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View What is a Covenant Church

What is a Covenant Church?

A Metaphor for our Mission
Published in the “Covenant Quarterly” 2007
Larry L. Sherman, D. Min.

The Evangelical Covenant Church was founded primarily for missional reasons. That is why the earliest Covenanters called themselves “mission friends.” Here may be one of the reasons for the Covenant’s amazing ability to remain flexible for over one hundred years while not abandoning our historic beliefs. Just as mission agencies have the ability to adjust to the changing needs of the mission field and give appropriate biblical response to current issues and challenges, the Covenant does the same by focusing our central passion on the mission. However, new challenges from expansion and mission can cause a Christian group to react by erecting boundaries that do not serve the mission.
Here is an overview of some of the challenges that face us today:
      •  Church Planting: We now have thirty percent of our total attendance on any given weekend worshipping in churches that are ten years old or less. This percentage is growing each year. What characteristics do these new churches need to have in order to be “Covenant?”
      •  Diversity: Our Covenant emphasis on expanding ethnic diversity in the 1990’s is bearing fruit. Today, twenty percent of our churches are non-Anglo and this percentage is growing each year. How will we define what a “Covenant” church is as we become more ethnically diverse?
      •  Post-Modernism: The cultural shift of “post-modernism” is touching the church as well. Are there special challenges a post-modern church faces in becoming “Covenant?” What does this mean for our mission as we engage the emerging culture with the Gospel?
      •  Adoptions: The Covenant is attracting churches who are interested in affiliation. How do we define “what it means to be Covenant” for them? We need to clearly articulate to them how we can avoid the excesses of the left or right that move them to leave one denomination and affiliate with the Covenant.
      •  Growth: The Covenant has grown by fifty percent in the past decade. Will we erect more boundaries in reaction to rapid growth as a way to limit the pace and impact of change?

The answer to how we can stay focused and unified in the midst of challenge and change begins with our statements of “Covenant Identity and Biblical Mission” and our “Vision for Mission.” These act as an internal guidance system, giving us clarity on where our “center” is, so we can continue on the course that Christ has for our future mission.

Underlying these, the Covenant defines its identity in the “Covenant Affirmations.”
      1.  The Centrality of the Word of God
      2.  The Necessity of the New Birth
      3.  The Church as a Fellowship of Believers
      4.  A Conscious Dependence on the Holy Spirit
      5.  The Reality of Freedom in Christ
      6.  A commitment to the whole mission of the church

These statements of identity and biblical mission, vision and our affirmations are crucial in clarifying who we are and for helping us know where we are going. They identify our center. However, the challenge is to hold to our center as we become more diverse and as we expand more rapidly. Put more simply, “There are a lot of new folks around here – how do they fit in, how do we know who doesn’t, and how can we know the difference?”

There is clarity in our core identity, but there is less clarity in how this relates to boundary questions and entry. For example, if someone embraces the Covenant Affirmations but holds a different view on baptism, women in ministry, or congregational polity, to what degree are they Covenant compatible? Of course, this requires conversation and discernment.  These dialogues will likely increase as diversity and growth increase. One response could be to erect firm boundaries with entry questions to check for alignment in every area. Another response could be to celebrate diversity without checking for alignment. But, neither of these approaches seems truly “Covenant.” The first runs counter to Covenant freedom and the second is contrary to our commitment to God’s Word.  So, how can we stay flexible and focused on mission without compromising our core identity? We need a new paradigm for understanding how boundaries and identity relate to each other.

Set Theory and Christian Communities

In his essay, “What is the Category Christian in the Mission Task,” Dr. Paul Hiebert applies mathematical “set theory” to the way people form groups. For our purposes we will look at three of his four basic sets.

Bounded Set:
The bounded-set is a “social system that has clearly delineated boundaries but has no strong ideological center. In the bounded-set it is clear who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ based on a well-defined ideological-cultural boundary—usually moral and cultural codes as well as creedal definitions—but it doesn’t have much of a core definition besides these boundaries.”  For example, in a bounded-set, holiness becomes a set of human rules to govern behavior. In a bounded-set at its most extreme, you hear little about the heart or about the Holy God whose character defines the code and whose Spirit empowers us to live it.


