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From Rural Street to Urban America: The Englewood Story
This article tells the story of Englewood Christian Church, a century-old congregation which has transitioned from being a late nineteenth century “suburban” congregation to a “successful” central city church to an innovative inner-city body of believers. The story offers encouragement to other congregations for finding needed resources for their own transitions, through the gifts of God’s Spirit, renewal through theological conversation, and trust in God’s sovereign provision to each local church.
Englewood Christian Church was established in 1895 on what was at that time the edge of the city of Indianapolis, Indiana. Her address to this day remains 57 North Rural Street. However, over the course of one hundred sixteen years a lot can change in any neighborhood in any city. What was once considered rural is now decidedly urban. A predominantly white, working-class neighborhood has become an ethnically diverse neighborhood which is roughly fifty percent Caucasian, twenty-five percent African-American and twenty-five percent Latino. Recently, the neighborhood (with the 46201 zip code) has had one of the highest housing foreclosure rates in the nation, the highest abandoned housing rate in Indiana and struggles in many other categories used to gauge the social condition of a community (i.e., crime, level of education, unemployment rate). Most congregations located in such a neighborhood are unable or unwilling to sustain a life together. Regardless of their past success, older urban congregations usually either relocate or close.
Englewood had experienced a “successful” past according to typical standards of evaluation. Sunday school and morning worship service attendance both reached over one thousand people in the early 1970s. The congregation was led by ministers with national reputations. The church was a key player among the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ; they hosted the second National Missionary Convention and helped to start the North American Christian Convention. This level of success produced the usual expansion of property and the building of large facilities. Unfortunately, Englewood continued to be typical in some detrimental ways.
The priority of numerical growth resulted in an emphasis on evangelism without equal energy spent on disciple making. There was a lot of “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” but not a lot of “teaching them to obey everything” Jesus commanded (Matt 28:19-20; niv). One particular thing Jesus had commanded, loving one’s neighbor, was unlikely if the neighbor happened to be dark skinned. Englewood’s loose and shadowy affiliation with the KKK was an issue on more than one occasion. The changing socio-economic landscape of the neighborhood coupled with a growing segment of the membership taking flight to the suburbs resulted in a congregation that was spiraling downward in number and waning in her witness to the community at large.
In the midst of the decline, which began in the mid-1970s, the leadership of the church made a courageous commitment to remain in the neighborhood. Some members embraced this commitment to a challenged neighborhood. Others “voted with their feet,” leaving the congregation to join one of the many new suburban congregations “closer to home” or leaving under the pretense of theological disagreement. Those who remained expressed their commitment to be the church in that place in a wide variety of ways.
During the 1980s, Englewood was led by a gifted, respected, and much-loved pastor into the charismatic renewal movement which was sweeping the nation (and world) and had found its way into the Stone-Campbell Movement churches. Resistance to this development resulted in the sudden resignation of the pastor and the exodus of a handful of very active members. While the congregation healed from this painful fracture, new developments began among some of the remaining members. A group of long-time members, some who were elders and their wives, took over the leadership of a shelter for homeless women and their children. The facility located next door to the church building became a center for “outreach” to the homeless and to the struggling families of the neighborhood. Assistance with donated furniture, clothing, food, and occasionally money took place in ways typically associated with urban ministry. But contrary to the noble and kind intentions of those involved, the results of this form of urban ministry were typical of the model: no transformation in the community and negligible change in those served.
A new approach was needed, not just a new toolkit of techniques. The church needed to reconsider its essential nature, its deeply held convictions, and develop new practices. The majority of the members who had remained were committed not only to stay, but also to discern together God’s purposes for this struggling congregation. But, as with most congregations that find themselves in challenging circumstances, the problem was at least two-fold: practices inconsistent with stated convictions (or practices consistent with actual but unstated convictions) and inadequate practices for communal discernment.
