[ Adapted from a paper on Englewood as a "turnaround church"
Englewood had her beginning as a neighborhood church on the outskirts of the growing city of Indianapolis in 1895. The church building remains on Rural Street. Located a mere one hundred yards north of the Old National Road (now U.S. Hwy. 40), Englewood was well-positioned for numerical growth. Within fifty years, the thirty-six charter members would outgrow their rented hall and their wooden church structure and become a congregation of hundreds occupying their impressive brick church building. As the growing city surrounded Englewood, the church’s influence and stature grew as well. She became one of the largest Christian churches in America, and one of the largest churches of any tradition in Indiana.
Morning worship attendance climbed to over one thousand by the early seventies, but numerous changes were gathering momentum signaling a precipitous fall. Within twenty years, attendance would drop to two hundred and fifty. Power and prestige had given way to struggle and grasping for an identity. Attendance has continued to shrink to the present number of about two hundred. Nothing in this telling of Englewood’s history resembles the typical definition of turnaround, but as was stated earlier there are other ways to evaluate churches.
Throughout her years, Englewood has taken on the form of either her religious environment or her cultural environment. Until the late fifties, the church looked in form like any other church in Indianapolis with certain “Christian Church” differences, and people held the same views as most of their neighbors. This would explain how some could be Englewood church members, Masonic lodge members and Ku Klux Klan members simultaneously. From the late fifties through the early seventies, the church was about growth in size . . . bigger attendance and expanding facility. However, both the religious and neighborhood environments began to change. The neighborhood became more visibly “urban”. Lack of one-mindedness concerning convictions began to be manifest.
Roles and composition of leadership began to change. These dynamics started both an exodus in numbers and a search for identity in congregational life.
ADAPTING TO A PLACE
By the mid-seventies the urban landscape of Indianapolis was changing rapidly. Churches began to notice the threat of being located in older urbanized neighborhoods and many considered re-location to newer suburban neighborhoods. For instance, the large East 49th Street Christian Church became the even larger East 91st Street Christian Church in the mid-seventies, and the large East 38th Street Christian Church became the even larger Post Road Christian Church in the mid-eighties.
The neighborhood around Englewood Christian Church, being close to the downtown area, was deteriorating visibly in the seventies and eighties, but the church leadership made a conscious decision to remain. However, the church’s theological identity was not prepared for the challenges of the neighborhood’s rapid changes. As the church attempted to cope with financial and numerical freefall, some chased after various forms of spiritual renewal while others looked for ways to address the needs of the urban poor. Both pursuits came from consciously sincere people, but both groups failed to seriously consider the destructive aspects of their activities.
The close of the eighties found the church wounded by a split in pastoral leadership related to a charismatic expression of the spiritual renewal movement, which had been rejected by the elders. The church was also growing progressively discontented by the lack of visible results from food, clothing and furniture pantries for the neighborhood poor.
The early nineties was a time filled with activities and new programs, but the result was weariness, disillusionment and more searching for identity. The only sure identity was that Englewood was an inner-city church in a neighborhood only growing worse.
Multiple Congregations in One
Significant changes began to take place in the mid-nineties. These changes were the result of attempts at honest assessments of the congregation. Perhaps the most revealing finding was the extent to which the church had been fragmented. Englewood was not one “body”, it was many.
Old Englewood was still in existence as a traditional Christian Church. Also, there remained the “Glory Days” church fondly remembering the era of explosive numerical growth. There was a handful of members still under the influence of the spiritual renewal theology, and there was a younger crowd influenced by popular evangelical culture. Add to these an underground group of radical discipleship folks and you have the complicated composition of a church celebrating her centennial anniversary.
How could so many different elements begin a process of change? Was there a theology which could bring an expression of the essential unity found in Christ? The church needed to talk. But how?
Sunday Night Discussion
No part of the church’s program was specifically designed for extended dialogue. Sunday morning was about worship; Sunday school was about education. Ministry team meetings were about various expressions of Englewood’s ministry and mission. Sunday night church meeting had been about many things over the years, and seemed to be the most adaptable opportunity for sorting out congregational differences.
Three convictions guided this process: (1) The church must pursue one-mindedness (I Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:3; Philip. 1:27; 2:2; I Pet. 3:8) (2) Assembly is for the purpose of edification (I Cor. 14:26). (3) Godly discernment must take place in the assembly (I Cor. 14:26-33). Sunday night discussion was the arena where these convictions were practiced.
Adults who are not involved in teaching youth or children have gathered for the last six or seven years in a circle in a large room of the church building. The format is minimally directed discussion concerning church life. Specific topics have included the nature of Scripture, God’s mission for the church, a year-long consideration of Ephesians 4 and most recently, the tension between the kingdom of God and U.S. citizenship.
The process of learning to speak together, though, has been messy, painful and costly. Some preferred leaving to working out differences. Some disagreements served only to polarize members further. However, the unity which does exist is real and valued highly because it is costly. The honesty and frankness from Sunday night discussion has begun to find its way into all Englewood discussions. The turn has begun!
Englewood Community Development Corporation
When members of a church begin to honestly talk with one another, conversation becomes contagious and life together becomes intentional. Issues like housing, employment, childcare, household finance, food and education (to name a few) come to the forefront and the nominal practices of religion fade into the background. However, most churches are ill prepared for these issues in their conversations or practices. As Englewood recognized her ineffectiveness in responding to the families who came in the midst of crisis, and recognized her lack of capacity to address the issues named above, a plan was proposed to build capacity in the areas of concern for Englewood families. The plan eventually took the form of a separate 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation named Englewood Community Development Corporation.
After eight years as a church-driven but separate legal entity ECDC operates: a lawn care service which among other customers includes the City of Indianapolis for whom we mow 17 city parks, a bookkeeping service whose clients include for-profit and not-for-profit businesses, a bookstore with on-line ordering capability, a PC repair service and most recently, the beginning of a commercial cleaning service. Yet far and away ECDC’s largest enterprise has been in the area of housing.
Through the agency of advocacy and consulting, acquisition and rehab, limited partnerships with financial institutions, pooling of personal financial resources, sweat equity by church families and a host of other vehicles, ECDC has assisted over twenty-five households to become residents of the church neighborhood. Many of these have become first-time homeowners. Those assisted range from the elderly to young newlyweds, from the healthy to the handicapped, from those who are upper middle-class to the economically disadvantaged and from life-long city residents to a Guatemalan preacher.
What has emerged from all of this activity has been a community of faith imperfectly but intentionally bearing the transformative gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a community church immersed in the real stuff of life. What better placement could there be for the leaven of God’s kingdom come on earth.