Report of the
Executive Director of Church Extension
October 24, 1989
Daniel G. Ziegler
"Ask the former generations and find out what their fathers learned
for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow.
Will they not instruct you and tell you? Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?" -- Job 8:8-10
Now, for the first time in the lives of any living members of the Bible Fellowship Church, we are able to follow Job's counsel with respect to the earliest history of our Church. With the publication of Verhandlungen, the minutes of the 41 Semi-Annual and 16 Annual Conferences that met from 1859 through 1895, we have access to the records of that era, documents that were unknown to our parents and to their parents.
Now we, who "were born only yesterday and know nothing" and who realize that our time on earth is oh so brief, may "ask the former generations and find out what their fathers learned . . .". We who love our Church will be eager to read and study those old German annals and we shall find that, though they are quaint and sometimes puzzling and often surprising, yet they will enlighten, instruct and challenge us deeply.
May we not be so foolish as to refuse or neglect to learn from our forebears. Such ignorance is memorialized in the common expression that it is neither wise, efficient or necessary for us to "reinvent the wheel" or the quotation that I have seen attributed to at least six different men to the effect that "he who refuses to learn from history is condemned to repeat history's mistakes."
When it comes to evangelism and new church formation, we could not choose a better segment of our history from which to learn -- for we have never since come close to the explosive growth of those 36 years.
Assuming that about two dozen persons joined founder William Gehman to form the charter membership of the first church in Zionsville, the percentage growth of that young and vigorous fellowship through 1894, when the membership numbered 683, was an incredible 2,632%. Had our predecessors and we been able to sustain that momentum till today, our present total membership would be 622,656 -- about 100 times what it is.
Were we suddenly able to regain today and continue that kind of growth momentum through the rest of the WIDER HORIZONS years, till the end of the year 2000, our membership, which is now about 6400, would swell to 51,456 -- nearly four times our goal of 14,293 members.
Our times are considerably different from the era in which our founding fathers lived and served our Lord Christ and, surely, we are different from them. Our Church was born in the midst of one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in American history and those times of spiritual renewal, refreshing power were vivid in the memories of those who populate the pages of Verhandlungen. Within seven years of the formation of the Evangelical Mennonite Society, the young nation was torn and tortured by its most catastrophic and devastating experience ever, the Civil War -- also vividly etched in the consciousness of those people who proclaimed God's Good News and those to whom they spoke it.
Those times in the latter third of the nineteenth century were simpler, quieter, less hectic times than are ours. And surely, too, the people were simpler and less hurried than are their descendants a century later. And there are some significant differences between what they believed and our Articles of Faith today.
What are some of the lessons that we might learn from those people who formed and shaped our Church and propelled her to such vigorous growth?
I. They were gripped by the Gospel.
Their lives had been transformed by Jesus Christ, and they had seen others pass through the same metamorphosis. They knew that the power for these transformations lay in the message of salvation that
centered on Jesus Christ, His work, death, and resurrection. And they proclaimed that Word boldly, incessantly and urgently to all who would listen. This emphasis set them off from other Mennonites; they called themselves Evangelical Mennonites.
The compelling force of the Gospel comes through in the report of their Missionary Society in June of 1873, "But how much is yet to be done for the future. Thousands upon thousands are still in sin, without God and without hope in the world, toward eternal death. O God, Give us wisdom and grace to work in the future with earnestness and faithfulness because "the harvest is great but the workers are few.'"
I wonder if most of us who "follow in their train" haven't lost much of the edge and urgency with which they thought about and acted on the Great Commission? As we read and study Verhandlungen, let's also read and study our hearts and work under the challenge of those men of God who as "runners for the Lord" set a bold pace for us to follow.
II. They set out to saturate Southeastern Pennsylvania with the Gospel.
The records of the Conference through 1895 name 54 difference places in which the Church had recognized continuing works. All but six of those communities are within 35 miles of Zionsville PA, the starting point.
Saturation begins in the village, town, neighborhood, city or countryside in which the church is situated. Every church should have a clearly defined primary target area which it purposes to reach with the Gospel -- to every home, every person. And it should make a commitment to accomplish that saturation within a defined time span. Only by working with clear goals as to extent and time may we report to our Lord, "What You ordered has been done, but there is still room" (Luke 14:22).
