At least once every week, someone emails me to ask about Quest Church’s history, connection, and affiliation. Specifically, are we non-denominational, independent, cultic, or affiliated with some sort of denominational group? People tend to be scared of charismatic Asian dudes with long curly hair and bad patches of facial hair.
Minhee and I initially planted Quest as a non-denominational church. I had no interest in denominations. I was burnt out. I was weary and cynical about organized religion and chose to leave my then denominational affiliation. The theme of my life – then – was ‘rage against the machine.’ I was somewhat of an angry deconstructionist pastor. It was probably a good thing that I had no idea what ‘blogging’ was back then because it would have been pretty intense. But after some months, I also came to realize that I didn’t want to pastor or lead a church on an island to ourselves. We felt we could do more in partnership and relationship with other like minded and like hearted followers of Christ. So, after some months of intense research, conversations, and reciprocal interviews, we decided to partner with the Evangelical Covenant Church.
Some of my friends still give me grief that I chose to partner with “a bunch of Swedes” particularly because diversity and multiethnicty was always an important ecclesiological pursuit for my vision as a pastor and leader. So, why did I partner with the ECC even despite no truth to the rumors that Covenant pastors receive 50% discount from IKEA? You might be surprised since many still don’t quite know much about the Covenant denominaton.
Several months ago, I received an invitation from Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger [authors of Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures] to contribute my story of relationship with the Covenant to Fuller Seminary’s publication entitled Theology, News, and Notes. You can click here to read the link off Fuller’s website or read below why Quest and I chose to partner with the Evangelical Covenant Church.
How about you? What church do you attend and why? What denomination [or non-demonination] are you a part of and why?
I would like to introduce the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) to those who may not be familiar with this small but growing denomination: The ECC is a global Christian denomination that serves the world through local churches, community development organization, compassion and justice through world relief, and global missions. It is a partnership consisting of more than 750 congregations and nearly 150,000 people that work together for the purposes of loving God, loving our neighbors, and reaching the world with the gospel of Christ. The ECC was founded by Swedish immigrants in 1885 but is now one of the fastest growing denominations that crosses barriers of race, gender, economics, and borders.
Having entered a Presbyterian seminary in 1992 and spending a good ten years worshipping and serving in Presbyterian churches, my introduction to the ethos, culture, and community of the Evangelical Covenant Church has been a learning experience and journey. In 2001, my wife and I planted an independent and nondenominational church called Quest. A year into our journey, we decided to join the ECC. During the summer of 2004, I was ordained as a minister of the Word and sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church. After spending a couple of years in a Presbyterian church during my college years, and obtaining my Masters of Divinity at a Presbyterian seminary (Princeton Theological Seminary), I could not have conceived being ordained through the Evangelical Covenant Church.
Furthermore, in 2001 when we were about to plant Quest, after ten years of ministry in different denominational contexts, I had basically rejected any denominational loyalties, affiliations, or ties. I had left my previous denomination and sought to do ministry in a “nondenominational context.” I was extremely disillusioned by what I perceived to be an unhealthy bureaucracy of the denominational and insitutional network. Did denominations exist to serve the local church or did churches exist to serve the denomination? Was denominational structure and polity another example of bureaucracy gone awry or institutionalism devoid of spirit and life? Those were the questions that basically led me to plant a church separate from any denominational relationship.
After denying any value of a denominational relationship, I returned—slowly—to the conviction that Quest should not be an island to itself. I saw we needed to be in relationship, friendship, and partnership with others, so I began to investigate what, where, and how we could be connected. I was particularly drawn by the ministry philosophy and convictions of the ECC. The Covenant was committed to
- reaching the unchurched, particularly the emerging generation;
- pressing forward in ethnic ministry and diversity;
- extending greater measures of compassion and justice to the poor and desperate;
- attending to the health of existing congregations;
- forming spiritually mature disciples who live out obedience to Christ in the world;
- calling forth and equipping women and men for all levels of church leadership;
- pursuing expanded strategic global opportunities and partnerships.
- Theologically, the main tenets of the ECC were similar to my theological convictions.
- Lastly, I appreciated the organizational and organic structure of the ECC. Their polity of giving both accountability and direction, and still giving space for freedom in ethos, culture, and expression was particularly important to our urban, multiethnic, emerging, and postchurch context.
Identity and Freedom
No church is perfect. And certainly, no group of churches—or denomination—is perfect. In short, our community decided to partner with the ECC and I sought my ordination through the Covenant because, while it is clearly a denomination, it least resembles a denomination.
The ECC was founded by and for Swedish immigrants and community in the United States in 1885. In time, the ECC began to understand that its mission could not be exclusive to Swedish Americans. There were theological and ecclesiological reasons for this realization but there were also pragmatic viability concerns. The ECC understood that in order for the denomination to survive and be relevant, they would need to embrace a broader ecclesiology and cultural engagement—without compromising their theological core and identity.
