is a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles (BA -
Political Science - 2002) and Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. -
2005). Rev. Balabanian delivered this speech on June 28, 2008 at
19th Biennial Assembly Banquet at the Hilton Hotel in Glendale,
The Significance Of Being Evangelical Armenians
Rev. Aren Balabanian
Having grown up in an Armenian Evangelical family, I was used to going to the Armenian Evangelical Martyrs’ church in Aleppo, Syria. When we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, it was a 45 minute commute from our home to the Calvary Armenian Congregational Church. We had a youth group of maybe three kids - and I honestly did not understand the purpose of why we had to go so far. We were passing dozens of churches on the way there - couldn’t we go somewhere closer? What was the point?
I remember my first AEUNA convention experience in 1994, when I was 13, and my parents said, “We are going to Montreal for the convention.” I was so upset because it was in the middle of the World Cup of Soccer and NBA finals. I thought, “What is the point?” Why did we have to do these things? At this point, little did I know the impact the ministry of this Union and its churches would have on my life!
Maybe some of us have reached that point where we also say, “What’s the point?” Maybe we have dedicated years of service to the Armenian Evangelical Union, or maybe we have been more on the periphery, but we do ask what is the point - in 2008 - in the United States of America? Is this ministry even essential? Is there a future for our Armenian Evangelical Union?
I would like to briefly use the three main parts of our name - Armenian Evangelical Union - and using these three main parts look back at our roots, and by looking back to also look to the present and future.
First let’s look at Evangelical. Unfortunately, in our culture in the last few years, Evangelical is a term that is identified more with a political base rather than its rich biblical meaning, which comes from the Greek word for good news and Gospel.
From the beginning, Armenian Evangelicals have been focused on the Gospel and its fundamental doctrines. They knew what they believed, and why they believed it. They believed that the words of Scripture were the very words of God - the perfect, inerrant Word of God. When our evangelical forefathers were first exposed to Scripture, they thirsted and hungered for it, and were amazed that they could be holding the Word of God in their hands.
From Scripture, they were convinced that we are dead in our sins, having no way to save ourselves, and that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. They were convinced that there was no other way to salvation than through God the Son who became man and died the sacrificial death for our sins as our substitute, and was physically resurrected to defeat death.
They were passionate about the Scriptural truth that we could only receive the benefits of Christ’s work by grace through faith. We did not deserve it, and no amount of good works could earn it, but by putting our trust in Christ, we graciously received the benefits of His work.
To our Evangelical forefathers, these weren’t just theories. These were transforming truths that they were willing to base their entire lives on, and willing to even give their lives for.
The American Missionary, William Goodell, was an eyewitness to the plight of the first Armenian Evangelicals, and he saw firsthand the sacrifices that many of them made because of these truths that they held dear. In his memoirs he wrote: “Many are driven from their homes, and denied a shelter or a drop of water from any sect; refused a place to live in, a place to die in, or a place to be buried in; unable to work, for whoever employs them shares their fate; thrown into the filthiest prisons for want of security, and whoever offers himself for security is thrown in with them.” They were willing to endure untold hardships, because they knew that this was a matter of eternal consequences. They were not willing to deny the truths that they found so clearly in Scripture.
As they were going through these persecutions, one of the first Armenian Evangelicals uttered some amazing words that reflected their commitment to Christ: “My daily prayer to God is that even if there should not be left a single person except myself to witness for the truth, He would still give me faith to stand firm for the doctrine of salvation by grace in Christ alone. I know that all the resistance we can now make to error, we are making for coming generations.”
For coming generations. For us. What gratitude we ought to have to God for our forefathers! We live in a culture that mocks the idea of absolute truth, and hates the message of the Gospel that forgiveness of sins comes only through Christ. But God has preserved his Gospel, and we are stewards of that Gospel today. Are we as Armenian Evangelicals - the coming generations that man spoke of - still committed to these unchanging, essential truths of Scripture, or are we tossed back and forth by the waves, going with what is popular and convenient at the time? We as Evangelicals, as pastors and lay people, have the responsibility not only to know the truth, not only to believe the truth of the Gospel, but to boldly and lovingly stand for the truth of the Gospel and live our lives in light of it.
So, we are Evangelicals, but we are Armenian Evangelicals, which gives us a unique calling. As we live in the United States in the 21st century, we might think, “Is there a point in us being Armenian churches?” On the other hand, sometimes it is said that we as Armenian Evangelicals are not Armenian enough - we don’t value our ethnicity and culture enough.