As our mission in Somers Point, NJ seeks to evangelize and grow, having already saturated its area in a phone and mail outreach, Pastor Roger Reitz is now visiting door-to-door, calling on about 100 homes per week and talking to 50 persons in ever sidening concentric circles around the congregation's meeting place, the Senior Citizen's Center. At the same time, mailing continues to the 1200 households that were located in the 20,000 "dial up" phone campaign. And the people of the congregation have been involved in other outreach efforts -- a newsletter called "The Signal" (from Lighthouse Bible Fellowship Church), summer children's Bible clubs, which saturated two neighborhoods, reached 17 new families and brought together over 50 people at a Friday night closing program and pizza party, and a projected Sunday evening evangelistic film outreach, which is being planned by a committee representing various age-groups within the congregation, which will employ various media for publicity.
In the thickly populated North Jersey metropolitan area our Edison mission carried out a massive 40,000 "dial up" phone campaign in February, followed by five mailings and a follow-up phone call to over 2000 unchurched households whose inhabitants consented to receive information by mail. Representatives of about a dozen churches helped to make the phone calls and other churches joined in providing prayer and financial support for the start-up. Nearly 200 persons attended Edison's Celebration Sunday on April 16th at that township's Washington School. In its first five months the new Edison congregation has averaged about 90 at Lord's day worship. The worshipers have averaged over $500 per week in offerings. These statistical measures of growth are unprecedented in a "cold start-up" in our history.
On September 24, nine persons confessed Jesus as Saviour and Lord in a baptismal service in Edison. Prior to their baptisms the candidates gave moving public statements of their faith in the Lord and the differences Christ has brought to their lives, demonstrating that the Gospel is still "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . ." (Romans 1:16).
Some borrowed leaders have played key roles at Edison. Clyde and Carol Snyder of Calvary Church, Coopersburg, PA have served, respectively, as worship leader and choir director; Richard and Diana Vroman of Bethany Church, Hatfield, PA have directed the Christian Education program and taught the junior and primary classes, respectively, and Rebekah Ziegler of the Newark, NJ congregation and Pinebrook Junior College headed the infant nursery for the first five months. The Vromans are in the process of moving permanently to Edison.
Saturation evangelism must entail a commitment to more than just the immediate neighborhood that surrounds a congregation. We must have a burden and a vision for contiguous communities and surrounding municipalities. Our pioneer forbearers modeled that outlook compellingly. In 1872 a resolution was passed exhorting, "That attention be paid that every preacher shall earnestly strive to carry out his important calling according the contents of God's Word, in regard to the spreading of the Gospel to look for new preaching places, so that the Kingdom of Jesus will be spread and souls won for heaven and eternal life."
Wouldn't it please the Lord and be a boon to the growth of the Bible Fellowship Church and the formation of new congregations if every pastor were carefully and prayerfully to select a community removed from but reasonably nearby his church in which to invest some of his discretionary time and energy to "do the work of an evangelist" (II Timothy 4:5)? Under the direction of the Holy Spirit he would surely find effective ways of evangelizing and discipling. Those who believe might be served by outreach ministries of that church or might become a core group for the planting of a new congregation in a needy and receptive locality.
Wouldn't it be good and right for each of the churches to select a needy neighborhood to target for outreach evangelism -- even as it continues to serve and evangelize its primary ministry area? Aggressive strategies could be developed to saturate the outlying area with the Gospel and then to edify those who believe thru extension ministries such as branch Sunday schools, youth groups, home Bible study groups, children's Bible clubs and satellite worship services, all led and staffed by the church's lay people. Some of these areas might not be large enough or receptive enough to sustain and support a fully formed church. In other communities new daughter churches could from under care of the mother church or could be committed to the Board of Church Extension for oversight of their formation.
Dr. C. Peter Wagner, leading articulator, strategist, observer and teacher of church growth states his belief that in most churches about 10% of the members have the gift of evangelism. Dr. Donald A. McGavran, the originator of the body of concepts called "church growth" urges churches to work to develop Class II Leaders -- those who practice and lead the congregation's thrust into the pagan world with the Gospel. These evangelists and Class II Leaders must be freed and encouraged to "do their thing," which is also God's thing. And they will mobilize, stir up and train others in their roles as witnesses and edifiers.
In June, 1864, the semi-Annual Conference recognized that "Jesus commands His followers and not only the Apostles, to go into all the world and to all nations to teach and to preach to them the Gospel" and that "every Christian shall love his neighbor as himself and [that] the present time is a special time of grace when every concerned Christian shall be inspired to have a part in spreading the Gospel, . . ." 29 months later, the Conference likewise declared "that all preacher and elders, as well as all members of our conference should be called upon to show more active interest in mission work, because the harvest is great but faithful workers are only a few" (italics added). Would we today heed what they "instruct [us] and tell [us]?" Will we listen as they "bring forth [these] words from their understanding" (Job 8:10)?