About the time the congregation was celebrating her 100th anniversary (1995), major changes were underway. Small and informal groups began to meet together for conversations. Some of these conversations revolved around reflections on a wide variety of books being read together, but mostly discussions were a result of questions generated by internal concerns related to the nature of witness and life together in what had become a challenged urban neighborhood. There were unsettling questions concerning the apparent lack of effectiveness of activities involving neighborhood ministry (including uncertainty about what “effectiveness” would look like). There were even more difficult questions related to the practices of loving one another. One long-time member suggested that the church did a better job of loving strangers than members. All of the conversations began to converge on issues related to the nature of the church and the mission of God. For instance, books like Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines focus attention on discipleship but demonstrate an inadequate ecclesiology.1 Consideration of various works on urban mission like Robert Linthicum’s City of God, City of Satan and Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, while very helpful in some ways, also proved to be inadequate to provide an ecclesiology comprehensive enough to guide Englewood in faithful witness.2 Writings by authors as divergent as Watchman Nee and Leslie Newbigin were helpful and encouraging, but represented the heart of the classic dilemma: the more academic writings lacked practicality for the life of the congregation, and the more popularly written theology lacked the depth and rigor needed by a congregation in such a complex and challenging cultural context. Relief for the church’s struggles came in the summer of 1996.
One of the church members was involved in a class at Emmanuel School of Religion (now known as Emmanuel Christian Seminary) listed as “The Resurgence of Ecclesiology” and taught by Dr. Phil Kenneson, a professor at nearby Milligan College. As notes of class lectures and discussions were shared with interested members from the congregation, Dr. Kenneson’s syllabus became the critical reading list for many of the ongoing discussions. Three books from this list were particularly formative: The Church between Gospel and Culture, Jesus and Community, and Body Politics.3 But the reading list and class notes were only part of the benefits: Dr. Kenneson became the gateway to a whole new network of relationships which placed Englewood in fellowship with numerous churches and intentional Christian communities who were diligently seeking to live faithfully and consistently with God’s kingdom “come on earth as it is in heaven.” These were robust expressions of God’s church living out radical discipleship in a variety of forms and contexts. Englewood suddenly had mature examples from which to draw encouragement. (These relationships continue to be broadened, deepened, and nurtured through a fellowship of what has been called “subversive friendships,” many of which began at the annual gathering of the organization known as The Ekklesia Project.)
Within a year, the volume and intensity of discussions, the complexity of the urban context, and the wide variety of theological perspectives that had accumulated over a century at Englewood begged for a more formal and “institutional” place to have critical conversations that were open to anyone. The answer came in 1997 when the church discontinued their Sunday evening worship service and started what is simply called The Sunday Night Conversation. Over the last fifteen years, as few as twenty and as many as seventy adults have gathered in a circle on most Sunday evenings to talk with one another concerning God’s kingdom, God’s mission, and a shared life together under the lordship of Christ. These ongoing conversations have proven to be as earthy and gritty as the neighborhood in which they take place. Most often, they were tense and strained. Sometimes they were loud and insensitive. Occasionally, they were verbally violent. However, over the years of enduring with one another and remaining engaged in this uncomfortable practice, the church has been formed into a more resilient and visible unity which allows for deeper levels of commitment to God’s purposes.
Before naming at least five essential elements which have characterized Englewood’s transformation (for better or for worse), below is a list of some visible expressions of the church’s work in the community and beyond:
These activities happen in a congregation of about two hundred adults (including our Spanish-speaking members collectively known as Mano de Amistad or “hand of friendship”). The funding for the daily operation of this work is generated by the activities themselves with the exception of about $225,000 in annual church offerings. Besides the Daystar Childcare and ECDC staffs, the only other staff is a full-time preacher, a full-time church secretary, and a full-time building supervisor. The staggering amount of work which gets done in any given week is a tribute to God’s grace and the loving service of the unpaid members. Yet, the church members avoid the designation “volunteers” because it misrepresents the relational obligation they perceive as disciples in Christ’s church.
Many different elements have led to Englewood’s current place of maturity, but the “fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13) remains the prize worth attaining. Provided below is a brief sketch of five particular points of emphasis which have been critical to her transformation.
