Dover, Ohio, church plant now helping plant another church
By Hilary J. Scarsella
Elkhart, Ind. (Mennonite Church USA)—In 2007, three congregations in eastern Ohio partnered to support the birth of a new peace church in their area.
Walnut Creek Mennonite Church in Sugarcreek, Martins Creek Mennonite Church in Millersburg, and Berlin Mennonite Church together called Chet Miller-Eshleman to lead the initiative, offering to provide his starting salary as pastor.
At the time, Miller-Eshleman was serving with his family in Colombia with Mennonite Central Committee and, unbeknownst to the three congregations, was himself sensing a call to plant a church in Ohio.
Miller-Eshleman recalls that during worship in a house church in Colombia, “God spoke so powerfully to my mind and heart, saying that I was to go to Ohio and plant a church, and that out of that church would come other churches.”
Today, this new congregation—Lifebridge Community Church in Dover—has a regular attendance of around 100, is an active congregation in Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA, and is helping start another church in nearby Strasburg.
LifeBridge was intended not only to become a vibrant place for community and worship, but also to live out the gospel of peace. Having studied peace and conflict resolution in a graduate program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Miller-Eshleman has a passion for keeping an emphasis on peace and justice front and center.
Newcomer David Burch says that in the six weeks he has been attending worship at LifeBridge, he has already gleaned great insight into the nature of peacemaking.
“A message I’ve heard loud and clear is that pacifism doesn’t mean lying down and allowing yourself to be trampled” he says. “It means standing up and proclaiming your humanity. At LifeBridge we learn about nonviolent options for dealing with violent situations, and it’s just amazing.”
Miller-Eshleman remarks, “LifeBridge is the peace church in town, and everybody knows it.”
Everybody knows it because LifeBridge participants make a point of connecting with their community, a town of just under 13,000 people. Out of their church building, they operate a baby room where they give away car seats, cribs, strollers, clothing and anything else new parents with lower incomes might need. They run a community garden and a beef co-op. They offer mediation services and Spanish classes. While Miller-Eshleman is quick to point out that LifeBridge is far from perfect, Burch says he decided to become part of the church because “it is obvious that the congregation puts the kingdom of God before all else.”
Alongside peacemaking, the LifeBridge considers church planting to be important kingdom work, Miller-Eshleman says.
“The congregation has embraced a vision of peppering the countryside with new churches rooted in Anabaptist discipleship and the gospel of peace,” he explains.
Recently, LifeBridge took the first step toward realizing this vision by supporting the birth of a new congregation—LifeBridge Community North—in Strasburg, one town over.
Joining LifeBridge in supporting LifeBridge North are the three congregations that provided initial support to LifeBridge in 2007 as well as six other congregations in the region. Together, they have formed a group called the East Ohio Church Planting Initiative (EOCPI). This group meets regularly both to organize support for LifeBridge North and to look toward starting additional churches in the future.
Ohio Conference is offering support to the EOCPI. Conference minister Tom Kauffman remarks, “We highlight the work of this group within our conference, hoping that it will encourage other areas of congregations to consider similar initiatives.”
Retired pastor and mission worker Mattie Marie Mast has been part of LifeBridge for the last three years and is a member of the congregation’s leadership team. She is also participating in LifeBridge North to support the growth of the church plant.
“It is a life-giving community for my husband and me,” she says. “It is a gift to us that we are able to be a part of walking alongside and offering support to younger church planters.” With a smile, she adds, “It is not only the young adults who dream of a vibrant church, you know.”
A leadership clinic—Planting Peace Churches: The Heart of God’s Shalom Strategy—with Chet Miller-Eshleman, Mauricio Chenlo (denominational minister for holistic witness and church planting for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Mission Network) and André Gingerich Stoner (director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA) will be offered on Jan. 28, 2013, in Elkhart, Ind., in conjunction with Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Pastors Week. See http://www.ambs.edu/churchleadershipcenter/Leadership-Clinics.cfm
Lifebridge’s leadership team (elder team) on a retreat together. (Photo provided)
LifeBridge participants at a fall festival. (Photo provided)
The people who call LifeBridge Community Church home describe themselves as a “diverse family, united together by our commitment to learn and live the way of Jesus together.” (Photo provided)