One of the fastest growing regions in which Bible Fellowship Churches are presently located is the Pocono Mountains. On the southern edge of that region is Cornerstone Church of Bangor, PA planted as a daughter by Grace Church of Nazareth, PA. At Stroudsburg, "the Gateway to the Poconos", is Berean Church, which has over the past twenty years been one of the most rapidly growing of our churches -- if not the top grower. A few years ago Berean Church initiated a congregation to its west in Mt. Pocono, PA. The latter attendance has averaged about 120. A "Friend Day" on September 10th brought in many new visitors from that area. There were 197 at worship that day.
Meanwhile, Berean Church has continued to grow despite the out-migration of several key families to become part of the Mt. Pocono congregation. And Grace Church of Nazareth has continued vigorous growth after giving a core group of excellent disciples to Cornerstone Church.
And now another potential core group of 5 or 6 families, with the blessing of the mother church, are exploring the prospect of forming a new church in the "West End" area, west of Stroudsburg and due south of Mt. Pocono. It was my joy and privilege to meet with those dear brothers and sisters on Sunday evening, June 4, to discuss strategies and prospects.
Another daughter church is the denomination's northernmost congregation at Pleasant Valley, NY. It is forming under the oversight of the elders of Valley Church of Poughquag, NY. It has been meeting for public worship for just about 1 1/2 years. On August 6, I was pleased to be able to worship with the folks at Pleasant Valley and to open the Word of God to them. I found the group to be warm and genuine, with a wholesome vitality and signs of true spiritual life. Pastor David Way and others of his flock are actively reaching out in that beautiful community. Their brand new Sunday school met for the first time on September 10.
The Board of Church Extension has become aware of two growing areas that appear to be ripe for planting new churches. One is the Upper Perkiomen area (Green Lane through Palm along PA Route 29), which is ringed on all sides by strong Bible Fellowship Churches. Another is the new Interstate 78 corridor between the Delaware River and route 378 in southern Northampton and Lehigh Counties. When the Interstate opens up that area will boom. Already there is growth in anticipation. Again, there are several strong Bible Fellowship Churches nearby. In each of these areas we may pray that one or more of those churches will seize the initiative to invade these targets for Christ.
Some other rapidly growing regions where our churches are located come to mind, such as Central to Upper Montgomery and Bucks County, PA, including the Schuylkill, Perkiomen and North Penn Valleys, Berks County and Lancaster and Capital regions. It would be unfortunate should we "leave the reaping to others" and allow these developing areas to populate to saturation without "lifting the scythe to reap."The Church Extension Department stands ready to catalyze,consult,counsel and coordinate "soil testing" and church planting efforts in these regions, but we believe the initiative should best come from the churches that live nearest to the areas.
Surely almost every church has one or more nearby communities that are in need of the Gospel and new evangelical churches. We should be on the alert in brotherly but real competition with other credible churches to be first into the harvest field wherever and whenever possible.
III. They pushed out the borders of the Church.
In the geographical version of the Great Commission that keynotes the Acts of the Apostles, the Lord Jesus said that after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and clothed them with power from on high, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The words that I have italicized were not lost upon our foreparents. It was not enough to saturate their Jerusalems and the nearby parts of their Judea. All Judea and Samaria were to be the sphere of evangelism and church planting.
This vision was personified and incarnated in the peripatetic Eusebius Hershey.
The words, travels and impact of this remarkable man of God are written boldly across the pages of Verhandlungen, from his unusual introduction in 1861 to his death in Liberia, West Africa 30 years later. On foot and in his horse drawn "conveyance", he traveled all over eastern PA, traversing every county, as we may learn from his letters as well as the minutes, missing few if any cities, towns, villages, and hamlets throughout that large territory. He made his home in Rebersburg in Center County, which was his point of departure for treks as far south as Harrisonburg, VA west into Ohio, Indiana and as far as Kansas and at least 14 or 15 preaching tours onto "British soil" (Canada).
While much of Father Hershey's ministry was pure itinerant evangelism, just a day or two at most places, he did settle into three areas for extended tours of church planting evangelism Juniata County, PA (1865), Potter County, PA centered in the village of Germania, (1866-1868) and Lycoming County, PA (1868 through at least 1870). Of the three only the Juniata County congregation was recognized as a fully formed church with participation in the conferences for a time.
As early as 1866, evangelistic work was undertaken in Lancaster, Lebanon and other counties in central Pennsylvania. In fact, in that year the Conference convened at Hossler's Meeting House in Rapho Township near Mt. Joy, PA. In 1875 through 1881, Lancaster is mentioned as an appointment to which men were assigned as pastors.
