Rev. J.C. Austin

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Isaiah 43:18-19

This brief passage of two verses is one of my favorites in Scripture. Isaiah prophesies it at a time when many of the Israelites are on the verge of returning home from a long period of exile in Babylon. They are both excited and weary, both hopeful and apprehensive. Their dream has finally come true: the chance to go home and begin life together anew. But they’ve been gone so long, and the task of rebuilding now seems at least as overwhelming as it does exciting. How are they going to get things back to the way things used to be?

In these two verses, God relieves them of that burden and sets them in a new direction. Their purpose is not about recreating the past; it is about discerning and embracing the future that God is laying out before them. These verses have floated to mind for me repeatedly this week as I have continued to digest the welcome news of the court ruling. As you have no doubt heard, the court strongly affirmed that title to all property that the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem has held in trust for the Presbyterian Church (USA) for generations did not change with the departure of those who formed the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem in ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

For many of us, there is something of a sense of returning home after a period of exile. And so, there is a natural inclination to say, “now that we’re back home, let’s focus on getting things back the way they used to be.”

But while certainly understandable, we have the opportunity and calling to do something else. I am convinced that God is about to do a new thing here at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, and even now it is springing forth. Our calling is to perceive it, to discern where the Spirit of Christ is moving in our midst and leading us to go in ways through the wilderness where we have not gone before.

Many people on both sides of this division have been deeply hurt. God is giving us the chance to pursue a new way of healing and reconciliation with all those who are willing to join us on that challenging but rewarding road.

God is giving us the chance to explore a new way of what it means to build a deep and Christ-centered culture of hospitality in which, truly, “All Are Welcome”. This includes those we have been in conflict with that may wish to return, and those who have been waiting for the conflict to subside before returning. Those ways, those paths, will take us places we have not gone before, perhaps places we didn’t even realize we could go. That is exciting and a bit overwhelming. But we can trust that God will always provide rivers in the desert to sustain us through that journey.

At the same time, regardless of the paths on which God leads us, we will continue to be the community of faith that Christ has called together at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem for generations. This is not in terms of what we do, but in who we are: passionate followers of Jesus Christ, dedicated to sharing Christ’s good news in word and action, and always striving to embody the spirit of koinonia with each other and in the larger world.

I look forward to seeing you in worship on Sunday, as we strive to perceive what God is about to do among us!

Grace and Peace,


An Open Letter

FROM:   Session of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA

TO:          Our members and friends

RE:          Ruling by Northampton County Court of Common Pleas on Property Ownership

Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta has ruled on the question of exactly who controls the church property at 2344 Center Street. The Judge upheld the ‘Trust Clause’ as outlined in the Book of Order, our church’s constitution, saying that “title to both real and personal property held and/or owned by First Presbyterian of Bethlehem is held in trust for the Lehigh Presbytery of PCUSA.” This means that a Pennsylvania court of law determined that the Lehigh Presbytery, acting for your church, First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA, is the recognized trustee of the church property and all its assets under the present circumstances. We are grateful for the partnership with Lehigh Presbytery and their steadfast support and encouragement during the stressful legal proceedings.

First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA leaders will work on the logistics of how the two congregations currently occupying the physical property shall proceed. It is our ardent hope that we find a way to bridge our differences. Our church intends to go forward in the spirit of Christian fellowship. Our guiding principle will be the words of our Lord, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31). This is the time for graciousness and kindness.

In that spirit, we will not be making any changes to the worship schedule during the Advent and Christmas seasons. As soon as possible after the new year, we will be implementing a fair and reasonable schedule of worship services as well as an equitable sharing of the common areas and classrooms. We ask for your patience while the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA leaders work to facilitate a smooth transition.

Please watch for updates on our website at http://www.firstpresbyterianchurchbethlehem-pcusa.org/.  Please direct your questions and concerns to Pastor J.C. Austin at JC.Austin@fpcb-pcusa.org.

Bulletin: Judge rules in favor of PC (USA) congregation at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem

Read newspaper report on judge’s ruling on Morning Call website.

Read or download a copy of the Judge’s ruling.


Rev. Dr. William Hess

I was in seminary when first introduced to the groundbreaking work by Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She identified five stages of grief: shock, negotiation, anger, depression, and acceptance. From my forty-plus years of pastoral ministry, I can concur that her observations were right on! Whether a personal or corporate experience, we usually must journey through these five stages of grief.

It has been my honor to lead several congregations through these stages. Unfortunately here in Bethlehem, the long-awaited court ruling has left many of us stuck in the “negotiation” stage. Because of this long delay, others still express anger and sadness.  When I first met your new pastor, J. C. Austin, we talked about the long delay in the ruling. He assured me that he was fully committed to this congregation regardless of how the court rules. I was joyfully impressed! This is the stage of “acceptance.”
There is that spiritually healthy position of trusting God to “work all things together for good.” Whether here or there, whether now or then – we will accept what the Lord has in store for us, and we will continue to serve the Lord with gratitude and joy. The true treasures of life are our relationships – with God and with one another. During our brief sojourn together, I have remained grateful for experiences that have deepened my relationship with Christ and for the opportunity to have built so many wonderful friendships in Bethlehem. St. Paul’s words to the Philippians express my sentiments exactly: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God”  (Phil.1:3).
Your commitment, devotion, spirit, and struggle for justice have been an inspiration to me. My prayers will continue to lift up your pastor, your staff, your elders and deacons, the Administrative Commission, and all of you! As for our time together, I leave with you the wise words of Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened.”
Pastor Bill Hess

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Rev. J.C. Austin

We are so very pleased to announce that the Rev. J.C. Austin has been called to serve as the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA.

For nearly 20 years, J.C. has served the Presbyterian Church USA as a pastor, an educator, and a leader at every level of the denomination. A lifelong Presbyterian, he is married to Tammy Haston Austin, and is a devoted father to Liam Austin, their 12 year-old son.

J.C.’s ministry will begin officially on November 27, though he will be in and out of the office earlier as he transitions to Bethlehem. His first Sunday in the pulpit will be December 3, the first Sunday of Advent. Click here to see the complete article on Rev. Austin’s call to Bethlehem.

“Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps. 106:1)