175th Anniversary of AEC
With only a brief quarter-century left until the 200th Anniversary of the Evangelical Church of Armenia, now is the time to frankly assess where our Church has been, where it is today, and especially to think carefully and strategically about where it is headed. Are we willing to do this in a way that will help the Armenian Evangelical Church emerge from its current identity crises and existential difficulties, and present a heritage to those born today, the 25-year-olds of 2047, and offer them a clear trajectory for the calling Christ has given our Church?
We must honestly admit that few in our churches – pastors of all ages, lay leaders, and church members young and old – know their history well, and therefore few appreciate its importance as we look to the future. The Armenian Evangelical Church was born in a time of intellectual ferment among the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire and was merely one expression of that heady environment. Though the wealthy class and the ecclesiastical leadership under their direction reacted negatively, many Armenians recognized in the Armenian Evangelical Church a reclamation of the freedom of conscience and personal conviction that would enable the Armenian people to flourish. History shows that the first forty members of the church knew their divine calling: to bring a Gospel orientation to every aspect of the life of the Armenian people. Evidence: the multiplication of Armenian Evangelical educational institutions in disparate corners of the region, serving as leaven, enabling progress in the thought life and the well-being of all strata of Armenian communities, irrespective of religious affiliation.
Successive attacks by Ottoman Turkish officials on their Armenian citizens beginning in the late 1800s turned the focus of the Armenian Evangelical Church and its international partners toward relief and reconstruction efforts. This crucial turning point altered the outlook of the Church. Yet, out of these catastrophes the Armenian Evangelical Church in North America birthed the Armenian Missionary Association of America, which from the outset aimed to reconstitute the religious and educational life of the decimated communities. With the heroic efforts of Armenian Evangelicals in the Near East, strengthened by the financial support of the AMAA, the Church rescued the remnants of a flourishing ministry and helped guide the Armenian nation into a productive, forward-looking element throughout the Middle East.
Yet, there was also a weakening of the challenge of nation-building to which the first Armenian Evangelical leaders had risen. A donor/recipient model became entrenched in the relationships between the Western portions of the Armenian Evangelical Church and those in the Middle East. After an initial outpouring of effort in multi-faceted service to the Armenian community, efforts turned to maintenance, as emigration from lands near the Homeland continued apace, and institutions and ministries were forced to operate with decreasing personnel. Few were able to look forward with a vision for development and progress.
At the same time, the Armenian Evangelical churches in the West became centered on purely ecclesiastical activity, with a lessening focus on standing with the entire Armenian people. This, too, was a type of a Diasporan “maintenance mode.” With demographic changes in their young members, Armenian Evangelical churches often strove to become an Armenian version of a local community church or denomination, even to the point where some doubted the necessity of the Armenian language or questioned the need to write “Armenian” in their church name.
Successive unrest, wars, and the 1988 earthquake in Armenia as well as the Artsakh war of that same time period stirred the Armenian Evangelical Church to reconnect to its cultural roots and search for ways of strengthening Armenia. Yet this, too, was fraught with risks of further entrenching the donor/recipient model, with which the Church struggles to this day. Its unique identity and calling remained in the background. The confusion in Armenia of whether the Church is a cult, and Armenia’s confusion over its name (“Missionary” or “Evangelical” – only one letter difference in Armenian) point to the need to deepen an awareness of the Church’s history, heritage, past and current contributions for the common good.
Today’s Armenian Evangelical Church tends to minimize the distinctives that would make it a blessing and a challenge to the Armenian nation, while aligning itself with globalized church movements. For example, whereas there was an effort in the 1970s through the 1990s to bring Armenian-style music into the Armenian Evangelical worship life, today there is a pervasive satisfaction for using western “worship music” with Armenian words, not unlike the domination of western melodies from the 19th century with Armenian or Turkish words. In the earlier as well as the latter instances, our Church has practically turned its back on the centuries of musical and literary spirituality available to it, which has nourished the Armenian nation from its earliest times. It has also widened the gulf between it and the great majority of the Armenian people to whom God has called it to serve.
Part of the reason for today’s situation rests in the Armenian Evangelical Church’s lack of a unified training ground for those following God’s call to Christian ministry. With each Union preparing its leaders in locations it finds appropriate, Armenian Evangelical pastors find less and less in common as co-workers in God’s Armenian field. The Near East School of Theology in Beirut is the closest thing we have to an “Armenian Evangelical institution” and being located within the Near East Union its students, whether from the region or from Armenia, gain an Armenian Evangelical outlook during their studies. Yet, as an institution, it offers little preparation for pastors preparing to serve in the Armenian context. And along with God’s guidance, contextual theology is key to the vitality and growth of our beloved Church.
Though difficult, these issues are necessary to consider. We must enter these hard places in order to dialogue with one another. They bear sober consideration if the Armenian Evangelical Church wishes to live to see its 200th Anniversary, and not become loosely affiliated prayer houses in various countries throughout the world. Elsewise the Armenian Evangelical churches would best use their efforts toward rapid assimilation into their surroundings. Certainly, part of our Church’s calling is to be a light and a blessing to the communities where they exist throughout the Diaspora; but it must do so with a clear sense of who it is, where it has come from, and what it needs to do to take up Christ’s call to it, and be a vital and engaged part of the Armenian nation, facing all of that worldwide community’s challenges and hopes with a deep trust in the guidance of God’s Spirit.