Newark Central – chapters in a story
As a chapter in my family's life comes to an end, but just as emphatically a new page is being written, the image of chapters in a book is making me think about the story of our congregation. Perhaps this is how to accomplish the two-fold task of telling our history to newer members, and a way to keep a healthy focus for all of us on that narrative of the future, the vision looking ahead that we need.
So I'm offering the reader an abbreviated version of our story here, at . . . the Christian Church of Newark, the Fourth St. Church of Christ, Central Church of Christ, or Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – all names our fellowship has used in identifying who we are, where we gather, and what we're doing. It's in chapters, as this editor would describe them, that sum up the stages and phases of our life in the past, which should give us a running start at leaping ahead to a better understanding of what's coming.
1. A Pilgrim People – 1884-1894
We began as a mission of the Hebron Christian Church, supporting a young Newark clerk named George Crites who felt a call to ministry, and a need for a church of our sort, affirming the place of regular communion and baptism by immersion in our common life, congregationally governed under Biblical structures of elders and deacons. The fellowship met in upper rooms and rented halls for a decade, until building a chapel on land facing Fourth Street near downtown Newark.
2. Finding A Place – 1895-1926
The chapel's cost nearly broke the young congregation, but with the help of the Ohio Christian Missionary Society, we survived unexpected ministerial transitions, honored our debts, restructured our worship and teaching program, and moved forward under new leadership to build an expanded auditorium by 1904. Political stresses and Klan rule in Newark threatened division again, but an uneasy truce was reached, and a search went on for a new pastor.
3. Establishing An Institution – 1927-1946
It is no discredit to any other ministers of this congregation over 130-plus years and twenty clergy leaders to date in saying that this church was uniquely blessed with three pastors in a row between 1927 and 1951 who had precisely the right skills for the time when they served. Louis Mink was an organizational genius, Dale Fiers was gifted in the development of programs, and John Updegraff found he had skills in coordinating construction he didn't know he had.
4. We Would Be Building – 1947-1951
After the fire that utterly destroyed the 1894/1904 building on Fourth Street, the members of Central found that they had a life and a purpose outside of the physical plant. The church lodge was built and dedicated in October of 1947, and as worship continued in the NHS Gym for over four years, the circles and fellowships of the church found they had a place in sharing God's good news. Newark Central began to become a countywide fellowship, even as the new church building was completed north of downtown at Rugg Avenue and Mt. Vernon Road.
5. Restoration & Management – 1952-1974
Once dedicated, the new church building became a magnet for the startling growth of membership and involvement that marked the post-war era for many Protestant congregations. Rev. Joe Garshaw, the longest-tenured pastor in the history of the congregation (from 1958 to 1974) was well situated to develop the leadership and management structures of the fellowship even as the Disciples of Christ both generally and in Ohio restructured their organizational life. Camp Christian became a core element of the Christian Church in Ohio, and a focal point of wider ministry for our congregation as part of the "Ohio region" of the Disciples.
6. An Uncertain Trumpet – 1974-2002
Cultural conflict long simmering over national concerns like Vietnam and Watergate boiled over in many communities, no less so in Newark. Distrust of institutions, unwillingness to "join for the sake of joining," even a certain amount of distaste for organized religion in general radically changed the nature of evangelism and church growth. What had formerly been "brand loyalty" almost flipped into a reflexive skepticism over denominational labels, and visitors became less of an automatic occurrence. Within the church, the term "evangelism" began to be regarded with mistrust, but so was marketing or publicity.
7. Wilderness Renewal – 2003-2016
By 2003, membership and worship attendance was probably as low as it had been since 1903 and the struggles over paying for the new chapel downtown. The struggles were different, but the divisions no less jarring, and the resources for recovery seemed fewer. Jim Young stepped forward out of the membership into a new leadership role during a difficult transition period, and the call to bring Rick Rintamaa as senior minister following Jim's interim work put a priority on pastoral care; Rick's love for the membership and for the mission of this congregation into the community was a blessing that was returned overflowing to the church.
During that interim period, a number of people led by Steve Crothers and Rick Hayden became a "Mission Team," traveling to the Gulf Coast in 2005 and making a contact with the Christian Church in Moss Point, Mississippi which has become a touchstone for Newark Central's renewal over the decade and more that followed. This teamwork, within our congregation and with our fellow Disciples of Christ out of Mississippi, has also poured blessings out into our life here even as the various Mission Team trips have blessed people in need from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Plains of Kansas and many points in between.
8. The Next Chapter . . .
The Spirit-led emphases of Newark Central over the previous chapters of our story have turned out to be a.) Mission work, at home with the Ramp Ministry and beyond with Mission Trips each year; b.) Education, with scholarships formed and distributed by the fellowship out of various gifts and bequests that emphasize our internal values around promoting education as a tool for the ministry of all believers; and c.) Medical ministries, focused around our Medical Loan Closet program. We also have surveyed and sampled various alternatives over the last decade, and have come to the conclusion for our time (at least) that we are called to excellence in "Traditional Worship," with our music ministries and preaching seeking the best forms we can offer today through means that would still be quite familiar to those who helped write earlier, very different chapters. We don't dislike "contemporary worship," and may support expressions of it in the future at other locations, but in our worship space on Mt. Vernon Road on Sunday mornings, we expect to keep on singing hymns, supporting choirs and anthems along with special music offerings, and preaching rooted in the Gospel and opening up the entire Scriptural story to those who would worship with us.
The change in what it means to do evangelism is still a chapter being written. The days of visitors "just showing up" may be gone, but the question of how to let people know what we're doing, who we are, and how you can join us in our faith and fellowship – that's still being answered. We have those emphases that seem to be where God is guiding us to be faithful: in Missions, Education, and Medical ministries, but we don't imagine – looking at this history! – that this is a final word to the church on what we're called to do in Jesus' name. As our United Church of Christ friends like to say, "never put a period where God has put a comma!"
You may have some ideas on what is happening on the first few pages of this new chapter; it may be time for you to start writing some of that new history as it happens . . .