INDIANAPOLIS — The circle is large for a parlor room chat – 50 people.
They are seated in folding chairs in a room with a Jesus portrait on one wall and a woven representation of the Last Supper on another. One person speaks, and then there's 15 to 20 seconds of silence, as if everyone is savoring the words just spoken. The silence is broken by another voice, then the silence falls again, and the cycle repeats. The group is discussing something fairly radical — what the church's Sunday morning services should look like and even whether to have one at all. Yet, there's no rancor here. Just an exchange.
Members of Englewood Christian Church have been gathering for these Sunday night conversations for 17 years, but they've been holding regular Sunday morning services for more than a century. In the 1970s, the church bused in folks from all over town for the Sunday morning service that would attract 1,100 people. Today, 200 may come on a really good Sunday, and in this circle of friends, that doesn't bother anyone in the least.
More interesting to just about anyone you speak with at Englewood is what goes on around the church for the 166 hours a week other than Sunday mornings. And that's quite a lot. So much, in fact, that the Sunday morning ritual that is the staple of American Christianity is now almost an afterthought.
Sunday service is still held, said lifelong Englewood member Jim Aldrich, 62. "But it may be the event that is most not a part of what Englewood is now."
A 118-year history
Still, the "event," as Aldrich calls it, is the one constant that has remained at Englewood through the 118-year lifespan of the church. It was there when the church was born in the late 1800s in the middle of the city's newest streetcar suburb. It was there in the early 20th century, when a pastor was fired for not allowing the Ku Klux Klan to meet in the building. It was there during the booming mega-church years of late 1960s and early 1970s. It was there during the long, slow decline of both the church and the Near Eastside neighborhood that surrounds it.
But today, Englewood looks at its mission as one of almost communal living with its surroundings. The church's focus has morphed into improving neighborhood quality of life — providing housing, offering quality child care, creating jobs. What happens for two hours a week on Sunday morning seems almost inconsequential.
"Some people think if you don't have Sunday morning, if you don't have a worship service, you don't have a church. I think we are beyond that now," Aldrich said. "If we didn't have Sunday morning we would still exist as a church. And that's the best thing you can say about where we're at right now."
Where Englewood is right now is more firmly tied than ever before to the Near Eastside, an area that has been decimated by factory closings in the past 40 years and the abandoned houses that followed, a place where many residents still struggle to get by in an area where crime is always a looming concern.
Over the past 15 years, Englewood — through a nonprofit community development corporation it created — has fully remodeled 40 homes in the neighborhood and repaired an additional 200. Much of the work early on was aimed at struggling church members. Over time, that expanded to others from its neighborhood.
In 1996, the church expanded its humble preschool into what has become one of the highest-rated child cares in the city, with 75 children from diverse economic backgrounds and plans to grow further. Despite the light regulation of ministry child cares, DayStar Child Care is striving to surpass the standards set for fully licensed day cares.
In 2012, the church took the gift of a nearby building that was once Indianapolis Public School 3. Englewood converted it into a 32-unit apartment building that now serves an eclectic mix of residents: a Butler University professor, a Lilly engineer and others who pay market rates, but also low-income people who pay below market rents, and people in 10 other units whose last home was on the streets.
Along the way, Englewood has tried to breathe economic vitality into the Near Eastside and create jobs. It was heavily involved in getting the Pogue's Run Grocer food co-op off the ground on East 10th Street, and bought and restored a vacant building across the street that it now leases to Little Green Bean Boutique. It has begun to do similar work on East Washington Street, funding micro-businesses such as the Tlaolli tamale shop and planning a bigger project that would include a senior living facility, a charter school and new storefronts.
Friends, not saviors
Yet, to highlight these bullet points of success makes leaders and church members at Englewood a bit uncomfortable. They point to other community organizations on the Near Eastside that were part of the effort. Mostly, they don't want to be seen as saviors on a white horse. They much prefer to be thought of as the helpful neighbors next door.
