paper was presented by Pastor Stephen
on Saturday, August 24, 1996, at the Armenian Evangelical Union of
North America Biennial Convention in San Francisco, during a panel
discussion focused on "The Armenian Evangelical Movement Looking
From The Present Into The Future." More about Pastor
Considerations For The Future of The Armenian Reformation
in North America
Pastor Stephen D. Muncherian
It would be very presumptuous of me to tell all of you what our purpose, mission, and focus should be in the 21st Century. Only God knows what He has for us in the future. At the very basis of our vision for the future should be our prayers and personal commitment to do God’s will. Certainly our forefathers, in 1846, could never have imagined the world-wide ministry of the Armenian Evangelical Church. It would be presumptuous for any of us to say what the next 150 years will be like. And certainly, making such declarations about our future could limit our experiencing all of what God has for us.
I wish to focus specifically on North America. This is where we live and our children are growing up. I feel that speaking from the perspective of an American Armenian, who has been pastoring in the AEUNA for 10 plus years, will probably be the most helpful to us today.
I would like to make three suggestions I believe are important for us to consider together if we are to move forward as a vital and effective movement of God.
1. WE SHOULD FOCUS ON REDISCOVERING OUR ROOTSWe who are of this present generation need to respect, understand, and build upon the foundation which has been laid. I say present generation to be inclusive of all generations in this room. We together, young, old, undecided, are the inheritors of this foundation. And, it is a good foundation. We should learn from the successes of those who have gone before us.
I would like to make a short comparison of the success of the past (our roots) and our present situation. On July 1, 1846 there was one Armenian Evangelical Church with 40 members and 1,000 adherents to the evangelical movement. By December 31, 1846, 6 months later, there were 4 churches with 140 members and over 19,000 adherents. By 1914, 68 years later and just prior to the massacre, there were 137 churches with a combined membership of close to 14,000, and almost 51,000 adherents. If this type of growth took place today, people would come from around the world to find out why. Armenian Evangelicals would be on Christian television programs and giving seminars around the world.
Consider, however, North America. In 1933 there were 38 churches and missions, 3,183 communicant members, and a community of about 13,000 adherents. In 1994, 61 years later at the last Biennial Assembly it was reported that there are 27 churches and missions, 3,638 communicant members, and 11,557 adherents. Something has gone terribly wrong.
One reason our forefathers were so successful was that they knew their reason for existence. They were committed to the reformation of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the spiritual transformation of the Armenian Nation. Secondly, they knew what they believed. They had a personal relationship with our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ and were trusting Him as their Savior. And, they gave 100% of everything they were to the accomplishing of God’s ministry through them, to sharing the Gospel with others, even those who were not Armenian.
Today we are struggling for identity. Are we a movement or a church? Are we a movement which has become a Church? Are we an Armenian Church, an Armenian American Church or and Armenian Church in the process of becoming American. (When I say American I am speaking of North America as inclusive of Canada.) Should an ethnic church even exist in North America? What really is our purpose for being here?
Consider our lack of identity and purpose as a reason why we are loosing ground rather than moving forward. Who wants to be a part of confusion? Who would like to join a movement which is not going anywhere?
If we go back to our foundation we will find a tremendous resource for our future.
Like our forefathers we should be focused on reaching our nation with the Gospel not just a our own evangelical community. And if we are afraid of offending our Mother Church, being accused of proselytizing, let us consider that the same struggles and challenges which confront us also confront our brothers and sisters who are of the Apostolic Church. Perhaps the time is coming to consider the original concerns which led to the Armenian Evangelical Reformation. Perhaps we should work together to bring Armenians to Jesus Christ without being concerned about what church God leads them to be a part of. We are not second class Armenians who need to apologize for being evangelical. We are first class citizens of God’s Kingdom with a vital message for our nation and this world. Our focus, like our forefathers, should be on the transformation of lives and the building of a community of faith.
2. WE SHOULD FOCUS ON BALANCING DOCTRINAL PURITY WITH CULTURAL RELEVANCEOne of the greatest struggles which we face is how to take the message of the Gospel and speak it with relevance within the culture of today.
One shared area of great concern and frustration for all of us is the exodus of youth and young families from our congregations. In fact, it is also a concern as to the number of senior and middle aged members who are drifting away from our congregations. Another concern is relative to our proportionate church growth. While the influx of Armenians into North America has swelled the ethnic ranks, we as an Armenian Evangelical Reformation are continuing to see a drop in overall attendance. Of 1,000,000 Armenians in North America, only about 14,000 consider themselves to be evangelical christians. I realize that this is a generality and some may disagree with my figures. However, consider the bottom line. Regardless of the change in our community, the number of evangelicals has remained relatively stagnant for 68 years.
