A Brief History of the Sword of the Spirit
Part 7 – Strengthening, Growth and the Future

Thanks to the steadfastness and vision of many leaders and the perseverance in daily Sword of the Spirit life by members in our communities, this “community of communities” has been able to weather the difficulties of the 1980s and early 1990s and move forward in common life and in mission. The significant upheavals showed that some changes, especially in government and in pastoral care, were needed, and the Sword of the Spirit Council from 1990 onwards worked to address those issues.

Much of the attention of the Council during the 1990s was devoted to working out new constitutional structures. A series of constitutional decisions led to the adoption of a formal constitution in 1990, which only reached its final form in 2006. The Council also decided that individual communities should also have formal constitutions, and proposed a model which, with appropriate adaptations, has been accepted by the member communities. 

One of the provisions in both the overall constitution and the individual community constitutions was to set term limits for senior coordinators of communities, clearly attentive to the discernment of the members of the communities. The officers of the Sword of the Spirit, as well, were now to be elected and serve for a term of years. The president of the Sword of the Spirit, as well as the International Executive Council, are to be elected by the Assembly of the Sword of the Spirit, which is composed of senior coordinators of full communities and those charged with forming new communities. 

In October 1990, the Sword of the Spirit Council set up regional structures. Each region was to have a council of its own, in order to “allow for greater flexibility in our work and greater participation in our common planning and decision-making.”[1] The regions established in 1990 were North America, Europe and the Middle East, Asia, and the Spanish-speaking region (now the Ibero-American Region). With regard to outreach and other activities, the Council “established a more flexible and de-centralized approach to our outreach, giving greater freedom for initiative to local communities, while maintaining our common oversight of community-building outreach.”[2]

During the early 1990s, the International Council also worked on a new Statement of Community Order (SCO) in place of the original Patterns of Christian Community. This did not represent a disavowal of Patterns, but rather a recognition that it was too general, and that a document was needed that was more specifically directed to covenant communities of the kind forming the Sword of the Spirit. The new document included such important provisions as a delineation of the scope and limits of the authority of the community over the individual member’s life, and a provision for how people could in good order leave a community. The new SCO also described the requirements of good membership expected of a community member, recognizing that in special circumstances some of them could be waived.

With the new constitutional documents and the new provisions for membership, the member communities were in a better position to avoid the problems that affected the first decade of the Sword of the Spirit. As a further safeguard and support, each community would receive a periodic visitation from a team of coordinators and senior women leaders drawn from several other communities. In this approach, the visitation teams try to speak to as many members of the community as possible and learn the community’s strengths and weaknesses, including any serious problems members might report to them. The visitation report is given not only to the coordinators, but in summarized form to the community as a whole. Visitation is a formal way in which communities support one another. In the case of serious problems, the refurbished structures of the Sword of the Spirit can provide needed aid, especially through the regional government.

One source of strength to the community was the Servants of the Word. Many members of the brotherhood, like Steve Clark and Bruce Yocum, were among the most active leaders in the Sword of the Spirit and members of the Council. However, this period was also a time of crisis for the brotherhood. In the years from 1989 to 1995, the Servants of the Word lost about half its membership, including several of the elders. Several of the brothers left to become Catholic priests, but most married and are now raising families. The numerical loss was greatest in North America, where the greatest number of the brothers lived. In spite of this loss, the brotherhood persevered and became a source of strength to other communities in the Sword of the Spirit.

The brotherhood’s help was particularly important in Ann Arbor, where they lent assistance to a number of members of The Word of God who wanted to remain a part of the Sword of the Spirit. After a difficult period of growth during which, among other challenges, they had to develop an entirely new body of coordinators, this group eventually became Word of Life community. In the following decades, Word of Life has become a flourishing and growing community in the Sword of the Spirit.

The communities in Latin America and the Philippines constituted another source of strength for the Sword of the Spirit. Largely untouched by the crisis of 1990, these communities, particularly Ligaya ng Panginoon in Manila, Agapé (now Árbol de Vida) in Costa Rica, Jésed in Monterrey, Mexico, and Ciudad de Dios in Managua, Nicaragua, provided much-needed stability and leadership. The first two presidents of the Sword of the Spirit were Carlos Mántica from Ciudad de Dios and Carlos Alonso Vargas from Árbol de Vida, while Fr. Herb Schneider from Ligaya was the first president of Christ the King Association.

Building Community

While the communities in the Sword the Spirit have many different outreaches, the principal mission of the Sword of the Spirit as a whole is building new communities to strengthen the bulwark of communities around the world that serve to help one another and to be a source of help and at times refuge for Christians strongly affected by the rapidly disintegrating fabric of society around them. In 1997, the International Council first adopted a document called the Macroesquema developed in the Ibero-American Region as a guide for community building. Revised several times, the Macroschema (to use the English spelling) has become the guide for the development of a community through various stages, culminating in full membership in the Sword of the Spirit. Throughout the world, new communities have been formed and joined the network. 

Once the difficulties of the 1980s had been overcome the Sword of the Spirit experienced substantial growth. In 1992 there were six full member communities and twenty-six communities in total. By 1997 there were twelve full member communities and forty in total. In 2017 there were thirty full member communities and eighty-seven communities in all.