Fuzzy Set:
A fuzzy-set has no firm central ideology and soft boundaries. It could be likened to the mass of people in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, each there for the party and the experience, but with no long term relationship or purpose. To continue our example, there are no real standards of “holiness” in the fuzzy-set – it’s all about tolerance and giving “space.”  In an extreme case of a fuzzy-set, holiness is spiritualized and individualized. There may be good conversations about spirituality, but generally no one is ever corrected for “immoral” behavior, nor are “moral” standards promoted.

Centered Set:
The centered-set has a firm center and soft edges.  It could be likened to an oasis where all the animals come to drink. It is the source of life for that area, but there are no pens or fences.  For the church, this means grouping around our relationship to Christ. For the centered-set, holiness means “Christlikeness” and living life in relation to the “center.” Holy behavior is defined by the One in the center and developed as we move closer to the center.  Holiness is a relationship and a journey toward and with God. Those who are “in” are those who are influenced by the “center” and who move towards Him.  Those who are “out” are not influenced by the center and move away from Him.

Hiebert argues that Christianity at its best is a centered-set. He also argues that Old Testament culture was a centered-set. He states that the key understanding for the Hebrews was they “saw themselves as people in a covenant relationship with God, and therefore as people-in-community.” In Hiebert’s view it was the Pharisees who opted for the “bounded-set” paradigm of defining who was “in” and who was “out” based on law and practice. But such was not the case with the New Testament church. He writes that the church was and is “defined by its center, the Jesus Christ of Scripture. It’s the set of the people gathered around Christ to worship, obey and serve him. Precisely because they follow him, they form a covenant community characterized by righteousness, koinonia, and shalom.”

This understanding formed the basis for the early church’s key decision in Acts 15 whether Gentile believers were “in” or “out.” Over the strong objections of believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), the church leaders decided that it was the grace of the Lord Jesus that determined whether someone was “in” or “out.” The central issue was a person’s relationship with Christ and not their ethnicity, religious practice (like circumcision) or law-keeping. In all of this we see the early church operating as a centered-set. When it came to determining whether someone was a part of the movement, they didn’t set boundaries; rather, they focused primarily with one’s relationship with the center.  They encouraged believers to refrain from immorality and idolatry (Acts 15:20, 29) – precisely the things that would keep someone from connecting with the holy God at the center.

Next Hiebert asks,

“how can we organize a church on centered-set principles? This is a problem particularly for those of us from the West for whom formal education, institutional order and planning are so important. It is clear that we need to rearrange our priorities. We must make people more important than programs, give relationships priority over order and cleanliness, and spend more time in prayer than in planning.”

Let’s turn to how the Evangelical Covenant Church can been seen as a centered-set.

Centered-sets and The Evangelical Covenant Church

As our Covenant movement grows and diversifies, we praise God. But, in response to growth, there may arise a natural concern to put boundaries around this movement, lest it become unmanageable or possibly become untrue to the character of the Covenant. Here is where it becomes tempting to focus more on boundary issues than on the center. This is how many western churches and denominations have responded – by issuing policies that define the boundaries of who can be “in” or “out.” This may also be why some of those western denominations have become inflexible and have stopped growing. If the focus is on the boundaries, then it is difficult to move the fences, and it becomes increasingly difficult for new people to find their way in. And, if the boundaries have cultural components, then it becomes even more challenging to include those from increasingly diverse cultures into one Covenant.

The Covenant Church has always sought a more centered, embracing position. Donald Frisk refers to this in Covenant Affirmations. I believe this is why the Covenant has been able to grow – we have a central passion that God blesses and we do not have excessive boundaries that restrict us. I believe this is also why our churches stay excited about our freedom while staying committed to our common mission. At our best, we try to work as a centered-set and have been able to escape both the rigidity of bounded-set thinking and the aimlessness of fuzzy-set thinking.

