It’s early morning in Portland, home of two thriving churches that have been locked out of their once denominational home, the Evangelical Covenant Church. I am alternately fuming and despairing at the expected exclusion of another Covenant church, First Covenant in downtown Minneapolis, arguably the most historic church of the denomination—the denomination of my birth and four plus decades of work—that is still alive and breathing well without life support. Then an unexpected but welcome image reappears in my head: a preacher who for 20 years stood weekly and more in the pulpit there as pastor while becoming known world-wide, now in the pulpit of First Covenant Church, Omaha, delivering the Sunday morning sermon, prime element of a weekend preaching mission. That preacher is Dr. Paul Stromberg Rees.
It was 1966, a volatile time. Major national civil rights legislation had passed, but the aftershocks of racism were far from over, and Omaha was typical. A young North Omaha barber, a firebrand named Ernie Chambers, had become the local MLK Jr., loved by his people, derided by much of the rest of the city. Augustana Lutheran Church had been handed unwanted notoriety when the popular film “A Time for Burning” recorded in cinéma verité, had revealed the church’s resistance to inclusion of people of color and covered the forced departure of its noted young pastor, Bill Youngdahl, because of his ambitions toward closer relationships with a black Lutheran church. Both First Covenant and Augustana Lutheran had deep roots in Omaha’s Swedish-American community and close friendships, although unlike Augustana, First Covenant had left a near-downtown location for what was then far west suburban Omaha to build it’s new church home, on the face of it isolated from urban frenzy.
Paul S. Rees had resigned from First Covenant Church, Minneapolis, in 1958 to join Bill Pierce and World Vision. Rees had been, and continued to be, much involved with Billy Graham crusades, but he had plainly caught a new vision of ministry, for himself and the evangelical church, that caring for the basic physical needs of others must be added to any description of personal holiness. For years I had on a bulletin board in offices in various church settings a Rees meme: “The gospel is more than social action; it is never less.”
This morning, for reassurance and challenge, I’ve once again listened to a recording made of Paul S. Rees speaking at the World Congress on Evangelism in 1966 in Berlin. Remember that it is 1966, when the words “social gospel” were a red flag creating passionate objections among evangelicals. Dr. Uta Balbier, in a 2017 analysis of the importance of the first World Congress, wrote this:
There was a striking agreement between all the presenters of the central position papers that the main goal of global evangelism should be personal salvation instead of social reform. The American key figures Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga defined this American evangelical core conviction as the ideological center of the congress. Henry made this clear in his introductory paper: “For good reason we repudiate the inversion of the New Testament by current emphases on the revolutionizing of social structures rather than on the regeneration of individuals; we deplore the emphasis on material more than on moral and spiritual betterment.” Even if other representatives were less explicit, a clear commitment to a social gospel was missing from all position papers.
Paul S. Rees, who two weeks earlier was preaching to us in Omaha, Nebraska, was given 11:21 minutes at the end of the Congress to speak on “evangelism and social concern.” It is thrilling to hear that magnificent voice and skilful turns of phrase, but far more, to hear in that voice and those words the passion that compelled his unequivocal social concerns. Those few minutes could hardly have been packed with more power. I invite you to use 11 minutes to listen and ask yourselves whether Paul S. Rees qualifies as a prophet or not—whether he speaks to us 53 years later as clearly as he spoke in 1966 to world-renowned evangelical leaders who were confident they knew for sure the full extent of what world evangelism required and to me back then, barely 10 years into my life of ministry.
I am unsure what the leaders of the Omaha church had expected from Paul Stromberg Rees when they’d invited him, likely plenty of evangelism and a good dose of the straight-forward holiness preaching that had been earmarks of his books and ministry. They’d also invited Jim Davies, once Rees’s colleague as music director at First Covenant, Minneapolis, and a friend of many in Omaha, including Annette who sang with his direction at Grace Bible Institute years before, to be the weekend song director, creating a full-blown preaching mission. But whatever they had excepted, they definitely were not expecting, nor was I, what we heard that Sunday morning. Other duties as Minister of Christian Education kept me from attending the service, but I managed to get away to the church office in time to hear the sermon. There, where the state-of-the-art sound system was controlled, several stood to listen. As I listened today to his speaking in Berlin, I was strongly reminded of that Sunday morning. The sermon closely resembled the talk he would give in Berlin in which he told the story of three Atlanta pastors dismissed from their congregation because of their struggle for inclusion of people of color (and likely he told of the exclusion of the Nigerian as well), and then said, after a heavy pause, explosively not in volume but intensity, “If you have that sort of blood flowing in your veins, do not call yourselves by the name of Jesus.” There was dead silence—in that church office, in me, in that congregation—before he moved on.
At the end of that evening’s service there was an altar call for those who desired to be disciples of the Jesus he’d been telling us about. Still in awe of what I’d heard that morning, I walked forward with a several others. That time in my life had been a period of much indecision, uncertainty about my future in local-church ministry, the possibility of returning to graduate school, a consuming lostness, and thus in that movement down the church aisle, earnest longing with no sense of what I was up to.
That evening, after Paul Rees and several others, including Jim Davies, had come to our home for one of Annette’s usual Sunday evening sit-downs with coffee and whatever on the table (and he had leaned back in his chair which broke the back with a resounding crack), I took him to Eppley Airfield for his red-eye flight. There was time for conversation. We drank cokes and talked about my uncertainty and indecision. He urged me to wait for divine guidance, for openings, for clarity, and we prayed together, and he was off. I recall no susequent personal encounters with him. When, about 10 months later, a phone call came from Douglas Cedarleaf inviting me to consider returning to North Park Covenant Church in Chicago and joining the staff, I felt certain that the door Paul Rees had talked about was opening, and I feel even today that that call truly was an opening to undreamed of directions.
Far be it from me to theorize about how or where Paul S. Rees, or anyone else from a past era, might be standing today with regard to LGBTQ inclusion but, you know, I’m willing to speculate that he’d be standing with his beloved First Covenant Church and perhaps facing those who devise ways to exclude that church and its pastors with the same 1967 vehemence: “If that sort of blood is running in your veins, don’t call yourselves by the name of Jesus.”
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Afterword: In 1973, then 73 years old, Paul Rees joined a determined dissident group of evangelicals, mostly much younger, in signing the Chicago Declaration of Social Concern (a group that included, surprisingly, Carl F. H Henry, his name appearing next to that of his son, Paul Henry). Thirty years later Christianity Today, opined about that meeting, “The conference’s concern would not be so unusual today. . . .Thirty years ago, only a frustrated minority—like those at the Chicago meeting—thought so. . . .Three decades ago, a lot of evangelicals would have called this political meddling, if not selling out the gospel.” Paul Stromberg Rees: part of a frustrated minority and one who had powerful influence on that remarkable change. I find it enormously interesting also that Paul Rees was joined by one other member of the Evangelical Covenant Church in that signing, F. Burton Nelson, and to consider that Paul and Burton were colleagues in that frustrated minority. I have no doubt at all that the F. Burton Nelson I knew so well, and his spouse, Grace, were they living, would be standing unabashedly beside Dan and Holly Collison and the members of First Covenant Church, Minneapolis, in frustrated indignation, defending the right of dissent and dissenters within the Evangelical Covenant Church.