A Promise for Us and Beyond Us
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Studies of the American church can leave us feeling like it’s in trouble. Declining membership, aging congregations, a mass exodus of young people, and diminishing cultural influence—all of these realities paint a bleak picture. If God through Christ has promised salvation by transforming lives and the world, then why hasn’t that reality come to pass?
Abram was well acquainted with this frustration. Called by God to leave his homeland and family, Abram journeyed toward a foreign land God promised to give him, along with descendants as numerous as the stars. But all doesn’t go smooth for Abram. The land caused a family rift, and he resorted to his own designs to beget an heir, Ishmael.
In Genesis 17, God came to Abram again to make a new, everlasting covenant. It was a covenant promising an heir, but more importantly, it was a promise to make Abram and his descendants God’s people. Struggling to see the possibilities in his new name and the power of God to fulfill his promises, Abraham laughed at the absurdity of having a son by his old and barren wife Sarah. God’s promise was so long in coming to Abraham that he attempted to have a son, Ishmael, by a handmaiden. That was the extent of God’s promise, right?
I don’t believe Abraham doubted God, but I do think he got tired of waiting and preempted the promise. We struggle with that temptation as well. Out of fear, impatience, or both, we desire to defend the existence of the church. Through our own efforts, we try to fulfill God’s promise. We resist the movement of the Spirit and forget God’s faithfulness. And though our efforts might be well and good, they also might not be as wonderful as what God has in store for us. Even when we try and control the promise, God remains faithful beyond all that we can conceive.
The Meserete Kristos Church—the Anabaptist church in Ethiopia—was less than twenty-five years old when the communist Derg came to power in 1974. For several years, it found ways to exist within, as well as resist, the Derg. However, in 1982, persecution forced the church underground. The situation resulted in new conceptions of discipleship and leadership. Prior to the Derg, Beyene Mulatu remembered, “believers were few, and it was hard work to get people to accept the gospel and to keep them following on with the Lord. Now it seems that things just happened.” Looking back, he observed,
I realize we tried to shape our church by writing a constitution, so our church would appear proper, having a clear administrative structure that we could show to anybody and say, ‘This is what we have.’ But God didn’t want it that way…and we are thankful for that. We had to forget all our paperwork.
Five thousand members of the Meserete Kristos Church went underground, and when the Derg collapsed in 1991, their numbers topped 50,000. Today it’s the largest Anabaptist church in the world. Through this crucible, the Meserte Kristos Church discovered a new reliance on God. The results of that dependence and the creative possibilities it unleashed resulted in growth greater than anyone imagined.
We stumble when we cling to our control of the promise instead of trusting in the new—and maybe even miraculous—fulfillment God has in store. God will bless our efforts just like God blessed Ishmael, but they will not be the same as God’s fulfillment of the promise. Because ultimately, God is at the center of the covenant with Abraham, and God is at the center of the same covenant with us. When we falter and fail, God is faithful. God is the one ultimately responsible for continued viability of the church. Not us. Our responsibility is to be faithful to God in the here and now, to trust in God’s character and timing. Let us confess and surrender our impatience and desire for control, and in prayerful faithfulness anticipate what God has in store for us. God’s covenant to Abraham was for him and succeeding generations, and that same promise to be our God is for us now and extends beyond us into the future.
O faithful God, keeper of everlasting covenant, we confess our faithlessness; again and again we turn away from you. Forgive our sin. Heal us with the balm of your steadfast, covenant love. For you alone are God and we place our trust in you. We give you thanks for though we were far off,
You came near to us with compassion, mercy, and love. Great is the LORD and worthy to be praised; Who forgives our transgressions and remembers our sin no more. AMEN.
(Adapted from Words for Worship #154, Arlene M. Mark, ed.)
Regina Wenger is a Ph.D. student in history at Baylor University. Her research examines Protestantism and American public education. She contributes regularly to the Anabaptist Historians blog.
 Beyene Mulatu, interview by Nathan Hege, Addis Ababa, Jan. 19, 1996 quoted in Nathan Hege, Beyond Our Prayers: Anabaptist Church Growth in Ethiopia, 1948–1998 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998), 197.