The longest outreach leap in all of our history, to Wadsworth, Medina County, Ohio, occurred in 1873, our fifteenth year. Wadsworth is about 335 miles west of Allentown across the tough Appalachian Mountains.
The poignant Wadsworth story spans less than four years. It began when "some of us sacrificed some time last winter to the welfare and salvation of precious souls in that region,. . . [and] a wonderful revival broke out. Eleven persons were baptized because of their personal faith, according to the command of our Savior and His apostles and were incorporated into the church of Christ."
Whatever shepherding the fledgling congregation received was by three very young and inexperienced men, with occasional oversight visits by Eusebius Hershey and others. In November, 1873 they asked the conference to send them "a preacher who could give sermons in the English as well as the German Language", -- which was never to happen.
By May of the next year they had occupied a new meetinghouse, which they had built with help from the Pennsylvania churches.
None of the three young brothers from Wadsworth attended any of the Semi-Annual Conferences during the life of the Ohio congregation. We may surmise that the distance and the cost of the trip prohibited them. They did, however, report by letters. In June, 1875, "The brothers and sisters are in good health and willing to work as God gives grace". The congregation was "now in a good state. Love and harmony is our guide. . . ."
In November, 1875, "The brethren . . . reported by letter that the members of the congregation and others were backsliding."
The Thirty-Fourth Semi-Annual Conference, on June 5, 1876 resolved, "That Brother David U. Lambert be authorized by this Conference to have supervision over our church property in Wadsworth, Ohio and sell the same to the highest bidder . . ." The church in Ohio was dead.
We have just begun the second longest outreach leap in our history to Spency, MA, which is 105 miles from our nearest church. It becomes our most northern and eastern congregation ever. The Spencer mission has featured our third big phone-mail campaign. Nearly 10,000 homes were dialed. About 8% of the dial-ups produced additions to the mailing list -- 33% better than our responses in Somers Point and Edison, NJ.
Spencer is a town of about 11,000 people, located 12 miles west of the city of Worcester. Spencer is rich in history and has a strong sense of community pride. It has a healthy business district and serves as sort of hub for several surrounding towns.
The Grand Opening for public worship in Spencer was on October 22. The location is right in the heart of town in the historic Sugden Building next to the town library and near the Town Hall. Our team members, Christopher Morrison and Dennis Spinney, have worked hard and long with the help of some local people and some volunteers from a distance to make the meeting area comfortable and attractive. Before the Bible Fellowship Church came to town, Spencer was without any frankly evangelical Protestant church. We trust Spencer will prove to be good soil in which this new congregation may grow and bloom and bear fruit.
September 10 was a kind of "Super Sunday" in the Bible Fellowship Church. Two brand new Sunday schools met for the first time that day -- in Pleasant Valley, NY and Edison, NJ. The dormant Sunday school in Walnutport, PA was restarted that same day. Mt. Pocono, PA enjoyed its successful Friend Day, while, without ballyhoo, the congregation at Whaley Lake in Homes, NY gathered 43 strong on its seventh anniversary. And on that same day while Cedar Crest Church in Allentown, PA celebrated its one hundredth birthday on a grand scale, its "Centennial harmonic," the new congregation in Ocean County, NJ met for Sunday worship for the first time.
The Ocean County mission underwent two major strategy changes proper to its opening Sunday. Originally conceived as an outreach to senior adults, the target group in Ocean County has been changed to the general public. Demographic studies and door-to-door community surveys revealed many younger unchurched families that appear to be receptive. And further research among senior adults indicates a preference by a majority for a general population congregation rather than one comprising all seniors.
A phone-mail outreach is planned in Ocean County which will culminate in a Celebration Sunday in April. But Pastor Dean Stortz, through door-to-door and hospital visitation, has found a number of people who express a desire now to meet with others for worship in the underchurched area. Several of these have professed faith in Christ. So, meeting in an attractive and well situated funeral home, the mission has begun a core-group gathering phase that will lead up to the grand opening in April in larger quarters.
We may expect more and longer outreach leaps in the future, including incursions into other regions of the USA - - first steps toward becoming a national rather than just a regional denomination. Surely the spiritual needs in our "all Judea and Samaria" will allow for no lesser goal.
Pushing out the borders of the church also entails church planting evangelism among people groups who are culturally different from our majority. In our early years, Eusebius Hershey led the way in ministry to diverse people. In his many letters and in his poetic biography, "The Living Poem", Brother Hershey recounted some of his evangelistic ministry among Native North Americans (Indians) in western states and in New York and Canada.
