History of the Bible Fellowship Church of Ephrata
by Dan Allen
(with Robert Smock for the early years)
1966 saw the Viet Nam war and protests against it escalate. A rock band from Liverpool, England, the Beatles, were in their hey-day. The TV program Star Trek premiered on NBC and Walt Disney died. A house cost just over $14,000 with the average income half of that and gas cost 39-cents a gallon. It was also the year the Bible Fellowship Church of Ephrata was established in the living room of Robert (Bob) and Arlene Gehret (East Pine Street). This Ephrata couple, along with a few others who were attending Berean Bible Fellowship Church in Terre Hill, felt a church in Ephrata would increase the potential outreach in this area of Lancaster County. They were correct! So in the summer of 1966 they opened their home for a brand new church. Shortly thereafter, the Annual Conference of the BFC was petitioned to provide a pastor for the new work.
On October 14, 1966, the Rev. Robert W. Smock (wife-Thelma), formerly of Terre Hill and then presently at our Easton, PA church, was assigned to the charge under the supervision of the Church Extension Department of the BFC.
Pastor Smock’s first official service was held on Sunday, October 16, 1966. There were 66 present in the morning and 50 for the Evening Service. The first prayer meeting was held that Wednesday with 29 attending and Sunday School was started the next week with 61.
The first church building and parsonage was purchased from the Nazarene Church at the corner of Washington & Chestnut Streets for $32,500. It had been conservatively valued at $100,000 several years prior to the purchase.
In March of 1967, at its second local conference (congregational meeting), the congregation voted to petition Annual Conference to recognize Ephrata as an organized church of the conference and as a station providing complete support of the pastor. Just 18-months to be a particular church. Not bad considering many BFC church–starts often take years.
Two years later the church bought the Sensenig Bag Company Building located directly across the street. This building was remodeled over the course of several years. With a gift of the property located at 110 E. Chestnut Street, being used for parking in 1972, the church property value went to over $125,000 and was complete for the many activities. However, the church continued to grow and needed more space.
In 1972 the Church of the Brethren building which included a large spacious sanctuary and a three story educational wing at the corner of Church & Locust Streets was purchased at public auction for $95,000 which included pews and a 21 car parking lot, plus a double frame house on Church Ave. A service of dedication in 1974 became a community affair as the entire Sunday School marched from the old location at Washington & Chestnut Streets to the new church. There were 458 present for this occasion including WGAL-TV and the Ephrata Review newspaper.
A Bus Ministry began in the fall of 1973 with three buses and eventually expanded to seven—red, white and blue old school buses. This outreach, along with the Children’s Church and Daily Vacation Bible School (DVBS), featured the storytelling of Uncle Pete Davis and antics of Bob Gehret swallowing gold fish, proved fruitful for over a decade. DVBS was one of the Smocks’ specialities. At times upwards to 600–900 children would be registered and attend. A countless number were affected for the glory of God. Only time and eternity will reveal how many lives were reached.
In 1977 a Christian Academy (Ephrata Bible Fellowship Academy -EBFA), utilizing the Accelerated Christian Education Program, was founded. Robert Rineer became its first principal. (The school changed its name to just “Ephrata Academy” some years later and was eventually assumed by Lancaster Christian School in the mid-eighties. However the pre-school continued—now called “Precious Promise Preschool”—was led for many years by Mrs. Frain. Her daughter, Nancy, is now the leader).
Around this time, 1977, Pastor Smock’s sons, Dave and Jim, joined their father and the pastoral staff. Norman H. Wolf (Thelma Smocks’ father) had been an assistant up until the Lord called him home in 1976. In his honor a newly purchased former three-story sewing factory across the street was named—Wolf Hall. This building was retrofitted by eliminating eighty–percent of the third floor, making the second floor into a gym. The school utilized the first floor (basement). The gym, with a stage in front, became the home of a Youth Church led by the Smock brothers. At its peak 150-175 teens attended the church. Bill Aukamp joined the staff when Dave Smock left to further his education.
A drama ministry was started in 1980. Productions and plays continued at the church, Pinebrook Bible Conference, and other venues for 30-years. The church often had award winning floats in local Fall parades (Denver, Ephrata, New Holland and Manheim).
In 1980 Pastor Robert Smock resigned from the church and moved to Royersford. Five months later Rev. John H. Riggall, formerly of the Faith BFC of York, became the second pastor. In the early summer of 1981 he added to his staff Rev. Daniel P. Allen to administrate the school and assist with ministerial duties of the church.
In June of 1982 Pastor Riggall retired and Pastor Dan became the third full time pastor of the church. His staff consisted of Earl Gill who was the administrator of the Academy and a full-time secretary, Colette Sensenig. A year later Gill was replaced by Dan’s brother, Dave who also joined the pastoral staff.
