July 2007 - Vol. 10

Called Together 

Reflections on the beginning of covenant community in the early 1970s

by Don Schwager

I have lived in Christian community for over 40 years now and I have visited over half of the 65 covenant communities in The Sword of the Spirit worldwide. Why do we call our communities covenant communities? How did the covenant community movement begin? And what is its significance for today? I canít write as an historian or a theologian, but I can offer an eye-witness account of God's action in establishing covenant community and in his faithfulness to us over the years.  
The beginnings  
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 God has said. "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 1960's idealism and youthful enthusiasm made us open to new forms of lifestyles 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 Godís covenant love for his people. His love is marked by hesed, the Hebrew word which expresses committed love, fidelity, faithfulness, mercy, and loving-kindness. We realized that since Christians shared in the New Covenant, we have a distinctive relationship with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We had a firm conviction that God was calling us to live a shared life of committed love as brothers and sisters in Christ in a particular way in community. 

Called to shared life together as brothers and sisters in Christ
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 as close to that of the New Testament as possible. A community covenant statement was written, and we took a few weeks to pray in preparation for making our commitments. 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 ó he who is our all. We desire to consecrate our lives to him, not simply as individuals, but as members of a people ó members of The Word of God."
In the fall of 1970 we gathered to offer our lives corporately to the Lord. Some 50 brothers and sisters each stood in turn and publicly made their commitments 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 sign of restoration  
Today there are many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of covenant communities around the world. What is the significance of covenant community for 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 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 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 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 it. People should be able to come to covenant communities and see that this is what the Holy Spirit is doing to renew his people, this is what the Lord is trying to produce. 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.  

We are privileged to live in community  
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, Life Together, speaks of the privilege Christians have to live in visible community with other Christians. It is something we should not take for granted.  

ďIt is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.  There is his comission, his work. ..So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians."
We believe that the Lord has called The Sword of the Spirit, an international network of covenant communities, for this age, a time of significant change and upheaval in the world and a time of difficulty and spiritual conflict for many Christians. But it is also a time for great spiritual awakening and evangelism, and for building Christian communities throughout the world to stem the tide of evil and to strengthen God's people. 

[Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word and the author of the Daily Scripture Reading and Meditation website.]

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