Sunday, September 18, 2016
Local churches resemble individuals in some ways. They are conceived; they are born; and they mature. The local congregation presently known as Tri-City Covenant Church followed this pattern. Sometime during the early 1970’s she was conceived in the heart of Ronald C. Welch, a struggling Bible college student in Springfield, Missouri, as he studied and prepared for the pastoral ministry while supporting his young family.
The church, then Tri-City Bible Baptist Church, was born in September 1972 when Pastor Welch and his co-laborer, Delbert McLaughlin, held the church’s first worship service in a small Grange hall in Dover, New Hampshire. Twenty-eight people attended that first service. Few would have imagined any major impact upon the surrounding communities originating from such a modest beginning, but the church grew, and that steady pattern of gathering weekly for corporate worship has continued without interruption on every Lord’s Day since that first Sunday. The church purchased twenty-two acres of undeveloped property on West High Street in Somersworth in early 1974. Church services were then moved to the new location, and held first in a large tent and then in the unfinished present building, which was hastily completed and dedicated in November 1974.
Many people came and went during those early formative years. Some stayed for a brief time. Others stayed for a longer period. And a few stayed for the long haul. The church operated an aggressive bus ministry, which eventually grew to four bus routes reaching out into the highways and hedges of the Tri-City communities, visiting, transporting, and instructing hundreds of people, mostly children, in the rudiments of the Christian Gospel. Twice the church received an award for having New Hampshire’s fastest growing Sunday school.
Two deacons were ordained in 1976, and the church’s governance structure embraced elder rule by 1980. To some extent these shifts were due to Pastor Welch’s declining health and the consequent requirement for assistance in his leadership, but they were also due to his increased level of Scriptural study and his total surrender to the Lord’s plan for the church’s entire ministry. The church culture could fairly be characterized as tumultuous and unsteady during those years, in much the same way as a young child’s life experience can be tumultuous and unsteady. There was even a brief period during the early 1980’s when the church took on a revivalist “camp meeting” approach to the Gospel ministry. But the people were hungry for more. And their searching Pastor was insatiable in his quest for God’s richest blessing for his humble congregation. When asked what he was ultimately seeking for his church, he sometimes used a country preacher expression, “I may not know what it is, but I sure know what it ain’t.”
A great leap in growth occurred during the mid 1980’s when Dr. Ellsworth McIntyre became the administrator of a nearby Christian day school, Southeastern New Hampshire Christian Academy (SENHCA) in 1983. Dr. McIntyre and Pastor Welch quickly became close friends, and the McIntyre family, after a long and unsettled course of church and school relationships, became a happy part of the Tri-City church community. Through his dynamic friendship with Dr. McIntyre, a variant of Reformed theology, then known as Christian Reconstruction, was received and embraced by Pastor Welch, and the resulting spiritual fire was quickly transmitted to the church. Some of the congregation did not follow and departed, but many held on for one of the most exciting and meaningful transitional periods a church could possibly experience. Tri-City Bible Baptist Church became Tri-City Baptist Church as its identification with Baptist fundamentalism faded, and as a more Reformed theology, as articulated in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, took hold. The church was growing up.
Christian Reconstruction taught that Jesus the Christ is Lord over every area of life and thought – not merely of the inner personal life, and not merely of the institutional church. It did not require much further instruction or urging for the people of the church to begin to joyfully work out the implications of that wonderful new teaching. Tri-City Christian Academy (TCCA) was opened in September 1985 after the leadership at Southeastern Christian rejected Dr. McIntyre’s teaching of Christian Reconstruction with its emphasis on Biblical Law, and after he was ungratefully dismissed from that school. Fifty-eight students were enrolled in TCCA that first year, and two seniors graduated in June. With the church’s long-term commitment to support TCCA, the new Christian school became a focal point of her attempt at culture-transforming ministry, and it has remained so to this present time. But TCCA was certainly not the limit of the church’s embracing of the ramifications of its new and compelling doctrine.
The congregation’s members took their faith and applied it outside the immediate realms of their hearts and their church. Families were begun and expanded; properties were acquired; businesses were started; and several beautiful homes were constructed with much participation from church members and the wise leadership and skills of church deacon, and later elder, Mr. John Marshall. The term “Marshall Plan” was borrowed and applied again and again as many people worked as one, and many houses were built. Two family-owned kindergarten businesses, functioning as satellite schools for TCCA, were begun by the Edgar family and the Locke family in outer reaches of the greater Tri-City community.
The growth and maturation was not entirely external. Pastoral teaching and congregation learning continued. A particularly meaningful event took place during a Sunday evening church service in June 1988 when nearly twenty-five children, some infants, were baptized into covenantal union with Jesus with water sprinkled “from above.” The church’s name had to change again after that, and Tri-City Covenant Church (TCCC) officially transitioned to the Westminster Confession of faith as its primary creedal document.
