The actual anniversary date isn’t for a few weeks, but yesterday our congregation celebrated its quasquicentennial: 125 years of mission and ministry that began with a handful of Swedish immigrants gathering for a Bible study in Northeast Minneapolis and now involves a thousand or so people who are members of a suburban church in New Brighton, Minnesota, with partners around the state, country, and world.
As you might expect of a historian, I’ve been drawn to Salem Covenant Church because it cherishes its heritage as much as any church I’ve known. And it’s not merely hazy nostalgia. Early on in the life of this blog, when I asked readers whether their churches valued church history, I held up Salem (perhaps too pridefully) as a model:
No doubt one reason I like my church is that it does pretty well on this count: we have a three-year Confirmation program that focuses on the biblical narrative for two years and then turns to a blend of church history and theology in the third; the first two adult Sunday School courses this year are about church history (the first on martyrdom, the second on revivalism; I’ve taught courses myself on the Reformations and the history of human rights, plus a twelve-week condensation of our Western Civ/church history survey at Bethel); we have a historical commission that maintains a church archive and display and published a congregational history that sits in the church library with a small collection of church history books; and our current pastor is even a former History major who often includes historical anecdotes in his sermons.
The congregational history I mentioned was written for Salem’s centennial by our pastor emeritus, Glen Wiberg, one of the Covenant denomination’s great preachers and a keeper of its musical heritage. In This Side of the River Glen made a compelling argument for the enduring relevance of history:
If their lives [of the congregation’s founders] were memorable and their story worthy of being told to this generation, it was in large part because of the need to ask how the church today has been shaped by their search for identity in a much different time and place. What drives that quest for present and future generations of Covenanters has to do with seeing what the forebears saw, hearing what they heard, being gripped by what held them—in short, discovering anew the living faith of those few and poor who were the seeds in the planting and flourishing of Salem. (p. 2)
Yes, these are words to warm a historian’s heart. (Also, that Glen immediately proceeds to an examination of social and cultural context — the “soil,” he called it.)
But I also happen to be in my fourth year as the chairperson of Salem Covenant Church, and my sixth year as a member of its Leadership Team — the group elected not merely to supervise what happens in the present day, but to step five, ten, twenty-five years ahead and cast a vision for the future of our congregation.
Unfortunately, that can generate fear and even conflict as much as energy and enthusiasm. Everyone is happy with the idea of change in the abstract, but particular, concrete changes inevitably threaten what, to some number of people, are indispensable traditions. Even if we do judge them necessary for realizing our vision. (And if we recommended another, different change, that would imperil another tradition close to the heart of someone else.)
I wouldn’t recommend change for change’s sake. One thing I’ve had to realize in what’s been a season of change and crisis at my employer is that we need to do some things differently, but there are choices we could make that would eviscerate our mission. I would sooner see Bethel close than abandon some traditions — because they’re at the heart of who we are and what we do.
Likewise with churches. But how do we know which changes sustain life and which sap it? And how do we enter the future without doing violence to our past?
Perhaps with this tension on his mind, at yesterday’s celebration our senior pastor shared a few words from one of the most influential children of Salem: the late Covenant theologian and educator Don Frisk. In the epilogue to his small book, Covenant Affirmations: This We Believe, Frisk wrote of coming back to “the church of my childhood and my youth” for Thanksgiving worship, presumably some years after it had moved from Northeast to New Brighton:
Sitting in church that day I was gripped by a strong and unshakeable, albeit self-contradictory impression. Everything seemed the same, yet everything was different.
The differences were obvious. Gone was the old Salem with its circling balcony and steeply-tiered choir loft. Gone were the Swedish language and Swedish accents. The congregation now met in an imposing contemporary building in a new suburban location. Everywhere were the new faces of people from diverse denominational backgrounds and from many nationalities. It was apparent that this was a new Salem in a new situation, under new leadership, facing new problems and using new methods. (p. 173)
But while such newness could easily inspire fear or lament, Frisk was comfortable — even excited:
But deep down I was aware that nothing really essential had changed. Here was the same friendly bustle and subdued excitement I’d known as a boy—the excitement of a people aware that God is at work in their midst. I sensed that Salem, like the Church as a whole, is a movement initiated by God and inspired by his Spirit and carried forward by his people. The Salem of the ’80s is continuous with the Salem of the ’20s because God, through his Word and Spirit, is continuing his work through a particular people. (pp. 173-74)
“Christianity,” Frisk continued, “exists as a living and transforming faith only as one generation passes it to the next.” That passing is incarnate in traditions, but “the important reality is not the tradition as such; it is the work of God which comes to historical expression and is made available to succeeding generations through the tradition” (p. 174). And this passing along “involves faithfulness to what has been but also openness to the new.” Change has value “not in itself but in its effectiveness in making the Gospel understood in a changing world.”
Frisk closed (and I quote at length because I doubt I have anything to say that would enhance, clarify, or otherwise improve his original text) by reminding readers of the simultaneous fragility and strength of the Church, and the urgency of passing along its mission from one generation to the next:
It has been said that God has no grandchildren, only children. That is but another way of saying that Christianity as a living faith is always, as Luther theologian, Carl Braaten, reminds us, “only a generation away from possible extinction.” It is a simple and solemn truth. The message we have been given is not from ourselves. It is not by nature hidden in every human heart. It is a gift of revelation, a Word from God, a treasure we hold in earthen vessels. If others are to hear it and believe we must tell it to them. While we must tell it in words that are fresh and vital for each generation, we must tell it faithfully, lest the message be distorted or lost in the telling. (p. 175)