A Conference and a Banquet – 07/02/2022

On the occasion of the 175th Anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Church

By Rev. L. Nishan Bakalian*

Conferring together for the future of the Armenian Evangelical Church, clergy and lay from across the globe gathered for the second day of this anniversary weekend. Assembling in the Yerevan sanctuary of the Evangelical Church of Armenia on Saturday morning, July 2, 2022, the conferees were welcomed by the Senior Pastor of the Evangelical Church of Armenia (ECA) Union, Rev. Mgrdich Melkonian, who offered the day’s consultations to God in prayer. Rev. Joël Mikaélian, President of the Armenian Evangelical World Council (AEWC), presented the day’s theme, based on the verse, “Let us run with perseverance the race set before us” (Heb. 12.1).

The morning sessions were dedicated to an historical view of the Armenian Evangelical Church, the AEWC, and the five member Armenian Evangelical Unions. They were also intended to be a time for each Union to express the challenges it faces, and to hear similar concerns coming from the other Unions.

Setting the stage for the initial presentations was the AEWC Executive Director, Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian, who though unable to be physically present, prepared a short video in which he explained the basic events surrounding the birth of the church in Constantinople in 1846, and laid out the major areas in which the Armenian Evangelical Church has contributed to the growth and well-being of the Armenian people. Rather than being a occasion for resting on our laurels, Rev. Tootikian challenged the assembly to consider how to pass the torch to the coming generations.

Thereafter each Union representative came to the stage to sketch out its present makeup along with its challenges. Without exception the Unions (North America, France, Near East, Eurasia, and Armenia) spoke about the difficulties they face in understanding or maintaining their identity as Armenians, along with the shortage of church leaders, especially of clergy. It matters little whether a particular Union is facing financial stresses or security issues, or whether it enjoys material wealth and safety, the issue of leadership remains primary. Even in the case where there are no empty pulpits, such as Armenia, the issue still looms on the horizon.

Though not a Union, the AMAA also presented its story, and how from its inception it focused on the strengthening of Armenian national and spiritual identity wherever it serves. Executive Director Zaven Khanjian also put forth three challenging realities that concern the AMAA: namely, the continual crises in the Middle East, the inevitable decay of Armenian identity in the west, and the dependency of Armenia on outside assistance. Mr. Khanjian also offered a quick overview of the Stephen Philibosian Foundation, noting how strongly the Philibosians felt about the education and well-being of Armenian children in the Near East.

When the youth representatives of each Union were finally able to offer their perspectives, certain themes emerged, particularly the need for inclusion of youth in meaningful ways in the life of the local church. They challenged the attendees, particularly the clergy, to give priority to the preparation and equipping of their youth for outreach and service, by providing a strong biblical base and the ability to face the challenges of today’s world. They, too, are concerned about their Armenian identity, though each face different circumstances and deal with them in different ways. As well, they wish to see their peers on the forefront of sharing the gospel, standing together as a community in an extremely individualized world. One young man shared a particularly meaningful comment: “We are a small church and sometimes feel alone, but it is a great blessing to be here with all of you and realize we belong to a big church family!”

After lunch in the newly-renovated cafeteria of the AMAA Center, the conferees divided into groups to examine a series of questions and then share the outcome of their deliberations with the entire group. Topics included the structure and function of the AEWC, ways to promote mutual awareness and support between Unions, the training and inclusion of young people in a life of discipleship and service to their communities and the Armenian people, and taking particular care to help young people discern the call of God to ministry work. The deliberations of these groups will be forwarded to the Council for them to discuss and then pursue in their next meeting this fall.

The conference closed with a brief meditation by Rev. Albert Paytyan on the sacrifice acceptable to God, followed by Holy Communion officiated by Rev. Hendrik Shanazarian, and concluding with a prayer of dedication by Rev. Dr. Paul Haidostian.

Later in the evening, as if an antidote to all of the sitting and listening they did, many of the group attended an anniversary banquet of the organization “Espoir pour l’Arménie” (Hope for Armenia). Founded in 1989 by the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in France, over the years it has offered not only material relief, but has brought group after group of volunteers to Armenia to hold children’s and youth camps and serve in other ways. In a breezy outdoor setting at the Congress Hotel, the evening’s program included an offering of thanks to all those in Armenia and the U.S., especially to AMAA officers and staff, who helped Espoir pour l’Armenie in their mission to bring hope to the Armenian nation.

* Rev. L. Nishan Bakalian is the Coordinator of Church Relations of the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East.  Rev. Bakalian’s ministry in Lebanon is supported jointly by the AMAA and the Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