Also in June 1988 God led Rev. Thomas F. Clark to leave his position as a successful community businessman and to begin assuming the role of Associate Pastor with Rev. Welch. As Pastor Clark grew into this new role, Pastor Welch, hoping to regain his health, took a lengthy sabbatical in October 1988. After founding, guiding, and nurturing Tri-City Covenant Church for seventeen years, Pastor Welch was called home to Heaven on September 14, 1989. In recognition of God’s providential care of His church, the Board of Elders voted soon afterward to install Rev. Clark as the church’s Pastor.
Worship at Tri-City Covenant Church changed radically. First, it became the church’s primary activity and acknowledged reason for being. As children learn to function as adults, churches too eventually learn their purpose. Second, a liturgical pattern for TCCC’s worship services began to conform to biblical dictates for a congregation’s drawing near to God, their King. Third, vigorous singing of the Geneva Psalter was introduced at TCCC by Music Director, Dr. Louis Schuler. Finally, the covenant sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were embraced as efficacious and central to the church’s experience.
Both inward and outward growth continued into the early 2000’s. TCCA alumni began attending and graduating from schools like Columbia, Harvard, Bob Jones, Brigham Young, West Point Military Academy, and many others. Author and Christian historian Otto Scott joined the church’s staff as Scholar-In-Residence. More property was acquired including staff housing, a large tract of undeveloped land, and a church cemetery, which together brought the church’s total property inventory to over fifty acres. An athletic field for TCCA was dedicated in 2006 as Niver Field, in recognition of the steady and longstanding faithful service of Allan and Geneva Niver to the TCCC congregation. A cemetery was dedicated and a 100-year time capsule was buried during the church’s Thirty-Fifth Anniversary celebration in September 2007. Pastor Clark often fittingly described the members and work of the TCCC congregation as “ordinary people with extraordinary callings.”
Later in 2007, Tri-City Christian Academy purchased the campus property of Southeastern New Hampshire Christian Academy after that school’s enrollment had declined to an unviable level. A small army of TCCA parents, students, faculty, and TCCC members renovated, restored, and “reconstructed” the long-neglected school building, and in January 2008, TCCA elementary classes, which had outgrown their original West High Street facility, occupied the former SENHCA classrooms. Dr. and Mrs. McIntyre were invited to the school’s re-opening in September 2008, and were honored for their life-long contribution to Christian education in the very place where they had once labored without appropriate recognition.
Individuals grow up, and churches grow up. Tri-City Covenant Church flourished as she learned that she was a part of a much larger Body of Christ, and as she began to fulfill her even larger family responsibilities. Joining the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches in October 2008, reaching across denominational lines and praying for the universal Christian church worldwide, and learning from leaders of more distant branches of the Christian family have become significant indicators that TCCC is beginning to assume her role as a mature contributor to the full, global, trans-national, catholic Christian church. TCCC now advertises herself as “a Reformational Catholic Church” and as “a Branch of the Christian Church in Somersworth, New Hampshire.”
The church’s journey has certainly not been an easy one. Pastor Thomas F. Clark, III was transferred from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant on October 13, 2014 after a courageous two-year struggle with cancer. He delivered intimate and powerful sermons right up until a few weeks before his death. He left a loving family, a grateful congregation, and a respectful Somersworth community as his legacy. His funeral was attended by hundreds of people, who knew a great man had passed, but by the marvelous grace of God through Christ would one day joyfully greet them again.
But for now, the church’s Mission continues. A dedicated team of three pastors, Rev. Harold Guptill, Rev. John Correia, and Rev. Josiah Clark, now comprise the church’s Pastoral Staff carrying on the work of Pastor Welch and Pastor Clark. TCCA became fully accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in November 2014 and has recently obtained certification for receiving international students. Pastor Brian Nolder joined the TCCA faculty as the International Student Coordinator in November 2016. By the fall of 2017, perhaps TCCA will begin educating students from across the globe?
In the fall of 2016 Tri-City Covenant Church began her forty-fifth year, and Tri-City Christian Academy began its thirty-second year of service. Our continued prayer is that our ministry will advance into the future fulfilling our role in the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. But what lies ahead for us? What does God have in store for Tri-City Covenant Church’s course of future maturation? Our present dreams and prayerful guesses include a church worship building with architecture designed and constructed for church worship. An online Bible seminary and an elderly care residential facility are presently under discussion. But as grown-ups, our main concerns must remain on that next visitor entering church on Sunday, on the next student enrolling at TCCA, on the next Lord’s Day corporate worship service as we again draw near to our King, and even on the next day’s showing up at work to perform in our callings.
Unlike the occasional feeble cries of our childish and rebellious surrounding culture, Christians discover that growing up is a wonderful and fulfilling experience. And so do churches. Pastor Welch often prayed, “Lord, do it here the way You’ve always wanted to do it!” This prayer has already been answered in part. It is also being answered in the present day. And it will continue to be answered more and more into the future until TCCC someday assumes her assigned place in the eternal ranks of the heavenly multitude of local churches of all nations and of all ages.