A Renewed Sense of Identity (Ecclesiology)
To reiterate, Englewood’s recognition of a need for change grew out of dissatisfaction with the church’s shallow and vague ecclesiology. It became evident that if the church really is the continuing expression of Christ on earth as the body of Christ, then the church’s witness is the primary way God is manifest in the world. Throughout the first three chapters of Ephesians, God’s purposes for the church became more and more compelling. Ephesians 3:9–11 became a theme for the vision of Englewood: God is revealing his multi-dimensional wisdom to the principalities and powers through the church. How the church lived and served together became more important than the spiritual growth of individuals, but being a mature disciple had both meaning and purpose when understood in relationship to God’s mission through the church. Hours of discussion of the implications of passages from 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12 yielded the general consensus that personal expressions of growth and discipleship could only be understood as expressions of God’s Spirit in the context of the local church. While recognizing the importance of the essential unity of the one body of Christ on earth, the congregation began to read Scripture as a local expression of the one church, not simply as a portion of the one church. This approach to hermeneutics and ethics followed the development outlined in the excellent book written by Steve Fowl and Greg Jones entitled Reading in Communion.4 A Sunday school class spent a year discussing Richard Hays’s book The Moral Vision of the New Testament; a change in missional practices emerged as some members of the church began to read the Bible through Hays’s focal images of community, cross, and new creation.5 The difficulties resulting from this changed perspective were viewed by most as dialectic tensions that need not be resolved but should be embraced. This wisdom emerged when some members read many of the works of Jacques Ellul.
Lohfink’s language of the church as “contrast-society” provided an excellent and subtle correction for a church worn out from attempting to fix all the problems and help all the neighbors in the distressed urban neighborhood.6 Englewood thus understood “being” a real and healthy embodiment of Christ’s presence as the mission. God would fix problems, the church concluded, through their faithful loving of one another, neighbors, and enemies. This way of thinking led to substantive changes in other aspects of Englewood’s life together.
Restoring the Practice of Congregational
Englewood’s story highlights how significant change began to take place when the congregation created space for regular, sustained, and purposeful conversation. A biblical practice like “binding and loosing” (Matt 18:15–20) was seen not so much in the narrow context of church discipline but as a positive series of conversations which might not only lead to broad expressions of reconciliation but also serve to bring greater unity in the church’s shared convictions. The teaching of Paul found in 1 Cor 14:26–33 equipped the church for discerning the voice of God in conversations which took place when the church gathered. These conversations were happening not under a hierarchy, but among brothers and sisters who were equally under the authority of Christ and yet valued the particular gifts each member brought to the various conversations.7 Instead of developing more intricate processes of marketing or attractive presentations of worship or sophisticated techniques of evangelism, Englewood was learning how to listen and talk with one another as they learned to listen and follow the leading of God’s Spirit.8
Becoming a Thankful Community
How a community sees the surrounding world greatly affects how its members talk about important matters. A constant refrain for the redeemed communities addressed in the New Testament is that they should give thanks in all things (Eph 5:20; Phil 4:4–7; Col 3:17). This extended even to the point of rejoicing in the trials of adverse circumstances, recognizing the formational opportunities resident in adversity (Jas 1:2–4). Englewood cultivated attitudes of appreciation that dynamically bind together the spiritual wisdom of honoring the work of others, living in peace with one another, correcting the undisciplined, responding to those who do evil, and discerning the community’s next steps. Notice the ways that the Apostle Paul uses constant gratitude to coordinate these seemingly disparate activities (1 Thess 5:12–22).
The Englewood neighborhood on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis could be identified by its blighted houses, high rate of unemployment, illegal drug trafficking, prostitution, high concentration of those who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness, crumbling infrastructure, and impoverished families. One could choose to focus on the needs which seem so rampant there, but to do so would mean likely missing the rich gifts abundantly distributed through all the neighbors. The following is the testimony of one of the Englewood members:
You could miss my neighbor, Bob, who is one of the funniest people you will ever meet, and who could probably give Ken Jennings a run for his money on the TV game show Jeopardy; a man who has written numerous unpublished novels, and at the age of sixty is headed back to college. Yes, Bob also lives with mental illness, is unemployed, and is often socially awkward. Focusing on Bob’s deficit traits seriously risks missing the asset he is to our community. You could miss my friend, Melody, who has an Associate’s Degree in Graphic Design, rebuilt my laptop in an evening, completely reorganized our church library, and has knitted scarves for over half our members and a few of the cashiers at our local convenience store. Yes, Melody often struggles with effects of her mental illness as well as numerous physical limitations, which has caused her to be unemployed most of her adult life, but these are only one side of the woman who is a dear friend and blessing to our community. You could miss the beautiful, historically sensitively restored CommonWealth apartment building which is now home to me and fifty of my diverse and gifted neighbors. This former Indianapolis public school building, which was closed in the 70s, was vacant for a time, got a second life as a women and children’s homeless shelter, fell into disrepair, and was at one point targeted for demolition, has become a symbol of what happens when people and places are valued for what they are instead of what they are not. I say, you could miss these things, because that is exactly what I did when I first moved to my neighborhood, so overwhelmed and focused on helping all the needy people I saw around me, but God in his wisdom and patience has taught me to see the many rich blessings he has given our community.
