For seventy-five years I’ve been a steady church-goer. In my new home in downtown Indianapolis I expect to continue that practice by wandering around from Sunday to Sunday, attending a rather wide range of churches. My purpose is to explore the churchly character of this traditionally religious Midwestern city.
Bicycling around the city, I pass a wide range of churches, many of them with denominational connections that are unfamiliar to me. Some of these congregations appear to be unrelated to other ecclesial networks, and instead are enlarged family gatherings or the ecclesial shadows of founding pastors. Other church buildings are large and well-tended, indicating that the membership is large, generous, well-organized, and that their pastoral leadership is skilled.
My primary interest is in congregations that historian David Hollinger identifies as ecumenical Protestant churches—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ. Many of these churches were active participants in the Consultation on Church Union and spent nearly forty years in the attempt to create a new American church that would be fully catholic, fully evangelical, and fully reformed. My book published two years ago, The American Church that Might Have Been, gives a full account of this generation-long effort.
Some of the congregations on my list to visit were familiar to me during my earlier life in Indianapolis (1961–1995), such as Broadway United Methodist Church. Others are representative congregations of my own Disciples of Christ network, such as Central Christian Church right around the corner from my apartment. I’m interested in a string of long-established, prominent congregations stretched along North Meridian Street: Christ Church Cathedral, Trinity Episcopal, North United Methodist, Meridian Street United Methodist, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and Second Presbyterian.
These days, Lutheran churches are especially interesting because of their ecumenical activities, including theological rapprochements with the Roman Catholic Church, concordats concerning mutual recognition of ministries and eucharistic hospitality with the Episcopal Church and a group of Reformed churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also is taking the lead in creating a new generation of worship books and hymnals.
Some congregations are interesting because they have gone through challenging changes in their neighborhoods. I hope to learn how they have moved from flourishing times, through periods of diminished strength, to new vitality.
I’m on the watch for pastors who can become conversation partners as I try to understand the various aspects of congregational life during the current reshaping of American church life. Maybe they can help me decode language that is widely used these days, terms like progressive, postmodern, spiritual but not religious, recovering fundamentalist, and post Christian.
The puzzling character of church life was manifested in a recent gathering at a once mighty church in a sociologically ambiguous neighborhood north of downtown Indianapolis. Thirty years ago, the pastor was a strong preacher who filled this large church week after week and at the same time inspired the congregation to engage in a significant range of social services to people in the distressed neighborhood that had emerged around the monumental church building.
The congregation went into a precipitous decline and at its low point was drawing about seventy-five people for worship. New pastoral leadership brought radically different ways of relating the congregation to its neighborhood and now some 200 people appear on Sunday mornings and a radically different kind of church is emerging.
At this recent gathering the congregation was hosting Nadia Bolz-Weber, a young, much-acclaimed Lutheran pastor who represents an increasingly prominent style of progressive, postmodern church leaders. My quick estimate is that over 400 people were filling the church nicely. A rather small percentage would have been older than fifty years of age.
I estimated that 75% of the congregation were women, and the person sitting next to me countered, as we walked to our cars after the event, that it was closer to 85%. A prevailing tone of the evening was that people were recovering from early church experiences that had been repressive or toxic or domineering, especially for women.
I want to understand this portion of the church-going population much better than I do now. At the same time, I want to understand more fully another part of the church-going population, people whose entire church life has been in liberal-minded congregations that encouraged ideas and ethical practices that were generally held in the secular world.
While paying attention to all of this, I want to sing hymns of praise and devotion, hear the Word of God proclaimed in strong sermons, and be nourished by the risen Christ who promises to meet us at the eucharistic table of remembrance.
My Indianapolis church going should be interesting! And I hope that future blogs will be too.