AWANA began in 1982 with George Eltringham, a retired Graterford Prison guard, as the commander. It continues to this day, under the leadership of Kathy Bulgrien as it teaches the Bible to many of our children (even second generation ones) and those from the community.
That year also saw the start of a new outreach ministry. God used Pastor Dan’s voice and budding writing skills as the church went on the radio with 1-minute “Minute Meditations.” These initially aired on 2 Ephrata stations but quickly expanded as funds were available to four more stations in Lancaster and York Counties. Eventually, Pastor Dan concluded each spot “Wishing you Joy in Jesus,” a phrase recommended by Arlene Gehret. A half-hour Sunday morning program called “Let There Be Praise” was aired for a few years on a local station.
With missions giving mired in the general budget and unable to expand, a program called “Faith Promise” was established in 1983. The first year it doubled missions to $5,000 and continued to double in subsequent years allowing the church to send out one of their own Elders (Bill & Lois Early) with Trans Word Radio. Nine years later missions giving came in just under $40,000 and was raised to almost $80,000 by 1997. A program called STEM (Short Term Evangelism and Missions) was started to send our own people on short term mission trips—some trips, of which, went to Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, to visit the Earlys.
Evangelism Explosion, a program authored by D. James Kennedy from south Florida, was started at the church in 1984. Twenty-five individuals made a profession of faith in the first year.
In 1984 a Feasibility Study was initiated to determine the advisability of either renovating the present Church Street facilities or buying land. After much research, including a bid of over a half million dollars to renovate, it was determined at the Annual Meeting in December of 1985 to “secure a suitable site and feasible facility financing in order for us to be in our comfortable convenient complex by December 1, 1987 . . .” (written by secretary and delegate Bob Gehret).
A number of properties were studied, but God miraculously provided farm land just east of Ephrata. The 17.5 acre tract was purchased at public auction for $124,500. The Elders, who had set a limit of $100,000, huddled in one of the upstairs bedrooms of the farm house to pray and decide what to do. One parishioner stepped forward and volunteered to supply the overage in exchange for a small piece of the property.
After the farm house and barn were razed and the land developed, many of the church folks gathered to build a pavilion with restrooms and space for a kitchen as well as a softball field (a decade later a two bay garage was added). Due to various problems, especially with the PA Department of Environmental Resources, this was all that was able to be done for many months. The church missed its goal to be in the new building by December 1987. In fact, the dedication of the building was not held until almost two years later, November 12, 1989. Despite this and since the Church Street buildings were sold and needed to be vacated, the church met on the new property in a large circus tent during the late summer months of 1989 and into the Fall. At least one service was held under the big-top at the Gehret’s house on Mohler Church Road. A baptism in their pool and a pig-roast/pot luck dinner completed that day. At least once-a-year, sometimes twice, for many years the church gathered at the Gehret’s for a baptismal service and “dinner on the grounds.”
The new church featured classrooms, restrooms, office suite and a gym/meeting room. There was some discussion as to its name—was it a gymnasium, auditorium, sanctuary, multi-purpose room? The term “Audinasium” was adopted which was deemed better than Sanctitorium.
After having several church secretaries over the years, including Jean Hargis, Sue Brossman was hired in April 1990. As of this writing she continues as Administrative Assistant with several additional secretaries on staff.
On October 20, 1990, the church celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Special greetings were personally given by State Senator Noah Wenger, County Commissioner Jim Huber, and former Church Extension Director Dr. Earl Hosler. The Reverends John H. Riggall and Robert W. Smock preached in the morning and evening services, respectively. Charter Members were recognized.
The church quickly outgrew its facilities, especially in regards to classrooms. Four years after the new church was built, in 1993, a two-story educational wing (Phase 2), costing just over three hundred thousand dollars, was completed. Eighty-five percent of this building was paid for by one couple (Jake Weber and his daughter, Dottie Fisher) who saw what God was doing at their church in Ephrata. That’s why it is named “Weber Family Wing.” “Hackman Hall” was so named after the untimely death of Elder and director of the music ministry, Chris Hackman in 2003.
In 1993 a system was devised to better utilize the volunteers and enlist others. The “Worker Friendly System” (changed to PLACE ministries in 2002 with the slogan: “Every Member a Minister; Every Person a Place”) galvanized the work force into yearly commitments which reversed the statistic of 20% of the people doing 80% of the work to 80% involved in ministry. This is also when the “Adopt a Room” cleaning operation was established and continues to this day.
Toward the middle of 1993, Pastor Smock retired to the Ephrata-area and rejoined the staff of the church. His official position was Pastor of Pastoral Care, but unofficially, his and Thelma’s involvement was felt and appreciated in many areas of the church.