In the world of community development, focusing on a community’s assets—its neighbors, associations, clubs, and institutions—to solve the community’s “problems” is an approach known as Asset Based Community Development. For Englewood, the very foundation of their living into the fullness of God’s kingdom flows from discerning the gifts given by God in their members and residing in their neighbors, and thanking God constantly for the many ways he has blessed their community. This approach is not optional if one believes that the essential nature of God’s kingdom is abundance.9 This approach is the difference between reading Paul’s words in Phil 4:4-9 as really “practice-able” or reducing them to liturgical hyperbole. Rejoicing always and focusing on the things which are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, and worthy of praise may be the only way to experience the presence of God’s peace in any community, including challenged urban places.
As Englewood discerns together how God would have them live, an essential concern must be a consideration of the mission of God. As Jesus was driven by only those things given to him by the Father (John 8:26; 12:49; 14:10; 17:8), so also the body of Christ ought to seek participation in the end to which God is bringing the world. A congregation’s view of God’s particular end or “telos” informs every aspect of congregational life and work. How senseless it is to seek God’s kingdom “come on earth as it is in heaven” when the prevailing theology is that God’s last word for earth is the rapture of God’s chosen from the earth on the eve of its cataclysmic torture and destruction or that God’s primary concern is not for “new heavens and new earth,” but only for the saving of souls from eternal damnation.
Englewood has emerged from the dominance of a popularized dispensational premillennial eschatology to one which reads the whole of the Bible as a narrative; one focused on a redemptive end inclusive of the whole world and not just the souls of its human inhabitants. For instance, they notice the recurring theme in Isaiah where God urges Israel to live consistent with or in anticipation of the restoration he alone is bringing. They see Paul reminding the church in Rome that all of creation waits with a deep longing for God’s children to live consistent with God’s kingdom in order that the whole of creation might realize freedom from the futility of spiraling decay. Here is recognition that Paul’s language connotes not an expectation for some future other-world, but for the immediate physical reality of this world. This reflection on Rom 8 is the important context for understanding God’s faithfulness to his promises to Israel and his intentions for the renewed Israel, the church (Rom 9–11). And this real world historical context is the essential foundation for Paul’s admonitions for the church’s practices outlined in Rom 12–16.
The Old Testament prophets and the words and works of Jesus envisioned a new and restored world. This world began to take shape at various times in Israel’s history and in the new communities of the first-century church. The word of the prophets of ancient Israel, incarnate in Jesus and proclaimed by the apostles, began to emerge through congregational embodiment. These churches were continually reminded of God’s plan for “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21), “the summing up of all things” (Eph 1:10) and the “reconciliation of all things” (Col 1:20). The embracing of this vision can expand the missional imagination of a congregation, energize her membership, and help her to recognize the vital role each member must play in the collective witness of the church to the powers of this age. The fragmentation of members into independent families and life into neatly segregated departments has made the command that the church be of one mind virtually impossible. Only a renewed commitment to a practiced anticipation of life in the New Jerusalem will attract our cynical and jaded world of God’s grace-filled wisdom.
