I help lead a small emerging United Methodist in downtown Indianapolis. It is a creation of a merger between two once mighty congregations that dwindled away to almost nothing.
One of these now closed churches is Central Avenue United Methodist Church.
For a good part of the 20th century, Central Avenue was a premiere Indianapolis church. It was a popular and powerful place full of Old Indianapolis names and successful businessmen. Former Indianapolis Mayor and now Senator Richard Lugar grew up in the church.
Anyways, today I was doing some research on the old church and came upon an essay by Nancy Niblack Baxter entitled “Fashionable Church,” which appeared in the book Falling Toward Grace: Images of Religion and Culture from the Heartland. Baxter grew up in Central Avenue and saw the church fall apart as she saw the church’s neighborhood start to struggle economically:
Certainly by the forties when I was a child attending Sunday school, though, Central Avenue’s gold splendor had a tarnished edge. It was still a place where lots of somebodies with old Indianapolis names went. But no one of a different race or culture… and, as the eloquent ministers still made the mahogany rattle with their sermons, outside, the neighborhood at Twelfth and Central was slipping into poverty, decay, and despair. It puzzled me why we didn’t seem to talk about why we were so different everyone around us, though I did hear comments that “Kentucky people” had taken over the neighborhood.
It is a cautionary tale about what it means to be Methodist and perhaps tells us why our church has been in decline for so long. Jesus would have welcomed the “Kentucky people” as fellow brothers and sisters, and even as disciples. People very much worthy of the kingdom of God. The fashionable Indiana Methodists merely listened to sermons while the neighborhood around them fell apart and then headed to the next would-be suburban paradise.