“The Fashionable Church” and the decline of the United Methodist Church.

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.

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6 thoughts on ““The Fashionable Church” and the decline of the United Methodist Church.

  1. I like the visual/illustration. Great WordSmithing!
    Gives a more poignant meaning to the Scriptural directive to “Feed the Hungry, Clothe the Naked…………….”

    Pax
    Todd Anderson
    Oak Creek UMC
    Oak Creek, Wisc.,

    • thanks for the comment! I definitely wonder how things would have turned out if we Methodists had taken that directive a little more seriously…

  2. I agree 100% with the observations of these comments. But I may have different reasons for this. Methodism developed in several strands. Two of the more significant of these strands were 1) frontier, populist, Methodism, characterized by gospel hymns, revivals, and the holiness movement, and 2) Methodism becoming increasingly sophisticated, characterized by the formation of colleges and seminaries, bureaucracy, tall steeples, and prestige. It was the first kind of Methodism that offered the first integrated social setting where blacks and whites met more or less on equal terms, namely, the campmeeting. As a result by 1820, 18% of Methodist membership was black. Methodism becoming sophisticated operated with the philosophy that campmeetings were primitive and not in the interest of Methodism’s future. That future, according to these people, would be linked with the view that Christianizing meant civilizing (thus uproot Native Americans from their culture and send to schools). Because it was enthusiastic and an embarrassment to educated Methodists, persons associated with the Holiness movement were driven out of establishment Methodism in the 1890s. The result is that Methodism lost its poor and its connections with blacks. The result is that today while the U.S. minority population is 30% of the total, the percent of minorities in the U.M. church is less than 8%. All the programs pushing diversity, preference for the poor, and working with the least of God’s children have not worked. What will work is an evangelical message based on the authority of Scripture and with a metaphysic based on supernaturalism.

  3. When the Nazis came for the communists,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a communist.
    Then they locked up the social democrats,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a social democrat.
    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews,
    I did not speak out;
    I was not a Jew.
    When they came for me,
    there was no one left to speak out for me.

    When you allow Communists to set up training sessions in your church as is happening now, you are helping destroy this Country. When you house illegal aliens against their deportation you destroy the rule of law of this Country. and God’s laws.

    That is why the United Methodist Church is dying.

  4. I am from manna from heaven outreach inc.We are a non profit christian org located in the mountains of eastern Kentucky in pike county.We help the needy people in the pike and lecher county areas with food clothes and furniture.
    We also have a backpack program that feeds hundreds of needy children ever weekend. these children would go hungry if not for this program.
    We are in desperate need of help to keep these programs going.
    If you can help in any way please contact me at 606 639 0651 or 606 639 8833.
    God Bless You
    Ralph Tackett

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