By Doug Priest
Indianapolis goes by many names—Naptown (after IndiaNAPolis and for no other reason!), Circle City (after the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway), the Heartland, the buckle of the Bible Belt. None is so descriptive, however, as the title “Crossroads of America.” Home to many freeways, Indianapolis is the intersection for routes I-65 (Mobile to Chicago), I-74 (Davenport to Cincinnati), I-70 (Utah to Baltimore), and I-69, the proposed Midwest link between Mexico and Canada.
Less well known is the contribution Indianapolis has made through the past century to missions in the Restoration Movement. In 1909 the Christian churches held a Centennial Convention. Women who were unable to travel to the convention in Pittsburgh conceived of the idea to establish a graduate-level missions training school, and the College of Missions was dedicated in Indianapolis in 1910.
The school modeled its curriculum after the recommendations from the famed Edinburgh Missionary Conference held earlier in the year. Courses were held in biblical subjects, linguistics, a variety of foreign languages, sociology, international law, health, and a host of others. Its students were sent well prepared for the missionary task.
At the time, the College of Missions was one of the country’s premier missionary training schools. Archibald McLean, missionary statesman of the Christian church, presented a series of lectures at the College of Missions that was later published in book form, titled Epoch Makers of Modern Missions.
One of the professors at the college was John McGavran, Christian church missionary on furlough from India. His son, Donald, later received his Master of Arts from the College of Missions in preparation for returning to India as a missionary with his wife, Mary. Donald McGavran went on to become the “father of the church growth movement,” and one of the foremost missiologists of the 20th century.
Classmates of Donald and Mary McGavran at the College of Missions were newly married J. Russell and Gertrude Morse. They had been inspired to go to Asia by the famed Dr. Albert Shelton. Shelton, missionary doctor to Tibet who was later killed by robbers in China, was born in Indianapolis in 1875.
Shelton was a missionary with the Foreign Christian Missionary Society. His death inspired an entire generation of young people for missionary service. As for J. Russell and Gertrude Morse, their story is well known1, and their “children’s children’s children” continue to serve in Asia to this day.
In its first decade, the College of Missions saw more than 100 students commit themselves to missions, and by the time the school closed, more than 300 graduates were involved in missions. The College of Missions formed a partnership with the Kennedy School of Missions in Hartford, Connecticut, and relocated there in 1927.
The historical building on Downey Street in Indianapolis where the college had been housed was leased to the United Christian Missionary Society, mission arm of the Disciples of Christ. This society, formed in 1920, later became the Division of Overseas Ministries and remains as a part of the Disciples of Christ denomination, headquartered in Indianapolis.
If the institutional impetus for missions in first period of the 20th century in Indianapolis was the academy, exemplified by the College of Missions, the impetus in the middle of the century came from the agencies. The time was ripe for change. World War II was over, and it was an era of new beginnings. In 1949, the Russians developed the atomic bomb. Mao Tse-tung was elected chairman of the People’s Republic of China. Trains were more common than planes, and affluence brought automobiles to the newly-created suburbs.
Within a short span of time after the war, some 150 new Christian mission agencies were started—groups such as Missionary Aviation Fellowship (1945), the Far East Broadcasting Company (1945), Navigators (1949), World Vision (1950), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), and Campus Crusade for Christ (1951). Christians dreamed dreams and held great expectations.
The Restoration Movement also spawned new mission agencies, some of which call Indianapolis home, with numerous others located just outside of Indiana’s capital city. Christian Missionary Fellowship, TCM2 International, and FAME3 are headquartered in the city, while IDES4 and ACM5 International are located nearby. These mission agencies fulfill unique niches, from church planting and evangelism to relief, leadership training, and medical efforts.
Much of the mission impetus spreading out from Indianapolis today comes from the many assemblies located all across the city. The city and its suburbs are home to many megachurches, and there are dozens and dozens of congregations heavily involved in missions. Numerous churches have staff members whose primary responsibility is the mission mandate of the church.
The church of today desires hands-on involvement in missions. Churches undertake short-term mission trips and short-term mission projects that involve many of their congregation. These churches are eager to partner with others involved in world evangelism.
Reflecting the interests and backgrounds of their members, they approach missions with an entrepreneurial mind-set, a desire for professional expertise, and a commitment to excellence and technological savvy. They feel a special burden for those less fortunate and are happy to attack problems face on. They no longer hold to artificial distinctions of the past, such as the supposed dichotomy between evangelism and social action. Today’s church members are socially aware and socially active.
In light of the past century, it is little wonder that Restoration Movement leaders periodically choose to hold annual conventions in Indianapolis. The North American Christian Convention has met there every few years, as has the National Missionary Convention. The second National Missionary Convention was held at the Englewood Christian Church in the city in 1950. At times, the two conventions have combined in Indianapolis, the most recent occasion being 1995. In 2003 the NACC was once again in Indianapolis, and in November 2006 the National Missionary Convention will again gather in Indianapolis at the city’s famed Convention Center.
It is expected that as many as 10,000 people will be a part of that convention. Many of the major motels have already been booked for the convention, and a whopping total of some 300 workshops are being planned.
Though a century has passed, Indianapolis continues to play her vital role in missions at the crossroads. Effective mission efforts today continue to draw upon the strengths of the academy, the agency, and the assembly. As all work together, the kingdom of God is advanced.
1See Exodus to a Hidden Valley by Eugene Morse (William Collins), and The Dogs May Bark by Gertrude Morse (College Press).
2Formerly Toronto Christian Mission, then Taking Christ to the Millions.
3Formerly Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism.
4International Disaster Emergency Services.
5Formerly Africa Christian Mission.
Doug Priest, executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship, is a member of the Oaklandon Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.