First, consider the message we are trying to communicate. What is the message we would like to communicate?
In his most recent work, “The Armenian Evangelical Church - Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow”, Rev. Vahan Tootikian, Ph.D. states, “One of the most obvious facts about the Armenian Evangelical Church, as a whole, has been and still is, her theological diversity.” “This is so because, like other Protestant Churches, she recognizes the rights and liberties of the individual mind. The right of private judgment is one of the cardinal principles of Protestantism” (page 132). After this statement Rev. Tootikian goes on to explain the wide range of belief in the Armenian Reformation Movement. This belief ranges from liberal (modernist) to conservative (fundamental). As Rev. Tootikian concludes his chapter he refers to the “Common Affirmations and Cherished Values” of the Armenian Evangelical Churches. What is amazing is that even in the “Common Affirmations” there is diversity. Rev. Tootikian’s work presents a very valuable and enlightening insight into our current AEUNA theological situation.
In the AEUNA we have ministers and communicant members of our congregations who do not believe that the word of God, in the Old and New Testaments, is the word of God - inspired by God as His all sufficient rule of faith and practice. There are ministers and communicant members of our congregations, when we speak of salvation through Jesus Christ, that He is the only means of salvation, there is disagreement as to the meaning of this truth. There are other areas of disagreement. But these are enough.
Consider what message we are communicating. Some today would have us believe that the Bible is sort of the word of God, at least for Christians, and actually only the New Testament is relevant. The New Testament is relevant because it speaks of Jesus who is the Christ and offers salvation to mankind, or at least Christians. We believe in Jesus, who may or may not have really risen from the dead and may or may not actually be returning in a physical body.
Please understand, I am not suggesting we embark on a “hunt-for-heretics”. However, we do need to recognize one very basic fact. If we are going to present a message to our nation we should be clear amongst ourselves as to what that message is. What message do we really want to present to our nation?
People today do not want fuzzy thinking and doctrine. There is enough fuzzy thinking in our culture. People today want real answers from credible sources to the to real questions confronting their lives. There is no more credible source than the Word of God and no more real answer to our personal need than Jesus Christ.
The establishment of the AEUNA Theological and Ethical Commission is a tremendous step forward in this regard. We need to pray for those on this commission and its dialogue with our congregations. Beyond the Commissions work we each need to be committed to our own personal study and meditation upon God’s word.
Beyond doctrinal purity is cultural relevance. Perhaps cultural relevance is the greatest area of struggle within our congregations - how to take the message of the Gospel and speak it to the culture of today.
Who do we wish to reach with our message and what method will best communicate that message?. At the least, the statistics we have shared show us that we are not communicating as well as we are capable of.
One real problem we face is identifying which part of the Armenian culture we should communicate to. Who are we trying to reach with the Gospel? Armenian Americans or American Armenians? Aintabsie American Armenians or Kessabsie Armenian Americans 3 generations in North America? What about the grandchildren of Vanetsies who lived in Egypt - grandchildren who are now married to odars - and live 50 miles from the nearest Armenian Evangelical Church?
And what method reaches these prodigal children? Contemporary services in English? Traditional services in Armenian? A 50 - 50 blend? Or 73.5% English contemporary service with 26.5% traditional service in Armenian? And, while we introduce drums and guitars to reach the young what happens to those of us who feel more comfortable with a less “contemporary” service.
I can safely say that I have no idea what the answer to this struggle is. However, I would like to offer a few suggestions.
First, we should not feel alone or isolated in our struggle. The balancing of doctrinal purity with cultural relevance is not unique to Armenian Evangelicals. In fact, the wording of this point and my next one have been borrowed from Dr. Bilezikian and others from the Willow Creek Community Church. They, as Americans have asked the same questions. Also, I am aware that other ethnic churches have struggled and continue to struggle with these same issues. In fact, I believe that these two points are discussed and illustrated for us in Scripture.
Therefore, my second suggestion is an appeal made to the AEUNA Board of Directors. I believe that our AEUNA Board of Directors should address as a high priority the exploration of resources to help our congregations identify specific groups for ministry and outreach and to assist in the equipment of our congregations for these ministries. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. But, we do need to be brought together into a meaningful dialogue as to how that wheel can turn.