Centered-set thinking means that we see ourselves more as a mission movement than a denomination. But this should not surprise us. This how we started out, this is what has characterized us when we have been at our best, and this is the missional spirit that has attracted new churches to the Covenant. This is what keeps our churches excited about being a part of the Covenant’s mission. Thinking like a centered-set helps us keep the “main thing” the “main thing” in the midst of the challenges of growth, diversity and cultural changes. It disciplines us to consider Christ and His mission first when making big decisions, setting policies, developing practices, and experiencing life together.

A Metaphor for Our Mission
Hiebert’s use of mathematical set-theory is helpful. However, I believe we also need some pictures or metaphors that can help us visualize the different options. For those who think in terms of bounded-sets, a guiding metaphor can be a medieval city. These cities had huge stone walls and often taller walls inside for the castle of the lords and ladies. The focus was on keeping the right people in and the wrong people out. There were gatekeepers and a military force. The larger the wall, the more secure the people felt. The larger the wall, the more power was ascribed to the lord. The wall was for protection, defense, control and prestige. Within these walls, there was commerce and security for families. There was trade with other cities, but mostly the commerce dealt with the city and the farms nearby. This is how some churches act today, focusing on maintaining the walls of their distinct entity. For example, some do not want any new churches within twenty miles because everyone within those boundaries are “our people.”  It is difficult for bounded-set churches to grow just as it was difficult for medieval cities to move their walls. Evangelism in a bounded-set church is difficult as well. Evangelism means winning your children and occasionally riding outside the walls on a crusade to compel others to come in.

The fuzzy-set could be likened to the mass of people crowding Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Fuzzy-sets of people can occur around events. They can be descriptive of groups who value relational experiences over core commitments.  Fuzzy-set grouping can be helpful in attracting and connecting with people; however by themselves, they lack the core beliefs that are important to the Covenant and to our churches.

The centered-set could be likened to the solar system. The Sun has tremendous gravitational pull and makes up most of the matter in the solar system. It keeps the planets in orbit and pulls other bodies into it. Some bodies pass through the solar system, but each body is affected by the center. Each body is also affected by the light and warmed by the heat from the center.  The center is key.

The solar system is not like the stationary model that you find in junior high science classes.  Because of the expansion of the universe, the sun itself has a path through the universe. We on the planets spin around the center, but we also join the sun on its path, or its “mission.” Here we see how being a mission-movement is compatible with centered-set thinking. Here also we see the intersection between our past history (our past path) and our future direction. Our history gives us our past ‘trajectory’ which helps shape our future path. In the solar system, those who move closer to center are increasingly affected by the gravity, light and warmth of the sun. At the same time they are also pulled along by the sun on its mission.  So, we are not just moving toward the “center,” we are also moving with the “center” on its journey or mission.

To state it in terms from Covenant history – we are “Mission-Friends.” We are friends of Christ, centered primarily on Him and His word. And, because Christ is always on a mission, all who are journeying towards Christ are also journeying on a mission with Him. As Christ extends His influence through us, more and more people will be attracted to Christ, pulled into His orbit, and caught up with His mission.

The Covenant is both a centered-set community and a mission-movement. As the solar-system metaphor shows, these are complementary movements – toward the center and forward on mission. Gary Walter speaks of this in “The Vital Church” seminar developed for the Evangelical Covenant Church, where he states, ‘Vital churches grow in two directions at the same time – Deeper in Christ and further in mission.” From the business world, James Collins talks about the importance of organizations having both a firm center and a forward mission in his book, Built to Last. More importantly, these are the marching-orders given us in the Great Commission: to go into the world to make disciples. To “make disciples” is to help people reorient their lives around the central figure of history and salvation – Jesus Christ. These two movements—inward toward Christ (“Come unto me.” Matthew 11:28) and onward on mission with Christ (“Go into all the world and make disciples…” Matthew 28:18)—are the essence of the Covenant as a centered-set and a mission-movement.

