy that missional engagement is like the athlete, farmer, or soldier. Each presses on toward the goal, believing dedication and motivation is in service to a worthy outcome.
A curious outsider might want to start talking about strategies and structures. Lessons don’t begin there.
It communicates real impact in real lives in real places. Priorities mean nothing if people are not transformed. When we see and hear genuine life-change, we are moved to keep going. Every day, all over the world, Jesus is touching individual lives and transforming communities. And it makes us long for more.
God has done some pretty humbling things in and through the Covenant. A curious outsider might want to start talking about strategies and structures. Lessons don’t begin there. It all begins with culture. A culture of aspirational discipleship. A culture that wants to follow the heart of God into the world, that calls out the best in each other as followers of Christ, and that gains even more resolve from seeing changed lives. It is a culture that has nurtured us, and a culture worth nurturing.