A phenomenon of our times is the massive influx of a great variety of people to our land. Yet for many of these people groups there are fewer Christian workers and evangelists per 100,000 persons working among them than there are among their people "back home," and that despite the acknowledged fact that such people are almost always more open to change and receptive to the Gospel in their new homes than they were in the lands of their birth.
We have made a start in this with our mission to Southeast Asian refugees in the Philadelphia, PA area. David Sng has worked with a generation of high schoolers and their families in the Logan section of North Philadelphia, and established a worshiping community among them. Four of these youths have enrolled in Pinebrook Junior College. Brother Sng, along with Sambath Ye, a Cambodian alumnus of Pinebrook has begun working with another set of high schoolers in Logan to tutor them, help them become fluent in English and teach them how to study so that they may do well in school. In the context of this training, they learn the Scriptures and hear the Gospel. At the same time, the Lord has also opened a door of ministry to ethnic Chinese from several nations in West Philadelphia.
If the Bible Fellowship church owns Jesus Christ as Lord, we have no choice but to plan to evangelize and plant churches among the array of varied racial, linguistic and ethnic groups in North America. To refuse is to disobey Him who has directed us to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).
But to obey will be difficult and costly. Successfully to welcome, enfold and incorporate people and congregations from either geographical or cultural distance will press us to develop relationships and build communications. It will demand cultural sensitivity and adaptation that to date we have shown little ability or inclination to develop. It will cost us, including our prejudice and notion; but whoever said that obedience to Jesus comes cheaply?
It took our forefathers a long time to get around to the "uttermost part of the earth" sphere of the Great Commission. It was 32 years after our founding until the first foreign missionary went to the field -- Eusebius Hershey again!
It has been exciting and encouraging in recent years to see a large number of folks from Bible Fellowship Churches volunteering for foreign missions service and their churches coming forth with the support to send them out. There might be no other denomination that equals the BFC in personnel and monies that, for its size, commits to foreign missions service. At the same time we are seeing few of our young men presenting themselves for service as pastors, evangelists or church planters in America, and we seem to hold back in our commitment of financial means to do this home missionary work. In responding to that Great Commission we are strong on "Jerusalem" and strong on the "uttermost part" portions but soft on the "excluded middle" -- the "all Judea and Samaria" part. If Jesus were to tell us His evaluation of our obedience, might He not say, "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former" (Matthew 23:23)?
IV. Our earliest church planters all served bi-vocationally.
That remarkable record of evangelism, church planting and growth in our first 36 years was achieved almost wholly by farmer-preachers and other "tent making" pastors.
And if in our day we are to mount an appropriate church planting program designed to achieve our WIDER HORIZONS new church goals, we shall expect an increasing number of bi-vocational church planting pastors to be part of the means of accomplishing the goals.
E. Hershey was an advocate and practitioner of bi-vocational service as an evangelist. He was the first man to make specific statistical and financial reports to the Conferences. After he submitted his report, the minutes repeatedly state that the Conference pledged, "that we will support him with means and prayer."
When a man offers to provide for most of his family's needs through his own supplemental employment he lightens the burden of the church, enables the church planting task to move ahead more rapidly and does a wonderful thing. We should love him and be grateful for it and go all out to encourage him and to provide the small amount of additional support he needs to serve in the ministry.
This Annual Conference recognizes that it takes a minimum of more than $30,000 per year to provide salary, health insurance and other benefits and housing for a pastor in our Church. Now there are few if any other professions that provide entry level salaries of more than $30,000. Most jobs that men in the ministry can fill will provide incomes far below our recommended minimum. Supplemental support will be virtually always needed.
Christopher Morrison is a credible church planter, a native New Englander who has accepted the call to be part of a two-man church planting team in Spencer, MA. He has offered to serve bi-vocationally. Though the financial support needs of the Morrison family have been clearly and repeatedly made known, it is curious that virtually none of the churches has come forth to offer any support for them. Perhaps this is because he did not grow up in a Bible Fellowship Church.
The Morrisons have moved to Spencer. From monies that have been given during the past year by individuals for their support, we have been able to "save up " enough to provide 2-3 months of support at the $1000 per month that will enable Brother Morrison to cut his work week from 60 to 40 hours and free the other 20 for ministry. The reserve will run out before the end of November. If additional giving is not forthcoming, Chris will need to return to the longer work schedule and have nothing more to give to raising up the baby church in Spencer. This could doom it to failure. The Morrison family urgently needs one or more churches that will adopt them as missionaries, build and maintain close personal communication with them and accept responsibility to help to support them.
