A Unity So Strong
October 1, 2003 - Although it was the height of the baseball season, Chris Hanners, owner of the Chillicothe Paints Class A ball club, had arranged for the team to be out of town so that evangelist Ralph Bell could use the local stadium. After all, Hanners said, this was "the most important thing that will ever happen in Chillicothe."
by Amanda Knoke
"Chillicothe is like no city I've ever been to," said Ken Bryan after moving to Ohio in 2002. Bryan, who has lived in four different states, told Chillicothe resident Joel Gerber, "I don't understand why the churches are so connected to each other—I've never seen anything like it in my life."
Bryan recalls his positive experience in Chillicothe with the generally unpleasant task of "church shopping": "I sensed a mutual support of all the churches in town rather than exclusive support for one's own congregation. The pastors themselves would tell my wife and me the names of pastors of other churches we might contact." Bryan said that pastors seemed mainly concerned that people connect with a church—whether or not it was their own. He also found that groups from different churches attend conferences, have Bible studies and pray together.
Chillicothe has not always been so welcoming, according to Brent Rolsten, pastor of Salem Community Church. "When I came here in 1987, it felt like a closed community spiritually—there wasn't openness between churches," Rolsten said. But that climate began to change in 1996, when churches started working together for the 1997 Ralph Bell Celebration.
Rolsten also said the Celebration changed the way his congregation "does church" and helped them catch a vision for evangelism. "I want to do something that has eternal benefits," he said. "For our church, the Celebration was a turning point—we became attentive to why we are here and what we are supposed to be doing: reaching people for Christ and helping them grow."
Now, six years after the Celebration, Rolsten says that pastors still pray together weekly for each other and for the community. "It's been a life-link for some of us," he said. "And we make sure the cross is at the center."
Anne Cox is still part of a lay prayer group that was formed in 1997 and meets monthly in different churches. "One time," she said, "we thought that we were in the wrong place because the sanctuary was two-thirds full. I asked, 'Are you all here for prayer, or is there something else going on?' They were there for prayer. I was amazed."
According to Cox, pray-ers have written on slips of paper the names of people whom they prayed would accept Christ. The group has seen answers to these prayers, as well as to prayers for continued unity among pastors.
The Celebration's youth committee brought together leaders to form a youth outreach, known as Altar. The group is one of the most visible areas of unity among Christians. Besides planning major youth functions, Altar organizes Friday Night Live (FNL) twice a month at the local YMCA. As many as 225 kids have come for volleyball, basketball, board games and other activities, which are followed by a presentation with a spiritual emphasis.
Gerber, the current president of Altar, says that the majority of kids who come to FNL are unchurched. He remembers a Friday night when two teen-aged boys accepted Christ. To Gerber, it didn't appear to have as much to do with the presentation as with someone taking an interest and spending time with them.
Like members of the Celebration's prayer and youth committees, many from the Celebration choir have stayed connected. Among other events, the choir has sung at a Sept. 11 anniversary and at Statehood Day—they even wear their Celebration choir shirts.
And Gerber's wife, Eva, says that children's ministry in the community will never be the same. Many who worked with children's outreach for the Celebration still work together, sharing ideas, materials and their love for children in area churches to help strengthen children's programs.
The effects of the Celebration spread still further with those who helped with logistics at the Celebration. Now they have gone on to use skills they learned for many local events and projects. Hundreds of volunteers from the Celebration worked on Chillicothe's New Year's Eve 2000 community celebration. Counselors who had been trained for the Ralph Bell Celebration spoke with people who wanted to accept Christ at the millennium event. Celebration volunteers have also helped with the community's National Day of Prayer observance and have helped to distribute the JESUS video, which was given to more than 30,000 homes in the area.
Gerber said that Chillicothe churches have experienced remarkable growth since 1997. Many church buildings have expanded, and several new churches have emerged, some meeting in hotel conference rooms and one even meeting in an old warehouse.
"I don't think we can attribute this to population growth, because our county's growth has remained relatively stagnant since 1997," Gerber says. "I told Ken Bryan that I have sensed a unity since 1997 that is so strong it's almost perplexing. God put a phenomenal, unifying force into this county that caused it to come together for Jesus Christ."