“Emerging church” in Indy?

united methodist church in indyOne of my favorite religion reporters is Robert King from The Indianapolis Star. A certain amount of my enjoyment reading his pieces comes from the fact that he writes about my local Hoosier Heartland community, but I think I can say objectively that King generally gets religion in his work as a journalist, and I’ve heard others around the community reflect similar thinking. He also knows the Indianapolis community.

On the cover of Sunday’s Metro section, King wrote about a struggling downtown United Methodist congregation that meets in one of the cities many aging, beautiful and historic church buildings. The church is a combination of two “dying” downtown churches with a history in the community that spans more than 125 years, as King notes later in the article. (Also see accompanying photo gallery of one of the church’s events).

One church was founded in 1877, and started what is today one of the area’s largest hospitals. Indiana’s senior Senator and former Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar was once a member. Immigrants founded the other in 1880. Services at this church were held in German initially.

With that background in mind, the article left me pondering whether this story was more about a growing social center and movement or place of entertainment than it was about a struggling church, as its traditionally defined. In fact, that was the point of the article:

As 24-year-old member Hilary Updike, Jordan’s wife, says: “I think we are all kind of burnt out on the traditional church model.”

The consensus among members is that Lockerbie Central now sits squarely in the emergent church movement — characterized by its emphasis on the arts, social justice causes and a willingness to question long-held traditions and conventions.

At Lockerbie Central, it also reflects something of a backlash against the conservative, suburban megachurch that has come to dominate much of the religious and political landscape.

Reporting on the “emergent church” movement is never easy. Sometimes the point of the movement is to defy any traditional labels that reporters can slap on the congregation. Check out this section of King’s story:

united methodist church in Indy

Now, the room the German immigrants and generations of churchgoers used as a fellowship hall features a temporary display of “fringe” artists.

Prominent among them is a painting of President Bush who, though a famous United Methodist himself, is featured here with horns protruding from his head. The caption above him carries the apocalyptic message of many a street preacher: “The End is Near.”

And in lieu of a pastor, the church this week is giving itself, heart and soul, to an experiment in worship in which everyone participates in a communal service. Today’s highlight will be a “piece” poem cobbled together from the words audience members scribble on cards.

The closest thing to preaching — a five-minute “sermonette” — will challenge the view that Jesus would not have approved of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred 63 years ago this week.

King’s reporting reveals something unique about this congregation: while they average about 30 worshippers on Sunday, about 2,400 people come through the church every month on days not traditionally known as the Sabbath. The church has so much going on that King aptly describes the place as “perhaps the busiest church in danger of dying in Indianapolis.”

The one thing I kept looking for in the story was an explanation for the church’s views on the direction of the United Methodist denomination nationally or some sort of determination of the church’s theological baseline. Of course since the congregation lacks a pastor and by definition attempts to avoid religious and political labels, that basis is difficult to establish, but there are certain basic things that can be asked about.

For example, there is the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Both are generally accepted by Methodists. Are these every used in the church’s worship? Why not ask the tmatt trio questions? I am sure others can think of many ways of giving readers a sense for what this group of people believes.

I also wondered whether there are other churches in Indianapolis that would call themselves “emerging.” Actually, I know there are. Will they also be written about?

Photo by author of post taken in downtown Indianapolis.

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  • Daniel

    It’s even harder when you expect it to be one thing while it really is another.

    EmergING church. Not emergent. I wish I knew more about it than I do, but I do know that.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Another question that could be asked, since it is a Methodist church, is if they sing Charles Wesley’s hymns.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Als, how is this church’s theology really different than, oh, the liberal theology offered in United Methodist seminaries in this region? This church is different than UMC churches in Atlanta, or something, but not the rest of the Midwest and Northeast….

  • Chris Bolinger

    King’s article is undercut by his failure to distinguish between “church” as a building and “church” as a body of believers. The 30 people who meet at Lockerbie Central could sell the building and meet somewhere else, or they could invite other church bodies to co-locate in the building. Both practices are on the rise. Instead, to keep the building as their church home, the 30 people who meet at Lockerbie Central have opened the building to tenants.

    The group’s “experiment in worship” is not that unusual among house churches and does not merit so much space in the article. What is unusual is the fact that the group is renting out portions of its building to keep the building. King presents no evidence that this tactic has yielded any success in growing the church or doing anything other than allowing the 30 people to keep meeting in a building that they like but are willing to cannibalize.