This Conference will consider material that will recognize bi-vocational ministers and formalize means of calling them for such service. At present we have four bi-vocationals in the Church Extension Department, and there are at least three pastors of Conference member churches who have served bi-vocationally in the past year. For the sake of these and others who will follow, we need to recognize, appreciate and honor our "tent makers." They do a beautiful thing for Christ and His Church.
If the Holy Spirit is pleased to answer our prayers for reapers and to prepare, call and thrust forth effective evangelists and church planters among us, it is quite likely that many of them will come from the ranks of adult laymen, that many of them will be willing to serve bi-vocationally and it is virtually certain that these men will come from churches that are aflame with a passion for winning the lost and effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ and leading them on to maturity in the Lord. We must make a way for them to enter into their Spirit gifted and directed ministry, we must resolve to encourage and support them in their work and we must appreciate and honor them for their character and obedience and for their work's sake.
V. They worked in teams.
In our earliest years, appointments were grouped in circuits or districts and normally a team of two or three men was assigned to minister in each district of two, three, or more congregations.
Teams were also the norm in the church-forming work of the old Gospel Herald Society. We have returned to that concept as a Scriptural mandate for entering new territory with the Gospel.
We presently have six working, church-planting teams in the Department. In view of the Biblical data, we believe attempting to do this work without the teams would be foolish and dangerous.
VI. They were willing to take risks.
As I read about the failure of the Wadsworth, OH mission in 1876 I respond as I did with deeper intensity on September 18 as I stood in the gathering dusk of an early autumn afternoon in the cold, deserted, silent parsonage in New Fairfield, CT to assess the condition of the house and inventory the few items that remained from Gateway Church. My mind went back over the years to recall the excitement and anticipation at its beginning and the faith, hope and vision of real people that had occurred and recurred through the years in this picturesque place. Now it was all gone, over, snuffed out in failure. It was a melancholy moment, then in the groaning. For a time it was enough to make one feel like never trying to start another church!
We have never had an utter failure in any of our attempts to form churches. In each case some persons have been saved and they and others have grown in grace and Christian character. And after the churches have closed, those believers have gone on to live for Christ and to serve Him, sometimes in surprising, thrilling and powerful ways.
Whatever deficiencies and weaknesses were present in the group in Wadsworth and its members that might have contributed to the failure in the Buckeye State, it is evident that there was enough blame left over for the corporate Church to accept its share. Adequate shepherding was not provided for the little flock, though it pled for help. Communication and koinonia were woefully inadequate. Though the far-off brothers wrote, "Please pray for us . . ." perhaps they were not prayed for as fervently, explicitly and frequently as was needed for them to thrive or even to survive. Maybe there should have been a greater commitment to send them financial support.
In 1883 the merger that formed the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, brought together the Evangelical United Mennonites and the Swenkite branch of the Brethren in Christ of Ohio. Subsequently, perhaps in consequence of that merger, the Pennsylvania Conference received three congregations in Western Pennsylvania. It might be a reasonable conjecture that they came originally from the Brethren in Christ group. We know that they were located in Armstrong, Blair and Westmoreland Counties and that their specific communities were named Fairmount, Loop and Shellhammer.
References to the relationship with these Western churches in the minutes are sketchy. Some Conferences took time to discuss these distant churches. Frequently their representatives were absent from Conference sessions.
In 1890, George A. Campbell was stationed in the West. When he was returned the fellowing year, the Conference gave him "permission to invite other preachers to assist when he wishes". In 1892, no pastor was sent to remote churches. The next year W. C. Betz was assigned to Loop and Fairmount.
That there were doctrinal differences between the Western congregations and the majority shows up in the 1896 Conference. The minutes state that Betz "has desired to resign as a Minister and member of our Church, saying that don't (sic.) think he should ever be converted to our discipline in all things." Again the Conference did not assign a pastor to the Western Circuit, stating "that we deem it impracticable to send out a Minister for the present, or until they are willing to be loyal to our discipline".
The 1897 minutes note, "Western Pennsylvania was transferred to the Indiana Conference by the last General Conference".
One must assume that the theological differences were real and serious. But a breakdown of fellowship also appears real and unfortunate. Neglecting to send a shepherd to the troubled flocks (1892) and, worse, refusing to assign a pastor as a punitive measure (1896) can hardly be perceived to have come from love and concern and surely could not have strengthened either the weak and wavering congregations or their ties to the Eastern churches.
It is still true today that Western Pennsylvanians are culturally more Midwestern than they are like the Eastern seaboard oriented residents of the sunrise side of the Keystone State. How much of a factor was this in the failure to assimilate the western churches? Perhaps it was a reason for assigning them to the care of the brethren in Indiana. In miles, the westernmost eastern church was closer by far to the easternmost western church (105 miles) than was the westernmost western church to the closest point in Indiana (about 300 miles). Cultural distances, however, may be a far different story, as, too, might be doctrinal distance!
