Local Lifestyle

Friday, Apr 25 2014 12:49 PM

Olive Drive Church marks 125-year milestone

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    By courtesy of Marilyn Stone

    The first official building for Olive Drive Church in 1890. The church will celebrate its 125th anniversary on April 29.

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    By Henry Barrios / The Californian

    The Olive Drive Church campus in 2001. The church will celebrate its 125th anniversary on April 29 with an open house of its stained-glass windows and organ pipes and a worship celebration.

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    By courtesy of Marilyn Stone

    Olive Drive Church began in George Wear's Opera House in 1889. A year later, the community had incorporated as First Baptist Church and purchased a permanent structure on the southeast corner of 22nd and Eye streets.

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    By courtesy of Marilyn Stone

    Scripture passages and prayers were inscribed during construction in 1986 of the current campus of Olive Drive Church.

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    By courtesy of Marilyn Stone

    Joshua Kirstine, pastor of Olive Drive Church, tells the Christmas story to children at the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service in 2013. The church will celebrate its 125th anniversary on April 29.

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BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer

In an age when "so five minutes ago" is a long time, members of Olive Drive Church are celebrating having endured for 125 years.

"It's really praising God for his enduring our church for his glory and others' good," said Joshua Kirstine, the church's lead pastor.

Kirstine said the church will celebrate its milestone on Tuesday, starting with a 5 p.m. get-together at the Bell Tower Club, site of the church until the 1980s, followed by a dinner at the current campus. Kirstine said tickets to those events are already sold out, but the celebration finale, an 8 p.m. concert in the church's Celebration Hall, is open to the public.

The celebration recognizes living and growing through the turbulent early years of Bakersfield's wildcatter days, two world wars, the Great Depression, five separate locations, growth and decline, success and failure.

"There were some real prosperous times, some times of heavy indebtedness, not knowing where the money would come from to pay the bills," Kirstine said.

What would become Olive Drive Church began in George Wear's Opera House in 1889, after local ministers of several Christian denominations started services to Bakersfield residents. A year later, the community had incorporated as First Baptist Church and purchased a permanent structure on the southeast corner of 22nd and Eye streets, under the leadership of the Rev. J. Campbell of Fresno.

From 1894 to 1924, the members of First Baptist Church saw many changes: several lead and interim pastors, rapid growth in the number of members as the city grew, changing emphasis in ministries, such as during the tenure of the Rev. Frank Belden during the 1920s and 1930s, who built a large youth ministry in the church.

In November 1932, the church dedicated its Truxtun Avenue church building, now a historical landmark. Pastor Burton C. Barrett would have to lead the church through the hard times of the Depression, with the added burden of enormous debt from the construction of that church.

"Many people didn't have money; people instead gave real time and effort," Kirstine said.

That real time and effort included fundraising of the nickel-and-dime sort that led to the church's mortgage being paid off in 1944. This is the same era that Don Bledsoe, currently an elder of the church, became part of that community.

"I was actually carried into the church as a baby," Bledsoe said. "I was actually baptized when I was in my teens."

Bledsoe said his parents, Roy and Bernice, had probably been attending since the 1930s, and Roy was also an elder of the church, responsible for both ministerial direction and the business governance of the church. Don Bledsoe said he and his father share a unique legacy.

"To my knowledge, my father and I are the only father and son to serve together on the board of elders at the church," he said.

Bledsoe remembers when church members decided it was time to move from their Truxtun Avenue home. This was during the tenure of the Rev. John Lavender, who followed Barrett after his retirement in 1961. Lavender's ministry focused on growing the church in both scope and size, and it became apparent the Truxtun location wouldn't be able to accommodate the growth. The church decided to buy the 32-acre site on Olive Drive in 1977.

"Our biggest problem with downtown was there was no parking," Bledsoe said.

The church also took on a new name -- Bakersfield Christian Life Center -- to reflect the expanded focus.

"That property on Olive Drive was designed to be a school," Bledsoe said. "The high school we started on the Olive Drive campus eventually became Bakersfield Christian High School, and we're proud of that."

Lavender stepped down after 27 years, long enough to see the mortgage on that property also paid off. He was succeeded by the Rev. Wesley Brown, who got to oversee the celebration of the church's centennial, and also a significant change in the church's fortunes.

"(John Lavender) was an orator and an attractional person, and I think when he stepped down after more than 25 years, we had some leadership changes," Bledsoe said. "The growth we had expected didn't take place."

Kirstine said the membership declined during that period from more than 1,600 people to a little more than 200, in part because of changing priorities. The church's history also notes that many members wanted a return to more traditional Baptist practice and so they left the Olive Drive church.

Brown's tenure lasted about a decade; with the arrival of the Rev. Mike Popovich, the church experienced another name change, to Olive Drive Church, and a new effort to rebuild the church by focusing on young adults and young families. Popovich resigned in 2011, and after more interim pastors, the church chose Kirstine as the lead pastor.

Both Kirstine and Bledsoe said the focus now is on a different kind of growth -- a growth of the spirit.

"We want to be a 'sending church' instead of a big church," Kirstine said. "We have an emphasis on making disciples -- a duplicating church."

"One of the legacies our church has had is how many people who are involved in ministries around our city and around the globe," Kirstine said. "To me, that's a legacy I would like to continue."

"I would say we're in a new era where the emphasis is more preaching the Gospel and less trying to be an attractional church," Bledsoe said. "Of course, when you do that, you do attract people."

Part of the new emphasis is also a discussion about what to do with the enormous Olive Drive campus. Kirstine said the current membership numbers between 400 and 500 people, far below the church's high point, and so the church's leadership is looking at changes to be more financially responsible.

"We're not necessarily looking to be a real big church, we want to be a really healthy church, nurturing disciples," Kirstine said.

"One of the things we're exploring is what it means to 'right-size' your facility," Bledsoe said. "Just because we're at 5500 Olive Drive right now, doesn't mean in five years we won't be in another location."

"We're not in the business of just having a beautiful campus," Bledsoe said. "We're going to see where God leads us."

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