Olive Drive Church formed in 1889 and has a long and diverse history. The following is a partial retelling from William Harland Boyd’s book “Bakersfield’s First Baptist Church: A Centennial History, 1889-1989.”
In 1889, saloons were far more popular than churches, but four energetic pastors, (Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, and Baptist), took it upon themselves to begin to minister to the townspeople. The first Baptist services were organized in April of 1889 at George Wear’s Opera House located at the southeast corner of Eye and Wall Streets with Reverend J. Campbell Jordan, of Fresno, as Pastor. Services soon moved to the Kern County Courthouse and remained there until 1890 when the church constructed a permanent building on the northwest corner of 22nd and Eye Streets.
The First Baptist Church
In March of 1890, legal requirements were met to incorporate and officially become the “ First Baptist Church.” By May of that same year a Sunday School was established under Superintendent Charles E. Wright, and about fifty people were enrolled by December of 1892.
In January 1893, the Reverend Carl O. Johnson began his eighteen-month role as minister of the First Baptist Church. Johnson joined with other pastors in the city in 1894 to form the Ministerial Association that would work on religious and welfare projects. That same year, the first choir was organized and directed by George H. Taylor.
From 1894-1901, the First Baptist Church made do with several interim pastors. In May of 1901, church members gladly welcomed Reverend William C. Whitaker of Tempe, Arizona. The booming Kern River oil fields were attracting workers to Bakersfield, and some of them were “working Baptists.” There was a renewed hope and indeed some progress. However, due to poor health, Whitaker submitted his resignation and delivered his farewell sermon in April of 1902.
Growing in Downtown Bakersfield
The First few decades of the new century brought with it a lot of growth and change. By God’s grace, Seven Senior Pastors and even more Interim Pastors lead the church in a fruitful time of ministry.
In December of 1924, Reverend Frank O. Belden, D.D., of San Diego, Ca was called to be the next Pastor of First Baptist Church. The emphasis on youth activities during this season of ministry brought increasingly larger Sunday school enrollments and growth to the church.
Some twelve years after acquiring the property on Truxtun Avenue, a house of worship in the Italian Romanesque style was finally designed by architect Charles A. Biggar.
A nationwide depression, beginning in 1929, with a resulting widespread unemployment, made it difficult to raise funds to build. However, by January 1932, enough money had been raised and pledges made to justify the beginning of construction.
The cornerstone was laid in March and the building was dedicated in November 1932. This downtown building now stands as one of the historic landmarks of Bakersfield.
The Reverend Belden had been at the First Baptist Church for nearly eleven years when, in October 1935, he retired from the pastorate. By then he was seventy-one years of age.
Reverend Burton C. Barrett, D.D., of the Pennsylvania Baptist Convention, answered the call to serve at the First Baptist Church in October of 1935. He challenged the church’s seven hundred and fifty members to join him in an effort to double the strength of the church, making it “stimulating and helpful in every way.” When Barrett assumed the pastorate he also assumed a heavy depression-time debt mainly due to construction costs. Women’s and Men’s groups alike got busy with various fundraising efforts, and on the twelfth anniversary of the completion of the building the mortgage was ceremoniously burned in 1944.
Expanding the Ministry
The growing demands of the church made it necessary to begin to bring on additional staff starting in 1937. Over the next two decades, Associate Pastors assigned the areas of Adults, Music & Youth Ministries were hired. As the church grew so did the desire to plant churches in other areas of the city. The first group sent was the Edison-Fairfax Baptist Mission in 1948, followed by Chester Avenue Baptist Church in 1949, and then University Baptist Church in 1957.
In September of 1961, the Reverend Barrett concluded a twenty-six year pastorate, by which time the church had about seventeen hundred members.
In September of 1961 the Reverend John A. Lavender, D.D., of Chicago, Illinois, became the pastor of the First Baptist Church. Phillip C. Dodson, an organist, became the minister of music in 1962, and the music program was expanded to comprise several choirs ranging in age from children to adults. A Singing Christmas Tree program was presented for the first time in 1972. Working with Virgil Fox, a well-known organist, Dodson labored several years to acquire the organ that was originally built for the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He would be successful and the organ was dedicated in 1988 in the newly constructed church on Olive Drive.