Perhaps that east-west breach was inevitable. But one wonders what might have been? Would a Trans-Allegheny Bridge to the West have made a difference in our history and propelled us more rapidly into the midwest and, perhaps, other regions and cultures in America than we have thus far been able or willing to go?
All of the more distant churches encountered in Verhandlungen existed for a rather brief time and then failed. And of the total of 54 congregations that may be identified in the minutes, only 21 "made it" to full formation as Conference member churches. 33 of them did not achieve that goal -- a failure rate of 61%!
Those men who experienced the sadness of those failures did not allow that to dissuade them from continuing to plant new congregations. They kept at it. And, you know, what we remember most today is that 17 of those churches which were formed 94 and more years ago continue and are represented here at this Annual Conference. And because the fathers persevered in their obedience in church planting evangelism and did not give up, they achieved an almost unbelievable and most enviable average decadal growth rate of 731% in the Verhandlungen years.
Let's try to learn from our failures. But fear of failure can completely immobilize us. We must be willing to risk failure. We must know that even failure is better than doing nothing; and that one can never succeed without trying. Let's press on, knowing that there will be victories and successes that we may present to our Lord and for which we shall then thank Him.
VII. They knew that they were part of a distinctive "movement".
Humbly, but firmly, the men who comprised the B. F. C. in its earliest days held a conviction that theirs was a distinctive movement, providentially brought into being and directed by the Holy Spirit, uniquely prepared and suited to serve Christ in a special time and place. This conviction led them to be united, all going in the same direction with energies focused toward accomplishing much for the Lord.
We who have succeeded those men in our generation need to have a similar sense. The Bible Fellowship Church has been divinely directed to be what it is and to believe what it does in order to serve Christ fruitfully in our time. With charity and grace toward others who are our brothers and sisters in the faith of Jesus Christ, we must adhere with tenacity to the unique convictions embodied in our Faith and Order, which come alone from the Scriptures. Thus we may be strongly united and able to act in concert, with focused obedience "in one direction."
Such conviction and unity will enable us as individuals and churches to make priority choices in the allocation of our loyalties, energies and often scarce financial means for the advancement and enhancement of the Bible Fellowship Church. This movement deserves to be, and ought to be, extended and expanded. And, in the strength of the Lord, nobody will do that but us!
Two recent expressions of a growing consciousness of our unity and common direction are the ministry of the Stewardship Council and an occasional informal gathering of the administrators of the denominational agencies to explore and effect ways of articulating and practicing our oneness. The latter group has generated a proposal for the formulation and maintenance of a denominational mailing list that will enable the agencies to bring information to our people at the "grass roots." It is presented to this Conference with endorsements from the agency boards. We trust it will be approved and implemented.
VIII. There was organizational growth to accommodate growing and changing ministry.
The Verhandlungen records show a progression of organizational structure of the church as it moves ahead. The Department, during my years as Director, has had times of organizational reformation. First it was changes in methodologies in local working. More recently it was an expansion of the size of the Board and the use of an augmented and more active committee structure of the Board for greater efficiency.
We are now taking two major steps to prepare for the kind of growth in the 90's that is anticipated in our WIDER HORIZONS goals. The Board has embarked on a strategic planning process that should yield clear plans and objectives for the work in the future and our stewardship of it. And we are seeking to engage a second administrator who will help us to shore up and move forward our work in the areas of development, public and church relations and business management to accommodate growth and to free me to focus more on the areas of personnel management, recruitment, strategy and site surveys and selection.
In the past two years survey work has been done in Bucks County, PA, Fairfield and Windham Counties, CT. Worcester County, MA, Woonsocket, RI, the Upper Valley section of VT and NH and Ocean County, NJ.
Starting a new church takes much time, thought, finances, and energy. Good organization will help make these investments more efficient and productive and make us better stewards of what our Lord entrusts to us.
IX The Catalyst.
One of the keys to our early explosive growth was very likely the man who was the conscience and voice -- the prophet of evangelism. If you haven't met him yet, you will in Verhandlungen. His name is Eusebius Hershey. Repeatedly, constantly, he taught, preached, wrote modeled, called and pled for his Church to be diligent and zealous in proclaiming the Gospel and inviting and urging people to repent, believe and receive the Saviour. Because he was so focused, intense and incessant he might have been regarded by some as somewhat strange and irritating -- a gadfly. But, for sure, he was heard and there is reason to believe that he was successful in moving individuals and the Church into greater commitment and action.
