It was at the height of the Great Depression, on December 2, 1934, when the Rev. Henry J. Whiting launched the first Lutheran congregation in the Bethesda area. On that Sunday, some 163 people gathered with Rev. Whiting at the State Theater, then located near the site of the present Bethesda Hyatt Hotel, for the first service of the "Lutheran Mission of Bethesda". Henry Hiser, the theater's owner, provided free use of the theater and its organ to the new congregation. In fact, the theater, later renamed the Hiser, was the congregation's home throughout its earliest years.
In October 1935, the "Lutheran Mission of Bethesda" became "Christ Lutheran Church", with 46 charter members. Christ Lutheran soon affiliated with the Eastern District of the American Lutheran Church.
In March 1938, in a heroic demonstration of commitment and love for their church, members raised $7,000 in only seven days. The funds allowed them to purchase the Garrett House at 8011 Old Georgetown Road. With remodeling, they gained a chapel, Sunday School rooms and a pastor's apartment. It was indeed a memorable day when members marched along Old Georgetown Road from the Hiser Theater to their new church home, carrying high their banner and singing "Onward Christian Soldiers".
In 1939, Dr. Raymond A. Vogeley was called to fill Rev. Whiting's position and served as pastor through the years of World War II. In 1941, an addition to the original church provided space for a new chapel and parish hall. But members knew the issue of more adequate facilities would soon have to be addressed. Before Pastor Vogeley left that year, master plans for future building began to be developed. In addition, a lot on nearby Rugby Avenue was purchased as the site of a new parsonage.
Christ Lutheran's third pastor, the Rev. Otto C. Schuetze arrived in 1945 to begin a career of service at Christ Lutheran that would span more than three decades. Rev. Schuetze, his wife, Helen, and their family moved into a new parsonage at 5017 Rugby Avenue in 1951. The swelling population of post-war families put increased pressure on church facilities, for a time forcing the Schuetzes to invite the overflow of Sunday School classes to meet at the parsonage.
By 1953, the congregation had decided to build a new church building on the site of the Garrett House and a new educational building on the recently purchased adjacent lot, located on the corner of Old Georgetown and Glenbrook Road. The three-level Luther Hall, the name given the educational building, was completed in 1955. A year later, the church building was finished.
To help Rev. Schuetze meet the pastoral needs of the expanding parish, the church, beginning in 1959, brought in a series of vicars, including Dick Miller, Larry Gardner, Robert Snyder, Charles Mays, Joe Weiss, Ron Mach, Harold Grafe, Dwayne Grawe and Paul Horn. Mary Recher and Gordon Hora each served terms as directors of education. Two associate pastors, Robert Duea and Robert Scott, also served with Pastor Schuetze during the 1960s and early 1970s. Carl Youngdahl, in addition to directing the music program in the 1950s, helped lay the plans for acquisition of an organ. His daughter, Eileen Gunberg, later assumed responsibility for the choir.
In November 1961, in a step that launched Christ Lutheran's enduring tradition of community outreach, the church opened the Christ Church Child Center as a special learning center for children with disabilities. In 1966, a class was added at Bethesda Presbyterian Church; in 1970, another opened at St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac; and in 1973 Concord Methodist Church began providing space to the Child Center. In 1985, with students in four locations, and enrollment at 123 students, the Christ Church Child Center moved into a larger home â€” a vacated public school at 11614 Seven Locks Road, Potomac â€” where it could bring all its classes under one roof. With the move, the Center changed its name to the Ivymount School.
Property expansion continued in the 1960s with the purchase of the Barrett property next to the new church building and another house on Rugby Avenue, directly behind the church.
In 1968, the Whiting Memorial Altar Rail was completed, and in 1973, the needlepoint kneeler cushions were dedicated. Around the church, the Bethesda community was growing rapidly, and in 1965, Old Georgetown Road was widened. The high retaining wall in front of the church was completed in 1966.
With the additional space of the Barrett property available, the congregation in 1972 broke new ground in the community with its opening of a day care center for the elderly. In late 1985, a new wing was added, allowing the center to offer care to 23 people daily. The Bethesda Fellowship House was designed to serve people who are too hearty for nursing homes but who need care during the day.
Rev. Schuetze retired in December 1976. His 31-year tenure had spanned a dramatic period of growth in the community and congregation. The church acquired most of its buildings and property, and programs to meet the needs of its membership flourished. And notably, during Pastor Schuetze's tenure, Christ Lutheran's spirit of community service and outreach took shape: first, through its Child Center, and later, through the establishment of the Bethesda Fellowship House. That spirit continues to define the church today.
The Rev. K Roy Nilsen succeeded Rev. Schuetze, serving from 1977 until 1982. Pastor Nilsen was the first to occupy the Church's then newly purchased parsonage at 11905 Enid Drive, Potomac.
Following Pastor Nilsen's departure, Christ Lutheran was without its own pastor for over a year. Services were led by visiting pastors.
In 1983, the congregation called a new pastor, the Rev. Marvin T. Tollefson. Two years after Pastor Tollefson's arrival, the congregation called Associate Pastor Nicki Parrish, Christ Lutheran's first woman clergy. Pastor Parrish left the church in 1991 to become pastor of a mission congregation. In October 1992, Pastor Douglas Mose accepted the call to serve as Christ Lutheran's associate pastor.
With the educational building freed up by Christ Child Center's departure in the mid-1980s, the congregation explored other community needs which the space might be used to meet.
Opened in 1986 under the leadership of Pastor Dean Anderson as director, the Christ Church Children's Day Care Center accepted children, ages 3-4. Filling the available openings was no problem. In 1987, the center increased its enrollment to include two-year-olds. In the fall of 1988, the Day Care Center expanded again - this time to the church-owned house at 5017 Rugby Avenue. Cherub House, as the new portion of the center was called, answered a critical need in child care: a quality environment for infants and toddlers.
In 1988, responding to the need for quality, affordable counseling services, the church initiated the Christ Lutheran Church Counseling Center .
In the late 1980s, Christ Lutheran opened its space for the first time to other church congregations seeking a regular meeting place. Adat Shalom, a Jewish reconstructionist congregation, a Korean congregation, and a Hispanic congregation have used the sanctuary and educational building for their weekly services. Christ Lutheran has also become a regular meeting place for members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al Anon, and other 12-Step groups, in addition to church, community and multi-cultural social events. Bethesda Cares, an organization formed to help the Homeless in Bethesda, provides a free lunch at the church each weekday the second half of every month. By offering the use of its facilities to a range of organizations, Christ Lutheran has gained another avenue of outreach to the community.
In the mid 1990s and early 2000s, many more changes took place. The administrative and music staff went through many changes, and an evolving new vision for the future of the church was taking place. A dynamic contemporary service was added in 1996, and is a vital part of our worship culture today with a talented full praise band. Our Traditional Service still retains some of the rich heritage and style of our Lutheran liturgy and traditionally-minded music, while being somewhat "seeker-sensitive" to those who may visit the church who are not familiar with the Lutheran liturgy or tradition. Currently, the church is planning on completely rebuilding a state-of-the- art, environmentally-friendly worship space/community. In addition, a portion of the churchâ€™s land and surrounding houses will be developed into a new condominium housing community.
Pastor Marvin Tollefson retired on December 31, 2010, and will be greatly and dearly missed, as the search for the next pastor moves forward. Pastor Jon Hundt, our most recent interim pastor, led the church for almost 2 years through the next phase of transition, and his last day was September 30th, 2012. The next interim pastor will be coming in November of 2012.
The days and years ahead are exciting for the people and ministries of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church!