Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis has redefined what it means to serve its urban community. The approach is simple: See your neighbors as children of God.
For an idea of how Broadway United Methodist Church is turning the model of the urban church inside out, look for a moment at its food pantry, clothing ministry and after-school program.
They’ve been killed off.
In many cases, they were buried with honors. But those ministries, staples of the urban church, are all gone from Broadway. Kaput.
Broadway’s summer youth program, which at one point served 250 children a day — bringing them in for Girl Scouts and basketball, away from the violence and drugs of Broadway’s neighborhood — is gone, too. Broadway let the air out of the basketballs. Sent the Girl Scouts packing.
Then peek into the comfortably cluttered office of the Rev. Mike Mather, who is prone to putting his feet on his desk and leaning so far back in his swivel chair that you expect him to go flying at any moment.
Watch him, inverted like this, until he suddenly gets animated, drops his feet to the floor, leans over, elbows on knees, and shares this: “One of the things we literally say around here is, ‘Stop helping people.’
He is serious. Mather has given years of thought to this, and he’s as sure about it as anything he learned in seminary.
Broadway UMC’s leaders have changed the way they view their neighbors — as people with gifts, not just needs. In what ways does this view reframe the conversation? What difference does reframing the relationship make in the outcomes achieved?
“The church, and me in particular,” Mather said, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”
With that in mind, Broadway (link is external) has — for more than a decade now — been reorienting itself. Rather than a bestower of blessings, the church is aiming to be something more humble.
“The church decided its call was to be good neighbors. And that we should listen and see people as children of God,” said De’Amon Harges, a church member who sees Broadway’s transformation in terms not unlike Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
In 2004, Mather hired Harges to be Broadway’s first “roving listener,” a position that is exactly what it sounds like. Harges’ job was to rove the neighborhood, block by block at first, spending time with the neighbors, not to gauge their needs but to understand what talents lay there.
“I was curious about what was good in people, and that was what I was going to find out,” he said.
Harges wound up spending hours sitting on people’s porches and hovering near them as they worked in their backyard gardens. He began listening for hints about their gifts.
“I started paying attention” he said, “to what they really cared about.”
Mather, meanwhile, was drawing deeply from the philosophical well of “asset-based community development” — the notion of capitalizing on what’s good and working in a place rather than merely addressing its deficiencies.
John McKnight, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University, is one of the founders of the approach. He literally wrote the book on building communities from the inside out. He describes Mather and Harges as a “God-given team.”
When Broadway invited him to come speak, McKnight spent some time walking the church’s neighborhood with Harges.
“What he’s listening for is their gifts — ‘What has God given you?’” McKnight said. He doesn’t advocate ignoring people’s needs and problems, but rather to look first for solutions within the community itself. Later, he said, institutions and services can help.
“John 15:15 tells us that, at the Last Supper, Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants. … I call you friends.’ So the final way of defining what Christianity is based on is friendship, not service. … I think Mike and De’Amon are guided by that spiritual principle.”
A key to what’s going on now at Broadway, McKnight says, is the church’s brutally honest view of charity, which McKnight defines as “a one-way compensatory activity that never changes anything.”
Seeing and serving needs
Like so many older, urban churches, Broadway came to its charitable ways honestly, and with the best of intentions.
When the current building was erected, in 1927, the church along the banks of Fall Creek was on the northern outskirts of Indianapolis. It was then a flourishing area primed for growth. Within a decade, Broadway had 2,300 members. The pews were packed. The Sunday school rooms were buzzing.
But by the late 1950s, Indianapolis began to experience white flight to newer suburbs. The neighborhood began a long, slow decline. And so did the church.
By the mid-1990s, weekly attendance was down to 75. The pews were empty. The Sunday school was dark.
Amid the surrounding decay, the church assumed a new role: caregiver.
Broadway, Mather says now, came to see its neighborhood for all of its problems — poverty and abandoned houses, drugs and the related violence, high teen pregnancy and dropout rates.
Mather confesses to being part of that history. He has been pastor of Broadway twice, and during his first stint, from 1986 to 1991, he retooled the church’s summer youth program — the one with the basketballs and the Girl Scouts — and injected it with a new spiritual theme each week. And it took off.
“We felt so good about it,” Mather said, “that I broke my arm patting myself on the back.”
But then Mather was confronted with a heavy dose of reality. In a nine-month span, nine young men within a four-block radius of the church died violent deaths. Some of them had come through that great youth program at Broadway, a program that had done nothing to inoculate them against street violence.
Mather was left to bury them — along with the sense that what Broadway had been doing for its neighborhood all those years had not been effective.
Asking new questions
Mather carried that sense with him to another United Methodist church in South Bend, Indiana, where he was assigned in 1992.
Again, he was a pastor in an urban setting. But this time Mather began to probe more deeply into McKnight’s philosophies, into what it meant to be an urban preacher. Finally, he asked himself whether he was living out what he believed, and what he had been preaching.
One Pentecost Sunday, Mather preached about Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 regarding the prophecy of Joel:
“And in the last days it will be,” God says, “that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 NET)
At a congregational meal after the service, a parishioner asked Mather pointedly, “So how come we don’t treat people like that?”
Mather didn’t understand. Then the woman explained that she was talking about the government food giveaway hosted by the church. To get food, participants had to fill out a form that basically asked, “How poor are you?”
Nowhere on the form were there questions about people’s gifts.
“If we believe that God’s spirit is flowing down on all people, old and young, women and men — and on the poor,” the woman continued, “why don’t we treat people like that’s true?”