A Matrix of Three Questions Keeps Us “On Mission”
Based on the centered-set idea and the solar system metaphor, I’d like to suggest three questions that can help us stay on-course as “Mission Friends.” These questions are meant to engage the believing community in the process of theological reflection and missional decision making. There is some parallel here to Grenz and Franke’s proposal of a Trinitarian matrix of Scripture, tradition, and culture designed to help the church think theologically in a post-modern world. As we discuss ways that these questions speak to the challenges of our current cultural context, we can begin to discern the mission opportunities and decisions before us.
The Centered Question: How does any action or decision bring us closer to the center; or, how do our core beliefs and Scripture speak to this issue?

As a centered-set, we have a ‘firm center’ of a few core values to which we are passionately committed. This commitment means we face the compelling issues of the day and we evaluate the issues and challenges based on our understanding of how the center applies. This then, shapes our response as a movement. I believe that for the Covenant our center is made up of the Covenant Affirmations. These have stood the test of time, have been taught for years, and have served us well.  The newest Affirmation regarding the whole mission of the church is reflected in the third question below.

Affirmation #1 – “the centrality of the Word of God” reminds us to keep asking the question of the early Covenanters, “Where is it written?” We need to return regularly to the “Word of God as the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.” This will lead us back to the center of our life in Christ. The early Covenanters also asked, “Are you alive in Christ today?” This is really a centered-set question and links us with Affirmation #2.
Affirmation #2 – the necessity of the new birth. We need to ask if a particular practice or doctrine helps more and more people find salvation in Christ. Centered-set thinking means evangelism, like conversion, is a process more than a decision. Or, to fit the metaphor, evangelism is vectoring increasingly toward Christ and joining Him on His mission.  It also implies that our churches need to have a welcome for those who don’t look like us or act like us, but who are drawn to the Christ who is the center.
Affirmation #3 – the church as a fellowship of believers, was affirmed at the founding of the Covenant in 1885 where the theme was “I am a friend of all who fear Thee” (Psalm 119:64). We are “friends” of Christ first; and, associatively, friends of all who join us in this mission with Christ.
Affirmation #4 – “dependence on the Holy Spirit” means that we need the work of the Spirit as we seek to apply the Word and as we seek to live as believers and ambassadors of the Good News in light of the current culture, challenges and opportunities.

Affirmation #5 – “the reality of freedom in Christ” can be seen as evidence that the Covenant is more a centered-set than a bounded-set. While the first four affirmations may be found in other evangelical denominations, the fifth affirmation is a unique distinctive of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
The genius of the early Covenanters was their ability to harmonize “a fellowship of believers” with a true freedom that allowed for diversity and respect of individuals.  Our ability to do this has attracted believers from a wide spectrum and has molded them into one cohesive body and mission force. This is the dynamic, creative force of the Covenant as a centered-set. We are held together by a passionate commitment to the center that allows others to enter our “orbit” and join us on mission.  Covenant historian and theologian, Philip Anderson, in essence, affirms centered-set thinking when he writes about how the Covenant “allow(s) for massive diversity (as well as for) a deeper underlying unity based on Jesus and filtered through our distinctive organizational values.” He further states that, despite… growing diversity… the Covenant has remained firmly bound to its fundamental principle of theological freedom, testing all things by the written Word of God, giving intellectual and spiritual liberty to the consciences of all who are united together by a vital personal relationship with Jesus Christ… The Covenant Church is more diverse today than it ever has been, and with that comes crucial and unforeseen responsibilities in its life together.

The Historical Question: How does our past path reflect on our present situation?

First, we must look at the center for definition. Next, we must look through the lens of the historical movements that have preceded us. Our past path influences our present trajectory and propels us forward in a future direction. Just as the Sun has a past “historical path” that has resulted it its present position and trajectory; as a denomination, we get guidance for our future mission by understanding “where we have come from” as part of the apostolic, catholic, reformed, pietistic, and evangelical history that has preceded us. Any new decision that will send us into a new direction will need to be submitted to this historical test. This becomes all the more critical as we move forward on our mission and as we continue to expand and diversify as a movement.

