By Ernie Perry
“We believe God still has us downtown for a purpose.” Those were the elders’ words when I interviewed for the senior minister’s position at Broadway Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.
It was December 2010. I was in my 12th year as an associate at the suburban daughter church, Southland Christian. I’d known of Broadway since I was 6 years old, having attended children’s sessions of the North American Christian Convention there in 1963. I sang there with The Watchmen quartet when my preaching hero, Marshall Leggett, was the minister. His predecessor, and the dean of preachers, Ard Hoven, was my homiletics professor at Kentucky Christian College.
I also knew of Broadway’s historic influence as part of the first church to come to Lexington out of the Cane Ridge Revival in 1801. Her influence is prominent, having been a part of mothering and grandmothering 16 churches in the Lexington area. But I also knew something about her years of struggles and decline.
At first, I didn’t want to talk to the pulpit committee. I suppose I was tainted by a comment from one of my mentors more than 20 years ago, “You’ll never want to go to Broadway. It’s an old, dying church in a dying downtown.” While that was true to some degree, civic leaders began to reinvent and revitalize downtown. Over the last 15 to 20 years, with new office buildings, townhouses, lofts, restaurants, and plans for more intensive changes, downtown is alive and active. Sitting two blocks from Rupp Arena and in the center crossroads of Kentucky, Broadway can touch at least five different demographic people groups within a few blocks of campus.
The church historically has had limited emphasis and success in connecting with its urban neighborhood. Having decided in the late 1980s not to relocate, the church faced the challenge of finding its role in the city. If God still had Broadway downtown for a purpose, what was it?
While we still draw mostly from the suburbs, Broadway’s leaders felt God calling us to reach out and serve our neighborhood, including lower socioeconomic apartments just five blocks away. Within a stone’s throw of our campus are hundreds of boys and girls who one day will be saved or lost.
The decision was made to go to Coolavin Park, which houses primarily low-income African-Americans, and build relationships and invest in children. With help from Urban Impact, our traditional VBS was revamped to a five-day, all-day event on our campus. Not everyone embraced this change, and some left the church over the new direction; but as a whole, our people are catching the vision.
The first year “Camp Can-I-Go” had 70 students (kindergarten through sixth grade), with 140 the next year, and 250 campers and 50 volunteers last summer. Eighty percent of the students are African-American. It is a high-energy, Bible-based highlight of our summer.
We offer a weekend for boys called “Warrior Knights” and a “New Kind of Princess” for girls, exposing them to role models and teaching what it means to be godly princes and princesses.
We partnered with a neighborhood elementary school and started a backpack program, and also an afterschool program called “The Academy.” Along with providing academic helps and a Bible lesson, some University of Kentucky athletes volunteer their time to teach life and sports skills.
Though our campus is near high-rise financial centers, we also are in an area of transients and the homeless. There are security risks, but we believe the Lord has called us to serve the poor and hurting (Psalm 41:1; Proverbs 28:27; 1 John 3:17, 18). We have partnered with a number of organizations, including a food program called God’s Pantry. With the help of 80 Broadway volunteers, we open our facility six days a week, serve 275 families a week, and hand out approximately 1,600 20-pound baskets each Thanksgiving.
We also partner with a believer who once lived on the streets who heads up Bread of Life, which feeds 300 to 400 poor and transient folks weekly out of our newly expanded kitchen and fellowship hall. Our afterschool kids help serve the food. Through a citywide program, Room In The Inn, we feed and house 13 homeless men twice a month. A mobile unit that provides sandwiches and medical screening is on campus weekly.
We partner with other churches to offer Church Under the Bridge, which provides a meal and Sunday worship service for those who feel uncomfortable coming to a traditional church setting. During warm months they meet outdoors, but from November through March they meet in our fellowship hall, averaging 150 every Sunday afternoon.
Last December our choir hosted a Church Under the Bridge service in our sanctuary, which was beautifully decorated for Christmas. The folks, who have very little of this world’s goods, raised their hands in praise, clapped, and sang. Many in our choir were in tears. Afterwards, our choir members went and hugged these thankful worshippers, many of whom were amazed to be embraced. Three choir members said it was one of the most rewarding things they’ve ever done.
Serving and Connecting
Many of our small groups, classes, and individuals are finding ways to serve and connect with our neighborhood. Our annual picnic is no longer at the Christian camp in the country; instead it’s at the city park by the “projects,” and we invite our neighbors to come eat and fellowship with us.
With these new missional efforts to get outside the church walls and show Jesus’ love to all people, there is renewed sense of purpose. God is blessing our church. Our attendance has increased 64 percent in two years. Do we feel we have a good handle on what we’re doing? Not at all! We scratch our heads a lot and say, “Help us, Jesus. This is messy.” We have a lot to learn in “helping versus enabling” and in building relationships with people and turning them into disciples. We are looking to add and diversify our staff to help us with our calling.
Though we have many obstacles and challenging decisions ahead, we are seeing fruit, and we still believe God has Broadway downtown for a purpose.
Ernie Perry serves as senior minister with Broadway Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.