Published May 9, 2013
Bible, relationships form church's foundation
Evangelical Covenant embraces diversity of its congregation, places special focus on youth
By Pamela Lannom
When people think of Evangelical Covenant Church, one of two things usually comes to mind: the church’s preschool or its living nativity Christmas Eve service.
“We impact the community through our preschool,” said Pastor Paul Allen, who serves as the church’s co-pastor with Jim Kramer. “I would say right up next to that has been that Christmas Eve tradition. When I walk through town, people walk up and say, ‘You’re the pastor at the Covenant Church.’ They’ll say they come every year. They make it a family tradition.”
Although not all church members are families with children, the church does place an emphasis on programs for children and youth, said Jill Rhiner, church council chair. She said surveys have shown up to 85 percent of Americans say they accepted Christ between the ages of 4 and 14.
“If your evangelism is most effective with children and youth, that’s why we’re putting so much of our time and resources and energy into the various programs we have for youth,” she said.
Children are exposed to Bible stories and songs starting in the nursery, and pre-kindergartners through sixth graders learn one Bible story a month in Sunday school. The B.L.A.S.T. — or Bible Learning Adventure Stations — program teaches stories through arts, games, drama and cooking.
“Once they’ve gone pre-K to sixth grade, they know about 50 Bible stories that way,” Rhiner said.
Seventh- and eighth-graders participate in a two-year confirmation class that focuses on the Old Testament the first year and the New Testament the second. Each confirmand is paired with an adult who serves as a “friend in the faith,” Allen said.
“It’s more than just cramming info,” he said. “We’re trying to build relationships and help them think through faith choices.”
The church also has an active Sunday night program for high school students called Hi-League. Summers bring camping trip opportunities for families and older kids.
“Christian camping is a big piece of helping kids think through their faith away from parents, away from routines,” Allen said.
Members who are past the age of raising children still find plenty to do through activities like the monthly senior luncheons and the CDROM (Changed Direction, Retired Old Men) group.
And those individuals, many of whom have a long history with the church, bring a richness to the congregation that Rhiner appreciates.
“I think that is what has been so cool for us,” she said. “Even though I didn’t grow up in this church, I so enjoy meeting people who grew up in this church, (who) have been here for decades. The stories they tell are amazing.”
Allen also enjoys the diversity of ages in the congregation.
“I had come from a church in Naperville that was really young families, predominantly, and I just walked into this church that had this span of people into their 90s all the way down to their babies,” he said.
Allen came to Evangelical Covenant in 1999, about six years after Kramer joined the staff as assistant pastor. At the time, Kramer had been asked to serve as senior pastor. He agreed to take the job only if he could share it.
“At the same time I was looking for a sharing of the pastoring role, Jim Kramer and the church here was looking for that,” Allen said. “It was a pretty smooth transition. We see God’s hand in that.”
Allen also sees support for this type of team approach in the Bible.
“I have a bias when I read the New Testament and that’s the way they did it, too. That’s a conviction I’ve had and my experience affirmed it,” he said.
The Bible serves as the ultimate authority in the Evangelical Covenant theology, Allen said.
“It gives us an authority that we all can gather around, in many ways as equals,” he said. “It’s a very democratic kind of church where the authority is the Scripture given to us. We gather around it, some more learned than others, but we study it together.”
That appealed to Rhiner, who grew up Lutheran, and her husband, who grew up Methodist.
“I think what we liked about the church is there wasn’t as much of a focus on doctrine or rituals and it was really just Bible based,” she said.
Individuals do have room to bring their own perspectives, Allen said.
“That allows for lots of diversity, because there are lots of different ways of looking at the same book and we don’t have to line up on the same page with all those details,” he added. “We just have to come to the book as our authority, and that is good enough.”
The church’s diversity is also reflected in the three types of worship services offered: traditional, contemporary and blended.
“This church had a contemporary service when I came and it was more contemporary than what I had ever experienced in a church — and the traditional service was more traditional than any service (I had experienced), so I loved that diversity,” Allen said. “What we’ve added in between when we moved into the new building (addition) is a blended service. This church has navigated it quite well because we give people choices.”
The distribution of worshippers help keep each service more intimate with gatherings of 80 or 90 people instead of 260.
“It keeps the service quite personal, interactive,” Allen said.
Families also have choices as their kids’ grow up, Rhiner said.
“We have evolved,” she said. “When my children were small, we came to the traditional service and loved being able to worship together in the way I was used to, with the hymnal. Now I have three teenage boys and they like to go to the contemporary service.
“At first I didn’t love it, but now I love it. I love that we can still worship as a family. And part of it is even just a timing thing. My teenagers don’t want to get up and go to service at 9 a.m.”
Sunday morning is just part of members’ spiritual lives at the church. Several adult ministries and intergenerational opportunities, including a summer mission trip to Nicaragua this year, keep members focused on their faith throughout the week.
“I think we have a really active congregation because people are here on Sunday morning to worship, but then there is so much going on off Sunday morning with Bible study and prayer group and fellowship events and service opportunities. I think that’s where people really start to experience that spiritual growth, and you also get to be in small groups then,” Rhiner said.
Allen said he’s excited that many of these groups have not been initiated by church leaders. They’re “more of a grass roots kind of eruption,” he said.
“I love being part of that kind of church, where stuff is bubbling up all over and you’re just trying to keep track of it.”
Affiliation: Evangelical Covenant
Founded: Feb. 6, 1892, by Swedish immigrants who joined the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination in 1918
Pastors: Jim Kramer and Paul Allen serve as co-pastors, Lars Stromberg is pastor to youth and families
Worship: 9 a.m. traditional, 10:15 blended, 11:15 contemporary with Christian education for all ages at 10:15 (September through May)
Average worship attendance: 260 at all three services
Location: 412 S. Garfield Ave.
Facility: The church and sanctuary date back to 1931. An education wing, which now houses the preschool, was added in 1957. The most recent addition in 2007 included a new entrance, kitchen and multipurpose room.
Theology: The Holy Scripture is the word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.