History moves into mission.  Biblical history continues in church history, which continues to develop as the church moves forward in mission.  Mission is the on-going history of the Missio Dei, the “church-crossing-frontiers-in-the-form-of-a-servant.”

The Missional Question: How can this help us move further on the mission Christ has for us?

Mission helps enrich our theological reflection.  David J. Bosch states that this is what enriched Paul’s theological reflection in his letter.
It is, after all, precisely on the frontier where fail meets unbelief that theological reflection takes on its most dynamic form… (He goes on to state that) Authentic theology does not develop where the Church is preoccupied with herself or where she is desperately erecting defensive barricades on her own soil.  (Instead) Authentic theology…only develops where the Church moves in dialectical relationship to the world, in other words where the Church is engaged in mission.

Helmut Thielicke gives a simple picture of how this works when he states that “The Gospel must continually be forwarded to a new address because the recipient keeps moving.”  The study of history is vital and can give us key lessons and referents; however, it only prepares us for the new opportunities and challenges ahead.  If we only send the Gospel to the old address, the message won’t be delivered to the recipients.  Beyond being vitally connected to the center as a community of faith and beyond remembering the lessons of our life together in the past, the very ‘shape’ of the church may need to change as we seek to remain true to our call to be Mission Friends in bringing the Good News to the new recipients of our changing world.

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, help us rethink our eccesliological structures and challenge us to consider adaptations for missiological and Christological purposes:

Our Christology informs our missiology, which in turn determines our ecclesiology. If we get this the wrong way around and allow our notions of the church to qualify our sense of purpose and mission, we can never be disciples of Jesus, and we will never be an authentic missional church. Churches that have got this basic formula wrong never really engage in mission and so lose touch with Jesus. These churches spend all their time discussing (or arguing) about forms of worship, the church furniture, and the timing of services or programs, and fail to recognize that our ecclesiology flows more naturally out of our sense of mission. These churches become closed sets as a result and their experience of Jesus at the center fades into a memory… It becomes a matter of history rather than an experience of mission now. It is important to recover the idea that the church connects with Jesus through mission, not through getting church meetings right.

The missional question asks where we are heading as a movement and what adaptations we need to make to be faithful to that mission. It flows from our center, is true to our past, propels us forward on Christ’s mission and this shapes our organization. The newly adopted sixth affirmation, “a commitment to the whole mission of the church,” comes in at this point. It describes our future path. As “Mission Friends,” this describes accurately the journey we’re on and the mission to which Christ has called us. Following the lead of Frost and Hirsch, this needs to impact our “shape” as well; so that our ecclesiology and structure are supple enough to respond to the missional opportunities around us.  The kind of supple, vibrant community that emerges when we’re on a mission larger than ourselves and that calls us to great sacrifice for the kingdom has a new name, “communitas,” and it means something much more that what we understand as “community.”

Alan Hirsch states “communitas describe(s) the dynamics of the Christian community inspired to overcome their instincts to ‘huddle and cuddle’ and to instead form a themselves around a common mission that calls them onto a dangerous journey to unknown places—a mission that calls the church to shake off its collective securities and to plunge into the world of action.”  As ‘communitas’ or as ‘mission friends’ we not only do mission, we also “encounter God and one another in a new way.”  Hirsch sees this kind of ‘communitas’ as the normative for the pilgrim people of God.  “Communitas is the journey of a group of people that find each other only in a common pursuit of a…mission that lies beyond itself (and where) its energies are primarily directed outward and upward.”  The missional question is the one that helps us stay faithful as Mission Friends.

Concluding Comments:
It is my hope that this matrix of three questions will contribute to our discussion of issues so our dialogue can continue to be true to our center and our decisions can move us further on our mission. Furthermore, I hope that centered-set thinking and the “Solar System” metaphor will be helpful to churches and leaders as they discuss important issues and look at new opportunities for our denomination.  It is my prayer that we will always seek to be centered on Christ, stay true to our past, and go further in mission.


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