“Once you were no people but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy”1 Peter 2:10
Intro to this issue
This issue begins a series of reflections on committed relationships and covenant Christian community. How did covenant community begin? And what is its significance for the wider churches today?
Covenant Christian community began some fifty years ago in a very unlikely place – on a secular university campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, among a group of students and local residents who were hungry for God and for the action of his Holy Spirit. Since that time numerous covenant communities have developed worldwide, including the Sword of the Spirit which currently has some 90 communities in 28 countries.
In the summer of 1969 the Lord began to speak to a charismatic group of predominantly university students in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA about his intention to do a new work among them. He said, “I want to make a covenant with you, but you must first smash all your idols.” He then enumerated what seemed like an endless list of things which stood as idols in our lives in place of the Lord himself. Both conviction and wonder seized our hearts that night as we prayed and pondered, “What idols do I need to smash?” and “What is a COVENANT?”
In the following months the Lord led us in repentance and in deeper conversion of heart. He began to give us a burning desire to give our all for him, to throw our lot in with one another, and to serve the Lord together in whatever way he chose to lead us. While our 1960s idealism and youthful enthusiasm made us open to new forms of lifestyle and communal living, we weren’t really prepared for committed relationships of covenant love.
We studied the Scriptures to see what we could learn about covenant and community and we prayed and discussed together how we could respond to the Lord’s leading.
We came to a renewed understanding of and appreciation for God’s covenant love for his people. His love is marked by hesed, the Hebrew word which expresses committed love, faithfulness, mercy, and loving-kindness. We realized that since Christians shared in the New Covenant established by Christ, we have a distinctive relationship with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Through prayer and seeking the Lord together we came to a firm conviction that God indeed was calling us to live a shared life of committed love as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Called to a shared life
At the end of the summer of 1970 we took a retreat together at a camp in the hills of southeastern Michigan. After prayer and deliberation we agreed to make a covenant together as a community, and we adopted a pattern of community life and order based on New Testament teaching and patterns of life in early Christian communities. A community covenant statement was written, and we took a few weeks to pray in preparation for making our public commitments together.
Our “Covenant Statement” summarized what we believe we heard from the Lord.
In order to respond to what God is doing among us and in order to be that people he is calling us to be, we desire to give our whole lives to him, to follow his Son, Jesus, and to live more and more in the Holy Spirit. We desire to love and serve him in lives of daily prayer and service; to praise and worship him always; to ever seek his face; to know and serve the truth of his Word in joy, peace, and love of the Holy Spirit; to believe what he speaks to us and to be obedient to the truth of his Word and the guidance of his Spirit; to offer hospitality to those whom he sends to us; to widen our hearts to those he adds to our number; and to carry out the mission that he is entrusting to us. Above all, we desire to be a people who always grow, by his great mercy, in the fervor of that first love he has given to us – he who is our all. We desire to consecrate our lives to him, not simply as individuals, but as members of a people – members of The Word of God.
On September 28, 1970 we gathered together to offer our lives corporately to the Lord. Some 99 brothers and sisters each stood in turn and publicly made their commitment to the Lord and to one another: “I want to give my life fully to God and to live as a member of The Word of God.” A prophetic word was spoken after we had made our covenant commitments: “This is a night of importance for my church…tonight I am restoring much that has been lost…” That night we knew that God had changed us and knit us together as a people, as brothers and sisters in the Lord. And we knew that he had called us together, not just for our sakes, but for the sake of his work of renewal and restoration throughout the body of Christ.
A prophetic sign of restoration
Today there are many hundreds of covenant communities around the world. What is the significance of covenant community for God’s people today? First, it is a signpost of what God is bringing about through the gift of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. It is a visible public sign of the Lord’s work of renewal in bringing people into a revitalized relationship with God, and it is a sign of the unity he desires for all his people. The unity we already have as brothers and sisters in Christ stems from baptism and the gift and working of the Holy Spirit. This gift of life together enables Christians of different traditions to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and to live together in real shared life. This unifying grace is a hallmark of God’s work today.
Second, covenant community is a servant of the renewal. It is meant to be a prophetic sign to the rest of the charismatic renewal, and to the churches, and to the world. It’s a message to everybody, but not everybody is called to this particular form of community. People should be able to visit covenant communities and see how the Holy Spirit is renewing his people and restoring to them a fuller shared life together. It is part of the nature of a sign that you cannot be everything. Covenant communities cannot do everything and cannot solve all problems. They are only a part, but, nonetheless an important part of God’s work of renewal and restoration.
May we who live in covenant Christian communities renew our love and commitment to faithfully follow the Lord together as he wishes to direct and use us as his servants and ambassadors in the world today.
Sincerely in Christ,
Top photo credit: photo collage of community activities past and present, (c) 2020 Living Bulwark/The Sword of the Spirit