My Churches: A Spiritual Travelogue (part 1)

In a couple of places recently, I’ve come across this question: “Where did you come of age spiritually?” Not exactly, “When did you become a Christian?” or “What church did you grow up in?” But “Where did you come of age?”

I’ve struggled mightily to answer it. My own faith journey has been so gradual (not to say that there haven’t been periods of fervor, doubt, and everything in between) that I can’t point to a single experience, stage of life, or faith community and say, “That’s where I came of age.”

However, thinking about the question has been useful if only because it’s taken me on a trip down a specific memory lane, inviting my mind to recall all the various churches in which I’ve participated in my life. Because that’s been on my mind, and perhaps to help readers understand better what’s shaped my own peculiar perspectives on Christianity and all with which it intersects, here’s the first part in a travelogue, if you will, of the churches that led me to my present one.

Evangelical Covenant Church logoToday I’ll start with the churches of my childhood and adolescence: all congregations of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a small denomination originally founded by pietistic Swedish immigrants like my great-great-grandfather Peterson. As a fourth-generation Covenanter whose parents helped plant two new churches, I grew up in a denomination still learning to reconcile its heritage and its increasingly diverse future.

Community Covenant Church – Cottage Grove, Minnesota

Community Covenant and I were born at about the same time in the mid-1970s; my parents were charter members and new parents, and those two vocations crossed paths regularly. Buried somewhere are pictures of my infant self being hauled to choir practice, playing in the nursery whose walls carried a jungle mural painted by my mom, or in Sunday School classes taught by my dad. My parents even sponsored a tree that was planted on the church’s original campus and seemed to grow up alongside me.

I accepted Jesus into my heart while at Community Covenant, received my first Bible there, was baptized there, took Communion for the first time there, began to nurture a passion for history by checking books out of its library, and started my journey as an intellectually curious Christian by spending a few minutes one day in Pastor Carlson’s office asking if he thought that the description of the ten kings in this passage in Revelation meant that Christians shouldn’t seek political influence or power.

So in many ways — most of which I don’t understand — this church as I remember it continues to embody the church for me. For the first four years of my life, it actually was a “community” church for me — only a few minutes from my house. But then we moved to another suburb, and after a while my parents wearied of driving so far on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and instead helped to plant a new Covenant church in another small town that was growing into a sizable suburb in the mid-1980s.

Eagan Covenant Church – Eagan, MN

I think it actually took another name at some point, but in the few years I was there, it was just the “Eagan” church. And while it eventually bought its own building, we were there in the early days — worshiping first in a Lutheran church and then in a public school cafeteria. Mostly, I recall Eagan Covenant as being full of people who were passionate about their faith, eager to experiment, and kind of annoying to me, the most tradition-minded 5th grader in history. Worship on Sunday evenings? Anointing with oil? All “innovations” to me at the time, though I’ve come to appreciate the blend of energy and innovation that that church — like so many church plants — possessed in abundance.

(A brief detour from past to present: Community Covenant and Eagan Covenant share much more in common than the fact that my parents helped start both congregations. About 20-25 years into its existence, Community Covenant experienced tremendous growth and became a Covenant megachurch. It took on the name Crossroads Church, moved to a bigger facility further out from the city, and, not too long ago, absorbed the struggling Covenant church in Eagan as a second campus. But I digress…)

Crossroads Church - Woodbury, MN
Crossroads Church, Woodbury, MN – Creative Commons (Jim Denham)

We only stayed in Eagan long enough to see it get on its feet, but then a move to the exurbs brought another church.

First, though, let me mention:

Zion Covenant Church – Ellsworth, Wisconsin

I’m not sure if it was every year of my childhood, but for a fair number of summers, I got to spend days or weeks staying with my grandparents on their farm in Pierce County, Wisconsin. At least once or twice, this coincided with the Vacation Bible School program that Grandma and Grandpa Peterson’s church was running. So between those VBS experiences and the many, many other times we were at Zion for worship, it’s long felt like a church away from home.

But a very different kind of church than the newer, suburban congregations I grew up in — more humble in its resources and ambitions, still marked by the Swedish immigrant identity that the Covenant has been trying to outgrow since the mid-20th century. (Let me underline that this description refers to the Zion of my memory. Under its current pastor and lay leaders — including my uncle Lowell — Zion today is a model of a healthy small town church.) Going to Zion was like going back in time, and since half the congregation seemed either to be related to me or at least have gone to high school with my mom, it was another example of how church and family were often inseparable in my spiritual development.

Bethany Evangelical Covenant Church – Stillwater, MN

Bethany Covenant Sanctuary
Bethany Evangelical Covenant Church

One of the oldest Covenant churches, Bethany was the place where I was confirmed, where I nearly died of embarrassment pretending to kiss a girl in youth group for a kind of liturgical drama that my dad had written, and where I nearly killed Penny Bjorklund — when I marched down the aisle at the head of an Easter procession but failed to properly secure the banner I was carrying in its stand, and the metal pole fell over and conked her on the head. (And she kept playing the piano! Which is more than I can say for my own piano performance on my Confirmation Sunday, when I literally forgot the B section of my recital piece and simply stopped playing for the longest thirty seconds of my life.) Along with all the memories that still redden my cheeks, there’s a fondness in recalling the first group of adult non-relatives that I got to know as something like sisters and brothers in Christ.

Oddly enough, I ended up encountering many of them a decade after I left Bethany. One of my parents’ best friends was Bob Weaver, the founder of the Bethel Business Department — while Bob retired before I arrived at Bethel and departed this earth too soon, his office is mere steps from my own and his name is frequently mentioned in our hallway conversations. And several other friends relocated to what’s become the faith community of my adult life, Salem Covenant Church, during my years away from Minnesota.

Which hints at one further complication in my memory of Bethany: that it was also the first church of many in my acquaintance that had a schism. Something to do with a pastoral call, or contemporary vs. traditional music… I couldn’t really say, since it happened when I was sixteen or seventeen, unsure that I was all that happy with Christianity and preoccupied with more important things — like where to go to college.

More on that next week…

Read the second part of this post>>

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