Latin America has seen the greatest growth in new communities: as of 2017, there were thirty-eight communities in the Ibero-American Region, which also includes Spain and Portugal and predominantly Spanish-speaking communities in North America. The Ibero-American region was also the first region to subdivide into “zones” and it now consists of five zones. The North American Region has twenty-one communities and the Asian Region sixteen. The Europe and Middle East Region includes thirteen communities in nine different countries, amongst them speaking eight different languages. In 2017 the region began the process of subdividing into zones—European and Middle Eastern.

In recent years the Sword of the Spirit has seen new growth in parts of the world where it has not been previously active. In 1996, the Lamb of God, an ecumenical community with branches in various cities of New Zealand, first affiliated with the Sword of the Spirit. The Lamb of God became a full member community in 2006. A few years later, Roger Foley and the leaders of the Lamb of God took over responsibility for the Patmos community in Suva, Fiji. Soon after, they established close ties with a circle of Pentecostal churches in Fiji, and in 2010 the “Cornerstone Lamb of God” community in Nadi, Fiji, entered into an agreement to be formed in the Sword of the Spirit by the Lamb of God community. 

The People of God in Lebanon, having themselves endured seventeen years of civil war and ongoing political instability, have fostered and overseen the beginnings of communites in Turkey, Syria, Qatar, Israel, and elsewhere. They heroically initiated and have since supported the fledgling community in Aleppo, Syria, in spite of the fierce fighting in that country. 

In 2004 a small group of expatriate Filipinos established the community known as God’s Light in Sydney, Australia, and in 2015 the Families for Christ community in Melbourne, Australia, became an affiliate community.

Some communities, like the Lamb of God, have joined the Sword of the Spirit after having lived community life for many years. Others are completely new. Some have grown from the alumni of a student outreach like UCO. A new community in Seattle, Washington, recently began to form when members of other communities in various regions moved to the city for jobs in its growing economy. In various parts of the world the Sword of the Spirit has been expanding by establishing university and young professional outreaches, and then working with those evangelized to develop into a community. Over time we have learned much about how to plant the seed of community, and how to help it grow and bear fruit.

Intergenerational Community

We in the Sword of the Spirit have always believed that God called us to intergenerational community. In a sense, the first and most fundamental evangelism is that of our own children. The vision of intergenerational community is always a challenge to achieve, and that challenge has greatly increased with the growth of a globalized, media-driven youth culture. 

In the earliest years the challenge was manifold. We were learning about family life and raising children and doing so in the midst of a culture in which family life itself was being challenged in an unprecedented way. We were learning how to live in community and dealing with the perennial problems of interpersonal relationships both within community and among communities. In those earliest years we did not meet the challenge very successfully.

The early setbacks – when children who were raised in community did not choose for community themselves or became outright rebellious – were very difficult. Relationships within families were at times strained, and in the face of failure with our own children, confidence in the call was diminished. 

In spite of this the communities persevered, and beginning in the 1980s a major effort was made to understand the needs and challenges and respond to them. Greater investment was made in work with the youth, and communities shared their experience and knowledge with one another. Slowly these efforts bore fruit. More of the children raised in community chose for community. The Gap program was established, and in this way youth could experience the richness of life in a multi-national, intercultural community. As a byproduct of the Gap program there was a sharp increase in inter-community marriages, which strengthened ties among communities. The vision of the “Youth Bridge” has also significantly helped our young people. It shows how we can help children and young adults make the transitions from one stage of Christian and natural maturity to the next. Now more and more of our young people are growing up to be solid Christians, and keen to espouse the call of the Sword of the Spirit and put their shoulders to the work of maintaining the richness of community life and mission.

In spite of these efforts some communities suffered a serious demographic gap in membership because so many young people in the 1980s left community when they came of age, and were not replaced. When university outreaches began to bear fruit again in the early 2000s, it was difficult in some cases for the younger people to find a place with older community members the age of their grandparents.

It was during this time that the Lord spoke prophetically to us at the 2004 International Coordinators’ Meeting about the growth that would come to the Sword of the Spirit through the younger brothers and sisters. 

Your eyes will weep at what you see, your ears will tingle at what you hear, and your hearts will leap for joy at the surprising things I am about to bring to you. For I say to you that I am about to open to you a new age of evangelism among young people, the likes of which you have not seen. What I have done here and there among you I will now do abundantly in your midst. Prepare yourselves for an intake of young people that is beyond your capacity to handle. Prepare yourselves, for you lack the resources. Pray that I provide you the resources to receive, not growth, but multiplication. 

In many communities, the goal of intergenerational community began to be achieved in the early years of the twenty-first century, with a new generation starting to assume leadership. Sons and daughters raised in community, as well as members of a new generation introduced to community through UCO, Cristianos en Marcha, Christ’s Youth in Action, Koinonia, and similar outreaches, have begun to serve as coordinators and senior women leaders. 