In other words, while the ECC clearly understood its identity, mission, theology, purpose, and history, it was also secure enough to allow dialogue, freedom, and contextualization to take place. This has been the essence of Quest Church’s relationship and experience in our partnership with the ECC. We are thankful for organizational and theological structures that allow for a local church community’s organic development, expression, and ethos. True to its self-description, the ECC is
- Evangelical, but not exclusive
- Biblical, but not doctrinaire
- Traditional, but not rigid
- Congregational, but not independent
When Quest began its initial relationship with the ECC in 2001, I was most appreciative of their willingness to hear our story. After I poured out my hopes and dreams for our church community, I still remember the words that one of the representatives of the ECC shared in response: “I’m not quite certain how we can help, but we’d love to come alongside you.”
The ECC has processes, systems, and structures developed over a long history, but this attitude spoke to a willingness to listen and explore new expressions of ministry and missions. Their support for different churches like Quest is an example of that. While the majority of ECC churches are traditional Covenant churches with deep Swedish roots, here is a sample of the growing diversity of newer churches in the ECC:
- JPUSA (Jesus People USA), Chicago, IL
- Life Church.tv, Oklahoma and multistate sites around the country
- Bayside Covenant Church, CA
- Newsong Church, Irvine, CA
- The House Hip-Hop Church, Chicago, IL
- Emerald City Bible Fellowship, Seattle
Quest Church: Our Story and Our Partnership
To better understand our church and our partnership with the ECC, one must understand our context and culture. We are a church in the city of Seattle in the northwest region of the United States. The following are some unique characteristics of the ministry at Quest:
- Planted 7 years ago in Seattle with 500+ in the current congregation.
- An urban and missional church five minutes from downtown.
- A multiethnic church with diversity in leadership and congregation (currently 35% Asian, 55% Anglo, and 10% other).
- A fairly young congregation (early 2007 survey indicates average age: 24 female/26 male).
- Some socioeconomic diversity but most have college degrees or working towards degrees.
- Less than 5% are homeowners; largest work force are social workers and non-profit folks.
- Issues of justice, mercy, and compassion are important to the community.
- 80% of church community lives within 5 miles of the church but not necessarily in its immediate neighborhood.
Our partnership with the ECC has been fruitful because they have been willing to engage in conversation. While Quest has had to undertake a long process of getting to know the ECC through classes, conferences, meetings, papers, and interviews, the ECC has also done their part to listen to our stories and learn from our ministry philosophy. Through that process, not only has relationship and trust been built, but they have also grown to become deep advocates of our community and ministry.
Through the ECC’s direct and indirect support Quest has been able to
- help plant Quest Church so that it can be a catalyst to plant other churches in the future;
- help start a non-profit neighborhood café and music/art venue;
- partner with ECC organizations to aid global relief and mission projects;
- be blessed through a 65-year-old Covenant church that chose to merge into Quest Church and, subsequently, gift us all their resources.
We launched our community and ministry on October 14, 2001. When we first started meeting, we were not a Covenant church, we were just a local group of believers. But as we journeyed forward, we knew the value and need to be part of a larger Christian body. We had months of conversation with other pastors and denominations, but we were very moved by the ECC’s passion and commitment for mission, justice, and church planting. We saw an opportunity not simply to be encouraged by the ECC in what we are doing, but an opportunity where our community church could impact and serve the denomination. Simply, we saw an opportunity for relationship.
As we were looking for a place to hold our weekly services, we were introduced to Interbay Covenant Church in Seattle. Interbay had purchased a warehouse next to their church building about twenty years earlier and had used it for their youth ministry in the past. But at the time we started talking with them, it was vacant and no longer being used. The 4,500-square-foot building (a combination of office spaces in the back and a larger open warehouse space in the front) drew our attention as a space for a nonprofit café and community center we wanted to start. Both congregations began to pray to seek wisdom, and with much support from the denomination, we received permits from the city of Seattle to renovate the building. After three months, the work was completed.
As a church, we didn’t want to simply talk about our faith—we wanted to do something significant for our community. By the simple existence of our church community, we believe there will be more elements, evidence, and expressions of beauty, mercy, justice, kindness, arts, and more in the city of Seattle. For these reasons, we helped transform the warehouse to benefit the larger neighborhood and city. The warehouse includes Q Café, a nonprofit and nonreligious café with the following identity:
Q Café is a nonprofit neighborhood café in Seattle featuring direct trade espresso and tea, live music, art, and community events. We proudly serve Stumptown Coffee; support local artists and musicians through our art gallery and live music venue; host many groups through the rental of our space; host community events; help collect resources for the homeless community; and give back 10% of all cafe sales to local and global nonprofit causes.
One of the most significant things that took place in our church’s young history also involved Interbay Covenant Church. In June 2007, after 1.5 years of conversation and prayer, Interbay Covenant Church decided to merge into Quest Church—then a six-year-old Covenant church plant. Though this process, the 60-member congregation of Interbay agreed to die to themselves in order to live on through and with our community and ministry. Our mutual relationship and trust with the ECC enabled this “merger” and gifting to take place.
I often share with our church community that no one exists on an island to themselves. It was this conviction that drew Quest into relationship and partnership with the Evangelical Covenant Church. And because of this conviction, we have been able to grow deeper in our commitment to the four themes of our church: The Human Soul, Community, Justice and Compassion, and Global Presence. We are thankful for this partnership and look forward to journeying together.