Personal Remembrance: Paul Johnston

STORIES of the Past and VISIONS of the Future

By Paul Johnston

I have been around the Pasadena Covenant Church for a long time.  The number of years I will not tell you, but I will give you a hint.  I started out in the Primary Department of the Sunday school, with Alice Anderson as my teacher (some of you will remember that Alice Anderson was the “coffee lady” of Pasadena Covenant Church).

During this time I have heard my share of sermons in this sanctuary.  Over three thousand (3,000), I would calculate!

  • Some good, some not so good!
  • Some in a language I did not understand!
  • A few so outstanding that I can still remember their content!

To be fair in my evaluation, I must say that these sermons introduced and led me to a new life in Christ, and aided in my spiritual formation and maturity.

But I must confess to you that I am an active listener, who evaluates what I hear, and tests it against what I know and have experienced.  I have even said to myself while listening: “I could do better than that.”  Now that I have my chance, I am not so sure!  I am supposed to say something that honors our Lord and is worthy of your time.  An awesome task if one thinks about it for a minute or two.  But I shall try and do my best.

In my “other life” I was a surgeon.  I would be more comfortable doing a complex operation on you than I am now standing before you.  But in that circumstance, you would be the “uncomfortable one.”

My assigned task today is to relate to you some stories of our past as a church that will inspire us today and in our future.  I have titled this talk: STORIES of the PAST and VISIONS of the FUTURE.  I have chosen the period of time beginning in 1946, and continuing for the next 17 years, the time of the ministry of Arvid Carlson.  I chose this period because it contains some really good stories!  I also chose this period because it is far enough in the past that most of you here today will not be able to test the veracity of every last detail of the stories I tell.  They are true, but I can’t swear to every last detail.

Nineteen-forty six (1946) was a pivotal year in the life of our church.  In that year we called as pastor who was committed to ministry only in the English language, and to reaching out to our American neighbors.  It was only as late as December, 1940 that this church voted to conduct all services in English and to forsake Swedish.  Previously we were an ethnic church, at first Swedish, then bilingual, and now in 1946 irrevocably committed to English.

Elmer Fredrickson has already described for you how we developed our physical plant during this period.  We build a sanctuary, a Sunday School building (Sonshine Hall), a parsonage, and a Youth Building and Gym, and ended up with practically no debt.  I shall tell you of some of the programs for ministry that attempted to build a bridge to our American neighbors, and to present them as good news of the Gospel”.

  1. The Cradle Roll Ministry.  In1947 one of our members, Ollie Roth, conceived the idea of contacting the mother of every newborn in Pasadena.  The mother would be given a small gift and a message of congratulation, and also an invitation to attend a parenting class and a Bible Study once a month in various homes.  Apparently this approach had appeal and met a need, for in a short time a class of 30-40 women met regularly each month.  For special times, such as a Christmas Party, twice that number came.  With the type of introduction to our church some from the class started to attend the church.  A national Christian magazine featured an article about this program entitled “The Church that Cradle Roll built.”  Our membership did increase during this period, in fact nearly doubling in size (from 279 to 543), in no small part due to this ministry.
  2. Campus Club.  In 1955 the church called Jon Braun as its first Youth Pastor.  Jon was an energetic, innovative PK (preacher’s kid) who previously had worked in the Young Life Movement.  He said “Let’s start a similar type program for our high school youth and their friends, at the church, and call it Campus Club.  The evening started with dinner, then songs and skits, and finally a message from Jon.  A fun time, but with spiritual meaning!  With the completion of the Youth Building and Gym in 1961, this program grew in numbers and effectiveness.  Youth Pastors, such as Don Erickson, Dave Stoop, Curt Peterson, Rob Johnston and others, continued the program over many years, with great effectiveness.  At its zenith, over 100 high schoolers attended.  It took many volunteers, in addition to the staff, to make the program work.  For the program, there were lay counselors such as Warren Thompson and Joni Bicker.  For the logistics of the meals, there were many volunteers; the name of Rose Tahmisian comes prominently to mind.  For its time, Campus Club was a very effective means to minister to high schoolers and their families, and incidentally, a great training ground for future pastors.
  3. New Churches.  Our pastor had a vision of outreach beyond Pasadena, and he had the hope of aiding in the start of ten (10) new churches in Southern California.  We didn’t reach that goal, but we did help seven (7) churches with a gift of $10,000 each.  And $10,000 in the 1950’s was “real money.”  Lillian and I bought our first home in 1950 in Long Beach for $11,500 – a new 2-bedroom, one bath house of a little less and 2,000 sq. feet.  The same house today would probably sell for $200,000.  In addition, we as a church built and paid for one of the lodges at Alpine, and endowed a lectureship in evangelism at North Park Seminary in Chicago, gifts of $7,000 and $5,000.  The church at that time was able, fortunately, to be very generous with its financial resources.