In 1994 and for the next eleven years the church turned its outreach attention to local cable television. A program entitled: Public Pulpit, pitted Pastor Dan against a liberal Presbyterian minister, Ed Brandt, as they debated religious and political themes. Hugh Coffman, owner of Coffman Communications Group, moderated the program which lasted five seasons. In 1999 Pastor Dan went solo with a program called The Bottom Line in which he interviewed a variety of guests including: politicians—State and National including US Senators and Congressmen, as well as the former mayor of Philadelphia; religious leaders—pastors, priests, rabbis and minister directors; authors; professors, activists and even a psychic, but he always concluded the program with what he believed to be the “bottom line” from God’s Word. Over the next 6-years, 180 programs were aired in Pennsylvania and Maryland. The church also produced TV Christian service announcements—30-second spots presenting a moral and religious message. The media ministry, both radio and TV, were significant factors in the continual growth of the church during Pastor Dan’s tenure. Visitors attended every Sunday. This resulted in going to two Sunday morning services in 1998.
As a result of a Promise Keeper’s Pastor’s Conference, in Atlanta, GA, (February 1996), pastors of like-minded, Bible-believing Ephrata–area churches, met to pray every Wednesday morning (still do). This resulted in several evangelistic outreaches with scores added to the Kingdom of God. When 9-11 hit (September 2001), because the pastors had prayed and worked together, they were able to put together a program at the Ephrata High School auditorium just five days later. Recording artist, Bruce Heffner, who was already booked for the church that Sunday night, lead worship. A pastor from Manhattan, who had ministered in Ground Zero, presented the Gospel. Again, people became followers of Jesus Christ.
In the summer of 1996 Rev. Harvey J. Fritz, Jr., was hired as Pastor of Ministries. Due to health reasons he retired the next year.
In the Fall of 1996 the church celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. At the celebration, Bob and Arlene Gehret were given the honor of being named - Mr. & Mrs. Ephrata Bible Fellowship Church. Also, the founding pastor, Robert W. Smock was named Pastor Emeritus. He and his wife were given a cruise in thanks for their years of service.
Jeff Rossignol joined the staff in a full-time capacity in 2001. This former part-time youth director, while attending Lancaster Bible College, continued overseeing the youth but also wore the hat of the Worker Friendly/PLACE Ministries. That same year, Diane Frain-Gehman was added to the staff to assist Pastor Dan with his TV program as well as share some secretarial duties. Her job was expanded to direct the children’s program of the church and continues to this day.
At the end of 2004, Ephrata BFC’s longest tenured pastor left to become the director of Pinebrook Bible Conference (owned by the Bible Fellowship Church). He was succeeded by Robert Kramer in 2006.
Pastor Kramer started various ministries during his six years at the church including – “Men and the Cross” which continues as a Men’s Bible study; “The Big Event” – a VBS kick-off and free community event held at Grater Park; and the “Clothing Ministry” which continues as a vibrant ministry to those in need. He also oversaw the renovation of the Lobby and established the “Hall of Missions.”
The Pastor Kramer years saw the passing of the old-guard as they received their eternal reward. Bob Gehret—long time Delegate, Pastor Robert and Thelma Smock; and Walter A. Davis (Pete)—long-time treasurer, all passed away.
Pastor Jason Hoy came to the church in 2014 . . .
Fifty-years! For those under that age—it’s a long time. For older ones—not so much. But a lot has happened at the Bible Fellowship Church of Ephrata during the past 5-decades. People have come and gone. They say (not sure who “they” is) that a church turns over with people every ten years. Might be some truth to that. A lot of former parishioners occupy seats at other churches. But some folks have stayed through the thick-and-thin—good times and troubling ones.
Programs have changed. What worked in the early days (spectacular DVBSs, bus ministry, dynamic Children’s Church), transitioned to AWANA, EE, media outreach and small groups. Using the gym at Wolf Hall and then the “Audinasium” for sports has always played a role. Five pastors and several interim pastors have served over the years using their unique set of gifts and talents. But the underlining purpose has been the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
The church is a family; it’s a discipling and training place; it’s a hospital and counseling center for those who are hurt and struggling; it’s a place to weekly worship God. But without constantly striving to win the lost via various era-appropriate means and the challenge for the congregants to share their faith with their friends, it fails at it’s greatest mission—the Great Commission and the Great Command—loving people into the Kingdom.
Jesus said to Peter—“I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). True, Jesus is building His church, but He’s doing so on the backs of His followers via the Holy Spirit. That’s the mission of THE church. That’s been the mission of THIS church. May it ever be so.
Robert W. Smock: 1966 - 1980;
John H. Riggall: 1981 - 1982
Daniel P. Allen: 1981 - 2004
Robert Kramer: 2006 - 2012
Jason Hoy: 2014 - present
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History of Bible Fellowship Church of Ephrata
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