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Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · pp. 211–16 

Ministry Compass

Why Not Just Live Together? Some Reflections on Covenant Community

David Dyck

In my work as a pastor, there are two occasions when I feature the word covenant. One is a wedding ceremony where a man and a woman make a lifelong covenant to each other “for better or for worse.” And the other is a baptism and church membership ceremony where a believer enters a covenant relationship with the local church “for better or for worse.” And on both these occasions I treasure the word covenant because it describes a quality of relationship that is very close to the heart and character of God.

It is in our promise-making and our promise-keeping that we deeply reflect God’s image in our lives.

But even the casual observer today would agree that these covenant relationships are at risk. Our Western culture has redefined marriage in a way that makes “living together” and divorce all too common. And in the local church more and more Christians are becoming church “switchers,” people who casually move around from one church to another.


But what has caught my attention lately is that we as Evangelicals and Mennonite Brethren are far more concerned about the decline of marriage as covenant commitment than we are about the decline of church as covenant community. We take a strong moral stand against “living together” and breaking our marriage vows. But in our covenant relationships in the body of Christ we are more and more permissive, making and breaking promises with hardly a blush.

A case in point is an article that appeared not long ago in Envision {212} magazine entitled, “Church Switching.” 1 It quoted a Canadian study by Reginald Bibby that found that seventy percent of new members and attendees in Evangelical churches today have come from other Evangelical churches. In other words, much of the heralded growth in our churches today is not growth at all, but just Christians switching places.

But what I found surprising was the conclusion the writer came to. She wrote: “We live in a culture of choice; switchers must be welcomed as a reality of church life in 2001.” 2 In other words, “Get used to it, folks; it’s the new morality.” I could hardly imagine this conservative Evangelical writer saying the same thing about couples “living together” or breaking their marriage vows. But that double standard only illustrates my point: that we in the church have made peace with the spirit of the age and have happily accommodated ourselves to a promiscuous culture.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say clearly here that I believe there are reasons for leaving a church, just as I believe there are reasons for leaving a marriage. But my concern is that the reasons for leaving a church today have become more and more frivolous, and that they sound all too much like the reasons many people leave their marriages today: “My needs aren’t being met; I’ve found something more alive and exciting; it’s too much work; I need a change.”


So the questions are why this decline of covenant community has happened, and why it is going largely unchallenged.

Of the many reasons for the decline that could be given, I want to highlight one. I believe the main reason is that our vision of the church has quietly changed. At one time, the best metaphor to describe the church was a family. The church was a people who were bonded together with the kind of commitments and loyalties that one finds in a family. Relationships were deep as people worked together, worshiped together, and resolved conflict together. It was by no means perfect, but even in that regard it resembled a family.

But that has changed today. And although many churches still call themselves a family, my observation is that they resemble more of a shopping mall. The church has become an outlet for religious consumers wanting religious services that meet their felt needs. The degree to which their felt needs are met determines their level of commitment. And if a more exciting offer comes along, or if relationships become a little strained, there is always another outlet close by to provide them with the same services. {213}

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes it this way:

The kind of community in the church today is quite different from the communities in which people lived in the past. These communities today are more fluid, and the social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. It reflects the fluidity of our lives by allowing us to bond simply, but to break our attachments with equivalent ease. 3

I believe this change from a family to a shopping mall is monumental. And it is no wonder that covenant community is on the decline and “living together” is on the rise. Covenant promises have no place in a shopping mall. People come and go as they please, forming superficial relationships and meeting their own personal needs.

But why be concerned about all this? After all, even if the church is a religious mall today, are we not still doing evangelism and running effective programs and serving our communities? Why not just “live together?”

The answer goes back to God’s vision for covenant relationships. Just as God intended much more for marriage than just “living together,” he also intended much more for the church than just “living together.” God had something far better in mind than the “easy-come-easy-go” relationships of a shopping mall. His intention was to form a redeemed community, a whole new society where his design for a new creation was on display.