I do not relate these stories to suggest in any way that these programs should be replicated in our church today.  They had their day!  Times are different now!  Different congregation.  Different financial resources.  Different culture in our larger society.  It calls for a new approach.  It is up to the present members and friends of Pasadena Covenant Church to determine how we shall fulfill the mission of this church in our day.  Perhaps it is Elizabeth House.  Or Alpha Ministry.  Or something else not yet thought of.

I would like to emphasize the concept of the mission in the church a little more by considering our name.  We call ourselves: Pasadena Covenant Church.  We know what Pasadena and Church stand for; but what does Covenant mean or stand for?  A strange term with little or no obvious meaning!  One might think of the Old Testament and of God’s Covenant/Promises to Israel, especially since our Pastor is presenting a sermon series on a Journey of Promise about Abraham and Sarah.  The promises to Israel have now passed on to the church, and one could say, of course, that’s what Covenant means in our name.  A nice thought, but wrong!

Before I tell you the precise meaning, consider with me the names that other churches call themselves.  These names are rather strange and amusing if one stops and considers them critically.  We usually don’t.

If you are, or have been a Congregationalist, a Presbyterian, or an Episcopalian, your church is named for a type of church government.  You can only be an Anglican in England, for the name means The English Church.  If you are a Methodist, your name reflects a “method” for holiness or spiritual maturity advocated by John Wesley, and that method was the small group for prayer, Bible Study and group encouragement.  If you are Lutheran or Mennonite, your name is taken from the founding-leader of the movement.  If you are Baptist or Pentecostal, you espouse a doctrinal view, either adult baptism by immersion, or the baptism or filling of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace.  Baptists like modifiers in their name: there are General, Regular, Conservative, American, Southern, Missionary, and Free-will Baptists.  If you are a Free Church, you state that you do not accept any financial subsidy from the government.  Or maybe you are tired of all denominational labels, and you just decide to call your church Christian, or Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ.  It’s amazing to me how many churches don’t like the term “church.”  They would rather be called a Center (a Christian Center), a Fellowship, or an Assembly.

Well, let’s get back to the term Covenant!  What is its meaning and how does it relate to our mission?

The precise meaning comes out of our history.  Before there was a Covenant Church, there were “Mission Friends,” a revival movement, pietistic in nature, within the State Lutheran Church of Sweden in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  These “Mission Friends” met in small groups for prayer, Bible Study, and encouragement.  Their name had several connotations. First of all, these humble servants of Christ were friends to each other.  Their sense of community was very great.  Secondly, they dared to consider God as a friend.  Their religious experience was personal and intimate.  “I have a friend who loveth me” was the start of one of their favorite hymns.  And, thirdly, they were friends of World Mission.  They would raise support for missionaries out of their meager earnings, for most of them were very poor.  And, finally, what they coveted for peoples the world over, they also wanted for their friends and neighbors at home.  Their passion or mission at home was to introduce people to the new life in Christ that they had experienced.  The passion was expressed quaintly in this phrase of greeting:  “Are you saved?”, which they used to greet one another and their friends.  The message of salvation was to be shared.

To get back to the meaning of Covenant.  It means: that we as friends, as a community of believers commit ourselves to each other, or if you please, covenant (promise) with each other to fulfill this mission of sharing the good news of the Gospel with our friends and neighbors.

I will close with an enigmatic statement of the mission of the church. 

Before I do, let me qualify the statement by an analogy.  It takes three legs for a three-legged stool to stand.  Take one away, and it collapses.  So it is with a church, I believe.  One leg is public worship and preaching.  A second leg is education of both children/youth and adults.  A basic knowledge of the Bible is essential for our faith.  And a third leg is fellowship and community, but it’s not fellowship for fellowship’s sake, but fellowship in (promoting) the Gospel.

Here’s my closing statement about the mission of the church.  Not original with me; I’m sorry I can’t state the attribution, but listen carefully:

The church was instituted NOT primarily for its members or even attendees…but it was created for those people who do not as yet attend!!

Thank you very much for your attention.

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