That coincided with another aspect of intergenerational community, the growth of a “grandparents generation.” Some of the founders and earliest leaders of community reached an age where the kind of active service they had given for many years in community was no longer possible or even advantageous to the communities. Younger brothers and sisters had to take up the responsibility and shoulder the load of community service. For the first time some communities had leadership teams in which the founding generation no longer were active. In 2017, the International Executive Council of the Sword of the Spirit for the first time had no members from the earliest form of that Council. 

Perhaps the real challenge for the Sword of the Spirit will come in the decade of the 2020s, when the rest of the founding generation – those men and women who came of age before 1980 – reach retirement age and withdraw from leadership. Living witnesses to the beginnings of charismatic renewal and of covenant community will be fewer and fewer. But the conditions in the world and the church that called forth the formation of Christian communities appear unlikely to change. For fifty years, the vision of Christian community, empowered by the action of the Holy Spirit and bound by covenant commitment, has persisted in the Sword of the Spirit and in other covenant communities throughout the world, and has had effects well beyond the communities themselves. A new generation must take up this vision and persevere in the work that their elders, with the help of the Lord, worked hard to accomplish.

In spite of all the challenges, the Lord’s bounty will not fail. As communities grow throughout the world, we hear continually the prophetic word that God has greater things in store. One of the most encouraging signs is that we are not alone. The Sword of the Spirit is part, not the whole, of God’s work in the world today. This has been the clear word to the community throughout its life, and now has become more apparent than ever.

In 2017, at the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal in Rome, Bruce Yocum, a longtime leader in the Sword of the Spirit, was invited to address a members of covenant communities – the Sword of the Spirit, the Catholic Fraternity of Covenant Communities, and the European Network of Communities, another ecumenical group like ourselves.

When a mountain river gets a good ways down the mountain it becomes deeper, broader, even more powerful but less violent. You can get your head up and look around. After the charismatic renewal had become an accepted and ubiquitous aspect of the life of the church I began to notice that it was not the only river on the mountain! There were in fact, and literally (not an exaggeration) hundreds of these powerful currents: Neocatechumenate, the Focolare, the St. Egidio movement, Communion and Liberation, Cursillo, and many, many more. They are all new, all products of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church in the twentieth century. 

We rightly appreciate the great work of God that is the charismatic renewal, and for us in particular charismatic community. But when we lift up our heads out of the roaring, rushing waters of the action of God that has formed us and carried us, we see that we are one of many powerful currents rushing along, many other new forms of life in the church which began contemporaneously with us and are both like us and quite different from us.

The Sword of the Spirit is only a part of the greater movement of charismatic covenant community, which in turn is only one of the movements that God has raised up at the dawn of the new millennium. Since the beginning of the renewal, the prophetic vision of the Sword of the Spirit has been the same: as the world becomes harder for Christians, more de-Christianized, God will raise up more communities to proclaim Christ to the world.

The need for Christian community has become clear to many. Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian, in his widely-read book The Benedict Option, presents a vision that is familiar to anyone involved with covenant community. He looks at the post-Christian society in the West, and calls on all Christians to unite and live in a new and countercultural way:

It will be those who learn to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper through the flood. 

This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training – just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If the ancient Hebrews had been assimilated by the culture of Babylon, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.[3]

Relearning the lost art of community is something Christians should do in obedience to the Apostle Paul, who counseled the faithful to do their parts to grow the Body of Christ, “for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:15).[4]

But Dreher is only a recent echo of a call heard from many quarters of the church in the last few decades. Alasdair MacIntyre, probably the foremost moral philosopher in the English-speaking world, has written:

It is always dangerous to draw parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire descended into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels are there…. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict. [5]

This sentiment was also expressed by the late Charles Colson, a prominent Evangelical leader who participated in the Allies for Faith and Renewal conferences and published his book Against the Night through Servant Publications:

Thousands of such communities of light exist around the world in accountable fellowships where the gospel is faithfully proclaimed and where members reach out in an effort to bring God’s mercy and justice to those around them…For as the church maintains its independence from culture, it is best able to affect culture. When the church serves as the church, in firm allegiance to the unseen kingdom of God, God uses it in this world: first, as a model of the values of his kingdom, and second, as his missionary to culture.[6]

The prophetic call to the Sword of the Spirit is still what it has been for the last fifty years: to stand firm against the darkness of surrounding society and to trust in him. Never more than today is the “art of community” necessary. As the culture around us becomes more hostile to Christianity, and institutions essential not only to the church but to human flourishing crumble, the witness of people alive with the Gospel and committed to one another will be more sought after. It is for such a time as this that the Lord has called the Sword of the Spirit into being, and he has promised that he will provide the communities with his power.

This is part of the series: A Brief History of the Sword of the Spirit

Top photo credit: image of Christians standing together holding crosses, photo ©  Rawpixel.com, from Bigstock.com, stock photo ID: 149189999

[1] “Report from the Sword of the Spirit Council” (19 October 1990) attachment to “Minutes of the Sword of the Spirit Council Meeting, Steubenville, Ohio, October 15-19, 1990,” p. 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2017), pp. 18-19.

[4] Ibid., p. 142. 

[5] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), p. 263

[6] Charles Colson, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1989), pp. 156, 159.

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