Thirdly, I would like to suggest to all of our congregations that they bravely consider the question of cultural relevance. Thinking in terms of identifying groups of people for target ministries is very difficult for us. Years ago our members came to the Armenian Evangelical Church because it was the place to be for community life, Armenian culture, and spiritual growth. When people lived closer, and in many cases walking distance, we came together 4 or 5 times a week. Church was like the “field of dreams” - “If you open the doors they will come."
Things have changed. Often our members feel compelled to come because they are Armenians and this is the only Armenian Evangelical Church around. Or, honoring their parents and grandparents, like it or not, compelled by duty and obligation they come. Often these are dissatisfied people who have critical attitudes and a low level of commitment.
Consider the context of life our youth live in. Aside from the AEYF - how many of you know who Beevis and Butthead are??? MTV? VH1? - Plug into the internet and anything is available to you. Imagine what our youth are confronted with
These are people God has given to us to communicate the Gospel to: married couples trying to survive in an anti-marriage culture, businessmen, working mothers, stay at home moms, etc..
While the message may be the same, the context in which people live their lives has changed and so has the context in which the Gospel is to be shared. We are now competing with American churches and American culture. It is safe to say that the methods we used in the past will not work today. We need to be honest with each other and consider what needs to change. Because, if we do not change - if we do not become relevant to where people live their lives - we will die.
3. WE SHOULD FOCUS ON PENETRATING INTO OUR CULTURE WITHOUT BEING COMPROMISED BY OUR CULTUREOn one hand we often hear a call to arms - The Armenian Evangelical Church must keep Armenian culture alive. We must build Armenian schools, use television and radio, promote the Armenian language, celebrate Armenian holidays, promote philanthropic missions, help the homeland - do whatever it takes to keep the Armenian culture alive. Why? Because if we do not, the Armenian Church will loose its reason for existence. Without Armenian culture there is no need for an ethnic Armenian Church.
On the other hand many are concerned that we have overemphasized culture to the point of compromising the Gospel. “Why should we be so involved in the Armenian Community,” they say, “after all this is a church not a secular institution.” Some see the days of the Armenian Church being the bastion of Armenian culture and ethnic survival as irrelevant in our present day and age.
Certainly, each of these points has merit. And it is sometimes difficult to keep the appropriate balance between the two. I would like to suggest that while we are skirmishing over culture we are loosing the war for the soul of our nation.
God has created us as Armenians. Human beings, created in God’s image, ethnically Armenian. It is a privilege to be Armenian. Not to stand in superiority over other nations. But, because of what it means to be an Armenian and because God has given value to our ethnic heritage through its creation and preservation. Why has God given us this tremendous gift?
Culture can be a powerful weapon in the war to redeem mankind. In the Bible, we read how Jesus, Paul, and others used culture to communicate the Gospel. Culture is a means, not an end.
We are compromised by our culture when culture is the end and not the means.Consider the ways in which we are compromised by our culture. One illustration: We Armenians are constantly recognizing each other for a tremendous number of things. Read an Armenian paper and there is always a plethora of awards being given. Sometimes people are given recognition because we hope they will make large donations. And there is special and high recognition given to those who give mega bucks. People with degrees and money are given particular recognition.
Considering our churches, where people are incensed, if after giving $5.00, we do not print their names in our bulletins or newsletters. In our churches where, like in our culture we are constantly handing out plaques and awards which people have come to expect. Where in scripture do we find an example of this exaltation and pride? In scripture, humility, servanthood, and a remembrance of those who are examples to us of faith and service, these are held up for recognition. How can we impact our culture with servanthood which resembles Christs’ if we are living in imitation of what is around us?
There are other examples - the need to work incessantly to the exclusion of our families and church. Or, the place church is given in our lives - where God is a part of our lives and not the central figure of our devotion.
The Church penetrates into culture when culture is the means and not the end.The church should be different. People are hurting and our empty and pride centered culture only reinforces that pain. We should offer an alternative. A Christ centered community which lauds our Armenian Culture. A church in which Armenian cultural events, programs, schools, and a commitment to our nation are placed alongside a firm commitment to Jesus Christ in such a way where people can see how a relationship with Jesus Christ transcends the limitations of our culture, rises above the mediocrity of today, and gives vitality and purpose to our lives.
CONCLUSIONWhat should be our purpose, mission, and focus in the 21st century. Only God knows what He has for us in the future. This however is certain. If we are to move into God’s future for us we must stand firm on the foundation which has been laid. We must reestablish our commitment to the Word of God and our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We must not shrink back from our commitment to proclaim the Gospel of life and salvation through Jesus Christ and to give ourselves 100% to that task. We must learn to be the Church which God has called us to be and to uphold the uniqueness of that community in a way which compels all men to come to Jesus as their Savior.