Here is part of that vision as Paul described it for the early church:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. {214}

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. . . . . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:9-18, 21 NIV)

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph. 5:1-2 NIV)

In other words the quality of our relationships in the church is very important, says Paul, because a large measure of the gospel is found in the changed lives of people within the body of Christ. The church is like a display window for “the rulers and authorities of the heavenly realms” where God is showing off the magnificent power of the cross (Eph. 3:10). And it is in the ordinary lives of believers, living in faithful community, where that power is most wonderfully displayed.

And so it is no small thing when the church moves from being a family to being a mall outlet, and when relationships in the body of Christ become promiscuous. The gospel itself is at risk. And the church is little more than a mirror of the surrounding culture where relationships are disposable and selfish consumerism is god.


In light of all this, I want to make four suggestions on how we might reverse the course we are on and embrace God’s call to be covenant people. First, we need to confront some of the weaknesses of “church growth” theory. I am grateful that we as Mennonite Brethren are intentionally seeking to grow our churches today. But an unbridled strategy of growth is destroying covenant community. For example, if seventy percent of new members and attendees in our “growing” churches are coming from other Evangelical churches, then not all church growth is a blessing, or even the sign of a healthy church. It may in fact be the sign of a flirtatious church that is willingly complicit in the promiscuous living of weak believers. We would not tolerate that behavior between married couples. Why then do we bless it in the covenant community?

This kind of mindset will require a significant change in the way we welcome newcomers and the way we “market” the church in the community. We will need to resist the temptation to flirt with believers from other churches, and do our utmost to help them remain faithful to their covenant promises. As a pastor, I have to admit that this is something {215} that will cost me dearly. Nothing gives my ego more pleasure than when someone comes to my church and tells me how wonderful it is compared to the last church they attended. I relish those moments. But very little will change unless pastors have the integrity to honor the body of Christ above their own selfish ambition.

Second, to rebuild covenant community, church leaders will need to immerse themselves in a biblical vision of the church. One of the reasons the church has become a mall outlet today is because marketing experts have taken over the imaginations of many pastors. We have become far more literate in the world of niche marketing and strategic planning than we have in the gospels and the epistles. And the result is a church that is reshaped in a consumer mold.

But this is not God’s vision for the church. And the only way it can be recovered is if we root ourselves again in his Word. The Scriptures give us many rich metaphors to describe what God had in mind for his people, and we as pastors need to immerse ourselves in them and allow our imaginations to be reshaped by them.

Third, our baptism and church membership ceremonies need to reflect both the personal and the corporate dimension of discipleship. From my experience, many of these ceremonies focus mainly on the individual and his or her personal conversion story. And that is important. But there is an opportunity in this service to also emphasize the corporate dimension of the gospel and especially the meaning of covenant relationships.

I can remember a time when church covenants were an important part of our churches. A church covenant is like the marriage vows in a wedding ceremony where the scope of a covenant relationship is put into words. It would be good for us to write these covenants again and to make them a significant part of our baptism and church membership ceremonies.

Finally, we need to model the depth of relationship that Christ called us to in the new creation. As noted above, the church as a covenant community is part of God’s “good news” for a broken world. And especially in our day where promiscuity is rampant and relationships are disposable, the church can model a very different way of life.

But this will require strong purpose. We can see all around us today how the church has accommodated itself to the prevailing culture with its shopping-mall ethos. And given the strength and lure of that ethos, it will be far easier for us to continue to drift in that direction than to try to change.

But my urgent plea is that we alter our course. Paul reminds us that {216} we are to be imitators of God, and it is in our promise-making and our promise-keeping that we deeply reflect his image in our lives. Let us once again embrace covenant community as God’s design for a redeemed people and his good news for a broken world.


  1. Marianne Meed Ward, “Church Switching: Is the Grass Greener on the Other Side?” Envision 1 (Fall 2000): 2.
  2. Ibid., 6.
  3. Robert Wuthnow, “How Small Groups Are Transforming Our Lives,” Christianity Today, 7 February 1994, 22.
David Dyck is senior pastor of the Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church, Edmonton, Alberta. He and his wife, Nancy, have three sons.

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