Looking Back Over 175 Years

 In Jason Bunger

A Few Reflections 

Birthdays are a great time to reflect on where we have been, where we are, and what lies ahead.  Birthdays are fun, as long as we believe that our best, and most abundant, days are in front of us.  Over this past weekend, the family of Hope Church celebrated 175 years of ministry in the Dayton area.  It was a great time of reminiscing, reuniting and refocusing.  We spent the entire weekend celebrating where God has brought us from and where he is taking us.  Reflecting on this celebration, I am convinced it was so enjoyable because while we celebrated the past, we have a great hope of a glorious future.  As I look over this past weekend, at least three things came to my mind. 

1.  Retelling the past invites the next generation into the historical narrative.  

As part of our celebration, we had an interactive program that retold the history of our church.  As the conclusion of the program, a ceremonial torch was passed from the founder of the church, through 3 churches that eventually became Hope to a young child that represented the future of the congregation.  I felt the older generation was inviting the younger generations into the legacy of Hope.  They were saying, “our story is now your story.”    

My great-grandfather and my father were master storytellers.  I remember sitting around the dinner table listening to them repeat the same stories over again.  However, I never remember getting bored with the stories.  They simply did not retell the stories, they relived them.  And after a while, their stories became part of me. 

That is very much what I felt long-time members did this year.  They relived these stories in front of another generation, and they gave us permission to take these stories of faith on as our own.  When it was shared that Wayne Avenue church not only survived the flood of 1913, but was a feeding station for 500 people per day, I began to take pride in what “my church” had done even though it was 60 years before my birth, and was actually before the birth of everyone who is a now a member of Hope.  This story has been passed to another generation.  When I walk downtown and see the “1913 Water Level” markers, I am reminded of how God spared “my church” and what “we” did to serve our community more than 100 years ago. 

It is amazing how one of the commands we see often in scripture is simply “to remember” what God has said and done in the past.  This was the purpose for the feasts in the Old Testament, so that the next generation will “own” the narrative for themselves.  We see this in the celebration of Passover, and in the New Covenant, the partaking of Communion.  We are to remember.

2.  Retelling the past, reminds us of recurring themes that have defined us and made us who we are. 

It can be tempting to look at our history and think that it does not impact us.  However, history reminds us that we are part of a story much bigger that we often cannot see.  In fact, Michael Crichton has written: “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”  If you have been part of Hope your whole life, or just recently stumbled into our church, you are part of our story and we are part of yours as well.

Each time I visit the doctor, he seems to want to know more about my ancestors medical conditions as much as mine.  I am beginning to understand the role genetics play in my health.  At time same time, I see continue to see recurring themes throughout the legacy of Hope Church.  There may be more themes, but these seem to be the patterns that strike me.   

First, the great movements occurred when people were outward focused and took risks to reach people for Christ.

In 1841, long before the Wright Brother’s built a bicycles and airplanes and Dayton was a town of just over 6,000 people, Absalom B. Schafer led a group of 12 German-speaking Christians to start the first German Protestant church in Dayton.  After forty years of growth, and the assimilation of German community, 35 young people from this congregation began a new mission church to reach their English speaking community.  The “daughter” church grew rapidly because they were more outward-focused, relevant, and literally “spoke the language” of their community.  These two congregations became what would later simply be known as the Wayne Ave EUB Church.  Both churches took risks in order to reach their community in their generation.       

The ministry of High Street began as a Sunday-School outreach in east Dayton and wasn’t a fully supported church for it’s first 15 years.  Yet God blessed these efforts. 

Relocations, expansions and missions projects have led Hope to invest heavily in Zambia, the Philippines and Germany.  In fact, Hope Church is once again sharing the gospel among the German speaking community.  Stephanie Elmerick, the great, great, great, great daughter of Absalom B. Schafer, is now is a missionary, supported by Hope Church in Berlin, Germany.   

Secondly, the church always struggled whenever it turned inward. 

The Commercial Street struggled for years over a theological issue of “faith vs. works” (which, by the way, are never inseparable) and the preacher who provoked the “old-timers” by preaching in English occasionally.  In 1935, after 50 years of glorious ministry, the High Street Church became consumed by gossip and saw a great exodus of people.  Before the sale of the Wayne Avenue Church, the Dayton Daily News reported that the membership went from 600 to 300 families in a matter of months.  Whenever, the church turned inward, it always struggled.  This is a concept that we must always remember.  Any church, unless it intentional, will always turn inward.  This is why we must keep great vision in front of us.  I have heard it said, “In the absence of great vision, pettiness prevails.”    

Thirdly, whenever our church faced its struggles, it always prevailed.  

Every church has a story and a great story involved prevailing over a series of challenges.  We, like all churches, have had our series of challenges, but we have prevailed.  When there was a theological challenge concerning faith vs. works more than 100 years ago, the church prevailed.  When the “old timers” complained that occasionally sermons were being preached in English instead of German, the church prevailed.  In 1935, when High Street was almost closed due to the turmoil that was caused by (of all things) pettiness and gossip, the church prevailed.  And when High Street suffered a great fire and could not rebuild in the same community, it prevailed by moving, building, merging and eventually changing the name of the church.  The challenges at Wayne Avenue led to one of the most beautifully church mergers one has seen.  Those 175 years ushered in a lot of challenges, but it also has brought about a number of victories as well.  We must not be mastered by our challenges, we must overcome them.    

3.  Retelling the past reminded us that no generation ever has it all figured out, but God will prepare the next generation.   

During the Sunday service, we reflected on Hebrews 12:1-3.  In these verses, the writer of Hebrews refers to those saints who go before of us as a “cloud of witnesses.”  I would say that in addition to this they could be a “cast of characters” in many different ways.  If you read through Hebrews 11, you see some great spiritual giants that lived by faith.  But we also notice a couple of other things about them:  First, they had shortcomings in their own lives.  Secondly, they were not “prepared” until they were called.  Each generation always wonders if the next generation will be able to sustain what the previous generation worked so hard to establish.  

Though not by design, each of the participants in this Sunday’s worship service were people who were called into some from of ministry within the past generation.  Two of them were called into their ministries while serving in rather routine ways around the church.  A couple others were not called “from” Hope, but called “to” Hope. Still others, were raised in Hope and participated in the service with their mother.  The next generation will always rise up and lead within the church, if they are encouraged and given the chance to use their gifts.  This patter goes back to the early foundation of the church, and I am convinced it will occur in this era as well.   

This weekend showed how we are can be encouraged by our great legacy.  Younger generations absorbed the narrative of the previous generation, we were reminded of our spiritual DNA of prevailing and overcoming, and we see a new collection of leaders leading Hope into the next generation.   


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