  • Susanna’s Daughter

    The point is well taken that Lockerbie Central UMC has failed to connected its community works with its identity as part of the body of Christ. King almost gets to it in his paragraph about questioning whether Jesus would sanction the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but neither the writer nor the church apparently closes the circle.

    As one who is following the emerging church movement fairly closely, I would like to point out that a key element of the new movement is the inversion of the traditional “believe, behave, belong” model that Terry Mattingly so fervently (blindly, annoyingly) keeps promoting. The key to the emerging movement is its “belong, behave, believe” model, in which seekers are invited into the community to experience Christianity through art, music, worship and interaction with others. The idea is that, through accessing human beings’ different learning styles, one of these sensory experiences will enable behavior and belief. In a way, the approach is a new form of the “smells and bells” (and icons and morality plays, etc.) used for centuries in liturgical churches.

    I highly recommend that everyone get a copy of Phyllis Tickle’s coming book, “The Great Emergence,” due in Sept. Judging from a talk I heard her give in spring, the book should be a great help in understanding what’s going and why.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.blogspot.com David

    Emerging church? This Sounds like any number of Quaker, Religous Science or any other group. … And if 30 people is ‘busy’ — the reporter needs to find another church to compare it to.

  • http://leitourgeia.wordpress.com Richard Barrett

    I also wondered whether there are other churches in Indianapolis that would call themselves “emerging.” Actually, I know there are. Will they also be written about?

    They have been, at least some of them — link here.


  • http://pursueholiness.blogspot.com Pastor K

    I am a United Methodist pastor. What I know of the inner workings of the UM system (at least for West Ohio) left me with many unanswered questions from this article. As written, it’s a good story. But I would like to know more:

    1) Pastoral oversight. How long has the church been without a pastor? Did the merger happen with or without a pastor? What are the plans for bringing in a pastor (or the reasons behind a plan to operate w/o a pastor)

    2. Connection to the larger UM church. Who is the district superintendent, and what involvement does she/he have with this congregation? Were the plans to rent the church to a (for-profit??) coffee house approved by the district committee on buildings and land? What do other UM pastors in the area do to support (or avoid) this congregation?

    3. Connection to the community. What do the neighbors think of how the church building is being used? Are they pleased, provoked, intrigued, or apathetic? Are the 30 members part of the local community, or “imports” back from the suburbs?

    So, I would like less attention to how this church is different from the “suburban mega-church” and more about how it interacts and operates within its contexts denominationally and communally. The one quote from the conference official isn’t enough – particularly when what he says isn’t supported by the rest of the article. I didn’t see a strong theological argument made that the church’s activities had anything to do with the church’s mission – unless that mission is “keep the electric, gas and water turned on for as long as possible.” And if that’ s the mission, it’s greatly lacking from any theological perspective.

    Thanks for bringing this story to our attention!

  • http://www.artasprayer.blogspot.com Pam

    I agree with PastorK above and was wondering the same myself reading your piece. It is a shame that that the arts can only be viewed/enjoyed in a secular setting. During the rennaisance, the church was the place to see art and hear fine music. Today our music is becoming formulaic (contemporary) and droll. The visual arts are not seen in the church, except for cutsey renderings of a very Aryan Jesu lithographed one hundred years ago for the most part…I was married in such a church and wanted the blue eyed/golden blonde picture taken down from the altar area. This group needs to be encouraged to find more ways to reclaim fine art, the arts back into the church. Seems they are beginning to experiment with ways to do it. Meanwhile I wonder where the pastor is, where the connectivity is like Pastor K above.

  • http://www.mikeoles3.wordpress.com MikeOles3

    Hi, i just stumbled upon this blog. Anyways, I am the layleader at Lockerbie Central United Methodist. And would love to respond to some of your questions about our unique church.

    What i find most unique about our “struggling” church is that we are struggling with what it means to follow Jesus and not just show up to a worship service/christian music concert once a week.

    Our mantra if you will is from the Hebrew Scriptures, Micah 6:8….”and what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” The Hebrew prophets (Isiah, Micah, Amos, etc.) and Jesus get a little pissed when people “worship God” instead of living out God’s dream of justice, mercy, and discipleship.

    we don’t really have tenants in our building. we have transformed our building space into a cultural, wellness, and social justice co-op. we have parterned up with other people in our community who are looking to make a difference in our fair city and keep open an affordable downtown space that is open to cutting edge arts, wellness, and social justice movements.

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