Establishing the Bakersfield Christian Life Center
The congregation had been outgrowing the church facilities on Truxtun Avenue throughout the 1970’s and a relocation site was acquired at the northwest corner of New Stine Road and Ming Avenue. Yet, late in 1976, it appeared the locale would not be adequate for the expanding needs of the church. Consequently, both the downtown and southwest properties were sold in favor of the 32 acre property on the northern outskirts of the city on Olive Drive. A ground breaking ceremony for what would be known as the Bakersfield Christian Life Center, home of the First Baptist Church, took place in October of 1977.
The congregation moved to the new church in November of 1979, where the services were held in the Centrum, until the main worship center could be completed. The campus was designed to house a school, which, started in September of 1979 and closed in October of 1986. Construction on the main worship center began in April 1985. Two years later, in March of 1987, the long awaited consecration ceremony was held for the 1100 seat worship center that would come to be known as Celebration Hall.
This season of ministry was marked by large music productions and thriving a thriving youth ministry that reached up to 400 students in Kern County for Jesus. In the fall of 1987, a stewardship campaign was launched to liquidate the mortgage incurred. Church members contributed generously and the mortgage was burned in June of 1988, on Reverend Lavender’s last Sunday at the pulpit. This concluded a fruitful twenty-seven year pastorate.
A recent president of the American Baptist Seminary of the West at Berkeley, California, Reverend Wesley H. Brown, Ph.D., became the next senior pastor of First Baptist Church in August of 1988. Throughout 1989 there was a year-long celebration of the centennial anniversary of the founding of the First Baptist Church with special events scheduled to cherish the heritage of the church and embrace the future. The 80’s were marked with an increase of ministry towards the marginalized and a growing emphasis on the work of the Spirit.
After almost a decade of leading First Baptist Church, Dr. Brown tendered his resignation in early 1997, which led to a 2-year interim pastorate by Reverend W. Lowell Fairley while the Pastoral Search Committee looked for a new pastor.
A New Era and a New Name
The 80’s and 90’s brought a lot of change in leadership and philosophy of ministry, which equaled significant decline in attendance especially by those longing for a more traditional Baptist fare. During the interim season following Dr Brown the church prayed and prepared for a new season of growth. After two years, Pastor Mike Popovich, D.Min., of Visalia, California, was hired in March of 1999 to lead First Baptist Church into the new century.
Pastor Mike and the Board of Elders presented a proposed name change that was successfully voted on by the congregation on January 24, 2001 changing the official name of the church to Olive Drive Church. In the years to follow, under Pastor Mike’s leadership a new senior staff was slowly put in place to help usher in new direction and growth. Olive Drive also would begin the long overdue process of raising funds and renovating some of the aging campus. One of the priorities for renovation was a 6 year remodel of the church’s fellowship hall later renamed The Great Room.
In an effort to bring new life to the aging congregation, Pastor Mike and the Elders Board commissioned a ministry team of some of the younger associate pastoral staff to launch and lead a new community within Olive Drive Church focused on bringing the Gospel to an emerging group of young adults and young families in Bakersfield.
After faithfully leading ODC for 12 years, Pastor Mike resigned in January of 2011.
Preparation For a New Era
Pastor of Discipleship, Bill Magsig and Lead Pastor of the Great Room Community, Joshua Kirstine were immediately asked to take on the Interim Pastorate. Priorities for the Interim Pastors and Elder Board during interim period were to solidify and unify the congregation around Olive Drive Church’s Mission Statement, to reaffirm each member’s covenant with ODC, to teach and implement biblical conflict resolution, to mobilize the congregation to a greater level of missional living in our community, to identify and disciple new and up-and-coming church leadership and future elders, to delegate the preparation of a campus assessment report, and to prepare a well balanced search committee to find and affirm Olive Drive Church’s next Senior Pastor.
A New Pastor Leads Into the Future
On September 29, 2013, after a thorough and prayerful season of reviewing of over 100 candidates, the Pastoral Search Committee, Elders and congregation of Olive Drive Church agreed that God has prepared, qualified and called Joshua Kirstine to be the next Lead Pastor of Olive Drive Church.