"There are plenty of things wrong with our neighborhood," said Chris Smith, who moved into the Englewood neighborhood in 2004 to be closer to the church and edits the church's quarterly book review. "But we're not here to save it. We are here to be friends."
That's true in a very literal sense. Of the 180 or so people who attend services weekly, church leaders estimate 75 percent live in the Englewood neighborhood, most within a couple of blocks of the church.
Some are church members who needed decent housing and were helped into nearby homes or the apartment building. Others, maybe 15 to 20, were suburbanites who intentionally moved within a couple of blocks of the church to build a critical mass of church members in what has become, essentially, a Protestant parish on the Near Eastside.
But the most common analogy is appropriate to the Christmas story, which speaks to God becoming man and entering the world. One passage from the Bible says: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us."
The Englewood translation, as proclaimed from a sign above the desk of church secretary Loretta Benjamin, states: "And the Word became flesh, and moved into the neighborhood."
"I believe the church is Jesus in the flesh in the neighborhood," Benjamin said. "We are the hands and feet and the voice of Jesus… in the neighborhood. That's our mission."
An evolving mission
Englewood hasn't always seen the world in such terms. After its mega-church heyday of the 1970s, Englewood became what many urban churches remain — a place where people who lived elsewhere commuted in for Sunday morning services. As the numbers waned, there was a growing sense that, to survive, the church would have to rely on wealthier suburban congregations for help, and in return those congregations would have an outpost in which to do ministry.
"There wasn't any real direction on what we were doing or why we should be doing it," Aldrich said.
Then, in 1993, Rev. Michael Bowling arrived. He had notions about what urban ministry should look like. And Mayor Stephen Goldsmith was urging churches to play a more direct role in reducing the welfare rolls. Beyond that, conversations ensued about why the church exists and what its purpose serves. In the past, the church had given away food, clothing and other items to total strangers, but sometimes it was unaware or unconcerned when families in the church were about to lose their homes. Gradually, that began to change.
"We started asking questions about what does it really mean to love each other," Bowling said.
Action plus prayer
Kim Clanton saw the fruits of that firsthand when she and her family — 18 people in all, counting extended family and neighborhood children living with her at the time — were on the verge of homelessness. She and her husband were broke and had bad credit. Englewood bought them a home and let them move in on a rent-to-own basis. Soon, the church helped them move to a street closer to the church, where she felt safer. The church took a house that had been what Clanton called "a flophouse" and renovated it to the point she felt it was like new.
Clanton said she'd never seen a church get so deeply involved to help a member in trouble. "They didn't just pray," she said. "They prayed, but they put action along with the prayer."
Aside from just helping people with homes, Englewood tries to figure out how its members and its neighbors — no matter what their station in life — can plug into the community. At the apartment building, called the Commonwealth, new residents are asked what talents and interests they have that they might bring to the table.
Matt Hostetler, president of the Englewood Neigbhorhood Association, said the church has been "an incredible partner" that's been sensitive to the neighborhood's needs, even giving him a voice on the board of its community development corporation.
"It's not just swooping into a neighborhood to help out on a weekend for a service project," he said. "It's living in the neighborhood and adopting the neighborhood."
John Franklin Hay, a former pastor who is now executive director of Indy East Asset Development, said Bowling quickly embedded his family in the neighborhood and stuck around. "They make decisions in a sensible way. They aren't trying to bring a national program in and run it," Hay said. "Things go a little bit slower than a lot of programs that drop in and are ready made. But that's a good way."
While Englewood isn't peddling a national program, it appears to be part of a larger movement that's changing the way groups deal with the poor and those in need, said Carol F. Johnston, associate professor of theology and culture at Christian Theological Seminary. Instead of viewing people based on their needs, the church is looking at them as assets.
"It is based in their faith," Johnston said, "which starts with the premise that every human being is gifted by God with gifts, which are for the common good and the good of the person."