A Deep Commitment to a Place
If urban places are going to experience transformation, there must be deeply rooted social expressions of God’s presence. It is not altogether clear whether deserts create a nomadic lifestyle or nomadic lifestyles create deserts, but certainly many urban places have become cultural deserts as a result of suburban migrations. For example, urban schools are too often judged as failures as they try to compensate for the consequences of many of their students changing schools two or three times a year. Englewood has sought to reverse this trend by not only committing to remaining in the neighborhood institutionally, but many of the member families have moved into the neighborhood as well. Many Englewood families have expressed lifetime commitments to the church similar to various expressions of monastic vows of stability.
The congregation’s support for those who are involved in what has been called the New Monasticism has served to deepen an understanding of what it means to be submitted to Christ and a particular people in a particular place.10 Knowledge of a place takes time, and earning the trust of neighbors and neighborhood institutions takes longer. Lightning raids into urban places may be well-intentioned, but they usually cause more harm than good. God’s plan has not changed; just as Jesus was the embodiment of God, so also the church is the embodiment of Jesus. Incarnational theology requires stability.
The need of urban places is essentially no different than any other place; while more densely populated and having more complex systems of local government, cities and their urban neighborhoods need to see and experience God’s intent for every expression of society. God’s provision of churches as actual communities is an embodied witness to the wisdom of the crucified and risen Christ. God’s provision to churches are the various gifts given in members as manifestations of his Spirit. Nothing more than this is needed and nothing less than this will accomplish God’s mission. Englewood provides at least one example that older congregations can thrive in an inner-city setting, but the challenges of urban America in an increasingly urban world are issues for churches both young and old. The answers are not “out there” on the horizon in new techniques or new technologies; the solutions to all our mission and ministry challenges can be found in the ancient words of Scripture and have been made known to us in Jesus. Wherever Christians gather with a desire above all other desires to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is already in heaven, wherever Christians value and love one another as gifts from God and more than adequate provision for participation in God’s mission, there will be dynamic transformation.
Tracy Taylor, Kyle Mobley, and Michael Bowling serve together at Englewood Christian Church. All three are graduates of schools identified with the Stone-Campbell Movement (Milligan College, Johnson University, and Emmanuel Christian Seminary).
Aldrich, James L., Michael J. Bowling, M. Joe Bowling, and C. Christopher Smith. “ ‘We Need to Talk!’: Restoring the Practice of Congregational Conversation.” Leaven 15, no. 1 (2007): .
Ellul, Jacques. The Meaning of the City. Translated by Dennis Pardee. Jacques Ellul Legacy. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011.
Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. 20th anniv. ed. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
Fowl, Stephen E., and L. Gregory Jones. Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998.
Hays, Richard. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Hunsberger, George R., and Craig Van Gelder, eds. The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America. Gospel and Our Culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
Linthicum, Robert C. City of God, City of Satan: A Biblical Theology of the Urban Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.
Lohfink, Gerhard. Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.
________. Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith. Translated by John P. Galvin. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Smith, Christopher. The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities. Englewood, CO: Patheos Press, 2012.
Stock, Jon R. “Stability.” In Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism, ed. Jon R. Stock, Tim Otto, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, 87–118. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World. Scottdale, PA: Howard Press, 2001.
________. “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood: A Protestant Perspective.” In The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, 15–45. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
1 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniv. ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998); Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).
2 Robert C. Linthicum, City of God, City of Satan: A Biblical Theology of the Urban Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991); Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, trans. Dennis Pardee, Jacques Ellul Legacy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011).
3 George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, eds., The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America, Gospel and Our Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith, trans. John P. Calvin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Scottdale, PA: Howard Press, 2001).
4 Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998).
5 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).
6 Lohfink, Jesus and Community, 50.
7 For an excellent treatment of this idea see John Howard Yoder, “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood: A Protestant Perspective,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 15–45.
8 For an expanded version of Englewood’s experience with congregational conversation, see James L. Aldrich, Michael J. Bowling, M. Joe Bowling, and C. Christopher Smith, “ ‘We Need to Talk!’: Restoring the Practice of Congregational Conversation,” Leaven 15, no. 1 (2007): ; C. Christopher Smith, The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities (Englewood, CO: Patheos Press, 2012). Chris is an Englewood member.
9 Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 143.
10 A great introduction to this idea is available from Jon R. Stock, “Stability,” in Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism, ed. Jon R. Stock, Tim Otto, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007), 87 - 118.