By Paul Boatman
Mike Bowling has spent 19 years in ministry with Englewood Christian Church of Indianapolis, Indiana, an inner-city church with an impressive history and a unique present-day witness.
How did inner-city Indianapolis become the place for you to do ministry?
I grew up and went to college and seminary in mostly rural East Tennessee. Two influences put me on the track to this place. When I became a Christian at age 15, West Side Christian Church in Elizabethton challenged me to radical discipleship. In seminary, under Dr. Charles Taber, I became enraptured with urban missions.
When I moved from serving Lower Shell Creek Church in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, to Shadeland Avenue Church in inner-city Pittsburgh, I began to see God’s call clearly. In the latter part of that 10-year ministry, I also directed a parachurch organization serving 1,200 children. I eventually became disillusioned with the parachurch ministry’s isolation from the local church.
That was when, 19 years ago, I was invited to preach at Englewood Christian Church in inner-city Indianapolis.
Tell us about Englewood.
This 116-year-old church was twice one of our leading churches. Under the leadership of O.A. “Pappy” Trinkle, it was a key church as the “Independents” became distinctive nearly 90 years ago—one of the two largest independent Christian churches, almost the mother church of the NACC.
In the ’70s it became a demonstration of “church growth,” with resurgent attendance over 1,100 . . . a fleet of buses going all over the city. But by the ’80s, the neighborhood was changing quickly and attendance was plummeting. When I was called in the ’90s, attendance was about 350. This church was trying to figure out how to really be a missional church in its changed urban setting.
Indy has many great churches, but every other great church from the middle of the last century moved, merged, or died. Why not Englewood?
We think there is a calling for an old, downtown church in a challenged neighborhood. We believe our mission is to keep exploring God’s ways for us to be the body of Christ. It has been quite an odyssey with these brothers and sisters, learning to understand “church” as an authentic witness to Christ in this community, a local expression of the body.
We need to be more faithful in how we live out a radical gospel. A market-driven church will not survive in the inner city. Just selling religious goods and services is too hard of a sell. When your neighbors are struggling economically and socially, you just cannot act like an upscale suburban church.
How is this playing out?
We have a pretty steady group of about 200 active adult members—a church family committed to the kingdom of God. This is not just their “religion.” Many actually relocated to this once-declining neighborhood to be a part of this ministry. They put themselves and their resources on the line. Some have taken equity loans to help others buy nearby homes, sometimes being repaid, sometimes not. The community of Acts 2 and 4 seems to come to life here.
Is your ministry there a definition of missional church?
I’m not sure that quite gets to the point. We push hard on ecclesiology. New Testament language is not just metaphorical. We see the church as the continuing presence of Jesus, with Christ as the head. It may look like Christian anarchy—not many bosses, just brothers and sisters seeking the kingdom together. We experience Ephesians 3:9-11—that God through the church is revealing his multifaceted wisdom to take on the powers of this age. Our neighbors have been captive to fallen powers. The church embodies that transforming wisdom. In Romans 12, “Be transformed” has a passive quality that requires submission for God’s work to occur. The “powers” see something different when the church is a real community embodying an alternative culture.
You sound excited, Preacher . . .
My greatest joy is seeing God transform people who are visibly broken by the culture. We have people whose lives are horror stories. In a dramatic shift, some of these horror stories turn into gifted expressions of the kingdom of God.
God is reconciling right now in Christ! We are not wrapped up in a flat eschatology. God is winning the battle inside human history, bringing about a heavenly city right in our midst. That possibility elates me.
How does that reconciliation look for an inner-city church?
We started doing community development work about 15 years ago. We learned to be good neighbors. We have given food, money, property, and service. Observing that, our community partners have entrusted us with $10 million of development funding to do a series of projects that bring people of significant means in close contact with impoverished people. We are asset-based in our mission and community development. We believe God has provided all we need for doing his ministry.
Is this “social gospel”?
We call our ministry “Incarnational Gospel Proclamation!” Social gospel was centered in what people do. We are not just a hodgepodge of Christians—our people exercise their 1 Corinthians 12 gifts in the community. We never see anything happen without the transforming power of Jesus. We center in the treasure of Jesus (Colossians 2:2, 3). This Christological focus makes the difference. If folks just want to play with Christianity, they need to call it something other than “the church.”
Do you ever get discouraged?
It bothers me when people claim Christ as Lord and Savior without really believing the gospel. They give God a “bargain”—Jesus paid the price for their salvation, and they are practicing minimal religious payback, never finding the joy of salvation and discipleship. Personally, when I get frustrated, I try to discern what God might be doing.
How does this ministry impact your personal life?
Lisa and I have been married 37 years and we are committed to a lifetime of ministry right here, as long as the church agrees. Our four boys and 13 grandchildren are all blessed by this church and community. We join with the whole church in challenging one another to consistently live the gospel.
Paul Boatman is chaplain of Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.