That is seen across the Englewood landscape.
Before developing the nonprofit, the first few housing purchases were made by church members who tapped the equity in their own homes. When the homes sold, they were repaid and able to start the process again.
Today, it's evident in a variety of ways. The woman who runs the church bookstore also grows vegetables for the neighbors and lives in the Commonwealth building. A church member who lays out the church's quarterly book review also cuts grass for the church's lawn mowing service and lives in a house owned by the church. A group of retired church members with skills as handymen huddle in the church office each morning and trade stories, then fan out to perform household repairs for church members who may need some help.
This layering of work, home and faith in one place is part of a concerted effort at Englewood to counter how today's world tends to fragment those aspects of life, with people working in one place, living in another community and sometimes worshipping in a third.
Englewood runs counter to the church culture — and its own past — in some other ways. Where the church once focused primarily on evangelism, attractive programming and high membership growth, Englewood seems more interested in getting to know people.
"A lot of times churches just think it is about getting people to be baptized and saving their souls so they can go to heaven," said Benjamin, the church secretary. "We believe the picture is so much bigger than that. It is about what God intended life to be. He intended people to have good shelters. He intended people to have the basic needs of life. He intended people to live together in harmony and share together."
That philosophy is what Smith, the editor of the church's book review, describes in a new book he has co-authored called "Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus."
Borrowing some of the language of the Slow Food movement, it proposes to resist what some have called the "McDonald's-ization of the church." It is a philosophy that devotes less attention to numbers on the member rolls and tithe totals. It is reflecting and connecting with the community where a church is located. It is thinking of spiritual gifts beyond who can sing and preach and teach … to people with expertise in home repair and medical skills and business acumen. It is lamenting that there are some problems that can't be fixed. And to a degree, it is about stability — people staying in one place long enough to become part of it.
Johnston, the associate professor at CTS, said the "Slow Church" idea is, at its core that we're all trying to live faster than human beings can do. "If anybody needs to stand up for living life at a slower pace that's more attentive to healthy relationships and neighbors," she said, "it's churches."
Even in the flurry of its neighborhood efforts, a "Slow Church" takes the time to recognize that not every problem can be fixed, that sometimes the best response is no response, or to wait.
"They have the courage to be puzzled," said Michael Cartwright, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Indianapolis.
Part of "Slow Church," too, is the ability to have deliberate conversations. And Englewood has them at Wednesday night suppers, at midday lunches, at Bible studies during the week and, of course, on Sunday nights, in the big circle, with the portrait of Jesus looking on.
People at Englewood say the conversations haven't always been so peaceful as now. The first period of five years, said Aldrich, "was the most bitter, angry, terrifying thing you can imagine," he said. But there was also a sense the pain was necessary. As the church grew more involved in its community development work, some in the church asked if that was the right place for the church.
Carl Webb, 83, was one of those in the skeptical camp. Over time, and through conversation, he sees the wisdom of a church with a broader mission, and one that can talk about its differences, peacefully. "I think it is part of the culture now," he said.
Joe Bowling, one of Mike's sons and co-director of the community development corporation, sees the work as essential to the church's place as a difference maker in the world. "If we are called to be who we are — salt, light and leaven here — it is about caring if your neighbors have jobs, if your neighbors have good housing," he said.
No snap decisions
So Englewood, having worked through some basic questions about why it exists and how it can serve its neighbors, is turning its attention to what for this congregation is a much less important concern: What to do with the Sunday morning service, which some here view almost as if it were a ritual inherited from an ancient civilization, one for which people long ago forgot its purpose.
That, too, is counter to the rest of the church world, where a high-octane Sunday morning worship service is the zenith of any given week. While this church may be at a place where it could live without the Sunday morning gathering, it's not yet clear what path Englewood will take. Decisions like that aren't made quickly, here. And the conversation has just begun.