Again looking back, our Armenian Evangelical forefathers never wanted to deny their national identity. They loved their nation and people. But their discovery of the Gospel completely transformed their love for their people. They would quote the same verse that St. Mesrob used to quote many centuries before, as he labored to spread the Gospel among our people. They would quote the Apostle Paul, and refer to the passion he had for his people in Romans 9:2-3. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.” Paul saw the spiritual condition of his people, having a form of religion but not the substance, and it grieved him, and gave him a great desire to reach them. The Evangelical Armenians had the same burden and desire for their people. There was now such an incentive to reach fellow Armenians with the Gospel; Armenians who had Christianity as a title, but did not know Christ personally.
As they preached this Gospel, and as the Armenian Evangelical movement spread, there was a transforming effect on our people and culture! Schools were opened, countless young men and women were educated, and social needs were met.
Their culture, even their language, became not the end itself, but a powerful instrument to reach our people. They did whatever was necessary to reach the people. In areas where Armenians spoke primarily Turkish, the Bible was translated and distributed in Armeno-Turkish. In primarily Armenian speaking areas, the Bible became available in the modern Armenian of the people. Church services were conducted in the language of the people. Language and culture were great tools in reaching the people.
Our heritage is a great gift from God, but a gift to be used for His purposes. It is not by accident that God made us Armenians. The burden that the first Armenian Evangelicals felt about our people is a burden we should still be feeling today, because we know that sadly, many Armenians still are Christians only by title, and they need the life changing truth of the Gospel.
So as long as there are Armenians, and as long as there are people who need the Gospel, there is a great need and a great purpose for the Armenian Evangelical church. Whether we use English or Armenian, it is our calling to reach our people and to impact our community. In Romans 10:14-15 we read, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"
This is our calling, to be people of the Gospel and sharers of the good news. So, we are Armenian Evangelicals, but we are also a Union. A Union of churches, in fellowship with sister churches. As instruments of the Holy Spirit, the ministries and the churches of the Union ought to bring the Gospel and its benefits to our people.
I can share with you the fact that through some of the ministries of the Union and its churches, I personally received the benefits of the Gospel. I went from thinking, ”What’s the point,” to seeing God actively working in my life. As a teenager, through the ministry of Camp AREV and AEYF, the Gospel was preached to me. When I went away to college, away from my family and home church, I was able to be a part of another Union church where my faith and knowledge of God grew. I was also given my first opportunity to serve through some of these ministries, and was given the opportunity to teach and preach God’s Word. My passion to serve God grew as a result. I was also given a godly community, a community of believers, living in the same city and in different cities, as we walked alongside each other in our faith. And I am not an isolated case. God has used the same Union and the same churches to make an impact on so many others.
God is faithful! He has worked among us and is still actively working among us. He has been faithful to us, even when we haven’t been faithful to Him. But God’s faithfulness does not mean that we are exempt from being faithful ourselves. It does not mean that we can be passive or settle for mediocrity. It does not mean that we can bypass our responsibility to defend and proclaim the fundamental truths of Scripture. The way we show and prove that we believe in the faithfulness of God is not just by praising Him for his past faithfulness, but by what we attempt for Him in the days to come. As theologian Sinclair Ferguson states: “God’s faithfulness is not only retrospective, but prospective.” Our trust in the faithful God is not just indicated by being grateful for His faithfulness in years past, but by our commitment to faithfully and passionately serve Him in the days to come.
As a Union, we can do that by having a unity in the essential truths of Scripture, realizing the Gospel is the only hope for our people. As churches, we have to go to even greater lengths to reach our people. As a fellowship of churches, we need to encourage one another and foster unity as we minister. As pastors and lay people we should not just complain when we see imperfections and flaws in our Union and churches, but to use these as incentives to be even more dedicated to the work of the Lord, and to more actively support our churches and the ministries of the Union.
As we serve Him faithfully and passionately, we can be confident that there is a point, and a crucial ministry for us as Armenian Evangelicals. We don’t know all the details of what is to come; there might be difficulties and problems that we have to face and overcome. But even though we don’t know exactly what the future holds for us, we do know the perfect, faithful, and sovereign God who holds us and the future in His hands, and with that, we can go forward purposefully and boldly as Armenian Evangelicals.