I quote just one of his many admonitions, from the minutes of June, 1863: "The Chairman laid upon the hearts of every servant the urgent need that at the present time we are in need of more traveling preachers, and that God would expect more from our little group since we have reason to believe that souls are being lost which otherwise could be saved with the help of the Lord and more willing itinerant preachers." Now, from the theological vantage point at which we now stand, we might find Brother Hershey's way of expressing himself not quite correct. I know that I would have to put it a bit differently. But surely we can translate it acceptably and still hear and heed the essence of this challenge that comes to us anew from within the walls of our Zionsville church across the intervening 126 years.
I desire and hope that at least in some measure you might hear me as an advocate, perhaps at times an irritating one, for evangelism. And I trust and pray that our God will raise up others who will with urgency summon us to obedience to the Great Commission and, with Holy Spirit given power, prove to be great soul winners in our midst.
On May 21, I was at Cedar Crest Church in Allentown, PA to participate in that church's mission emphasis month as a spokesman for the Church Extension Department. That day I heard and saw and felt a great warmth and spirit of renewal. There was evidence of real and fervent commitment to Gospel outreach. Pastor Bob Johnson told me about some of his thrilling ministry of soul winning and discipling. All of us have heard of the church's adopting the unreached Sandawe people of Tanzania with the intention, together with the Africa Inland Church of that land, of discipling them to Christ.
Pastor Ron Mahurin told me of a change in his thinking that focuses now not so much on gathering in and keeping people but on freeing them and sending them forth to serve. He demonstrated that spirit in his pastoral prayer when, as he sought the Father's blessing on one of the church's choice young couples, David and Joanne VanWinkle, who were transferring to the Walnutport mission, his voice broke and tears flowed out of love for this Aquila and Priscilla couple who had become so dear to him and his congregation and were now being commended for service elsewhere.
In addition to sending forth the VanWinkles, Cedar Crest has given thousands of dollars toward support for Pastor Larry Smith at Walnutport and more money to help Walnutport to plan and execute outreach strategies. These and other commitments by Cedar Crest to Walnutport have helped to catalyze a remarkable turn-around in that 96 year old congregation on the east bank of the Lehigh River.
That the Lord prepared and called Brother Smith to Walnutport at just the right time is manifest. In preparation for receiving him, the people banded together in hard work to completely redecorate the inside of the parsonage. Right now they are redoing the exterior of the home -- painting, repairing and installing new replacement windows.
There has been a real surge in attendance and offerings. Recently six disciples followed their Lord in baptism. Since Pastor Smith's arrival at the turn of the year 11 new members have been added. Watch Walnutport go and grow and give thanks to the Lord Who is building His church.
Our four fully-formed churches are all making excellent progress. All of them have fully supported themselves this past year.
Wappingers Falls, NY has acquired a well-situated site on which to build a future meetinghouse. Mt. Pocono, PA is in process of obtaining an added acre contiguous to the Kirk-in-the-Woods tract for more parking and expanded Christian education rooms.
The Newark, DE church has grown steadily and substantially during the year. It has sent out Russell and Eleanor Ruch to be an Aquila and Priscilla team in Somers Point, NJ. Valley Church in Poughquag, NY continues as a solid, growing and innovative congregation which has sustained its growth since sending out one of its elders and a couple of other families to plant the church in nearby Pleasant Valley.
Our vibrant mission in Newark, NJ continues regularly to lead people to Christ. This congregation has worked, prayed and waited patiently to try to acquire a fine building that will accommodate present programs and future growth and house new initiative for community outreach and service. May it soon come to pass. One great need is to see the Lord provide and raise up indigenous elders in New Jersey's largest city.
People of God, these are great times to be alive and serving Christ our Lord. He is doing great things. Let's praise Him. But there is so much more for us to do. We've only just begun. Six years ago we adopted faith goals to increase our membership to 14,293 by the end of 2000. We said we would work and pray to start 55 new congregations by then. The churches said that they intended to from 16 daughter congregations and they asked the Church Extension Department to open 39 more. And the churches called on themselves and each other to double their offerings for Church Extension to enable the Department to make a serious drive toward realizing those 39 new church beginnings.
Six years later we're dragging behind pace on our membership goal and the new church starts. The churches are far from doubling their 1983-84 Church Extension giving.
Let's not take counsel from our fears and failures. In a new surge of faith and obedience, let's "press with vigor on", so that when we together face our Lord and give our accounting to Him, we may accurately and sincerely say, "Master, we have done our best."