Roachdale Christian Church has been faithful to its mission for 129 years. Over that time, it has seen its share of preachers come and go, but lately the church is looking a whole lot younger!
Since starting, the church building has been located on the same corner in Roachdale, Indiana, a sleepy little town of just over 900 in the middle of Indiana cornfields, about an hour west of Indianapolis. A circa 1888 white clapboard building was replaced in 1924 by a larger brick structure. An educational wing was added in the 1960s, and in the ’90s, a worship center offered more opportunities for ministry.
This church’s story is similar to many congregations in the rural Midwest, with one exception. The entire pastoral staff of Roachdale is made up of millennials . . . no one over the age of 31! What’s even more interesting, three of the four ministers are local products, as is the church’s ministry assistant. After earning Bible-college degrees and serving in ministry elsewhere, these three decided to return home and build the church that had invested into them . . . and the church is growing . . . from averaging 130 two years ago to more than 450 today.
The ministers behind this growth include Braden Etcheson, senior minister; Lindsey Etcheson, children’s and family minister; Molly King, student minister; and Brandon Jones, worship minister. (Lindsey, Braden’s wife, is the only nonnative.)
Recently, Christian Standard sat down with these young guns to figure out how they’re doing it.
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What was it like growing up in Roachdale?
Brandon: We grew up across the street from each other. It was [a place] where you trusted everyone, you loved everyone, and everyone was a part of your life whether you liked it or not. It was a very tight-knit community where no one was a stranger. People were always welcome in your home, and [neighbors] would look after you or your home when you were away. Community was family and family was community.
Molly, your dad was the high school football coach. What was that like?
Molly: For our family, a lot of things depended on how well the team did on Friday nights. That added some stress to things, but that was an outgrowth of being a community.
While Roachdale is small, it still has its institutions, and they are very important to the people who live here. That would include the church. My mom taught Brandon in elementary school, Brandon’s mom had me in preschool, and Braden’s dad was the local bank president and an elder. Just recently, I attended a football game after being gone for years, and people still knew I was the former football coach’s daughter. They still put my parents on a pedestal.
Did any of you ever think in your wildest dreams that you would be doing full-time ministry here?
Braden: No. We felt a call from God to come here, but it wasn’t something we sought out to do. After I committed to be here and the vision started to form, it was easier for me to communicate the potential I felt to the others.
Lindsey: When we first considered it, we were in a very difficult season, one in which we were considering stepping out of the ministry altogether.
Braden: Most churches would be very hesitant to hire a younger minister, but there was a difference here. Our elders are known to say, “Great fruit comes from deep roots. We not only know where you’re coming from, we are from where you come from.” One of the elders said to me, “You’re the monsters we created!” Those things spoke to us about the potential of working together.
Lindsey: We were ministering in Nashville, Tennessee, and after a conversation with the Roachdale elders, Braden came into the room with a stunned look on his face and said, “Our church needs us.” The church was in a rough spot. They had gone through a split and felt that they were at rock bottom.
Brandon: It was a very different church from the one we left when we went to Bible college. Each of us felt like Nehemiah standing next to a crumbling wall.
Brandon and Molly, you both came from ministries in megachurches. How did a move like this affect you?
Brandon: I left Roachdale to see what else was out there for me. I had been in ministry at a multisite megachurch for eight years and felt called to the mission field in Haiti. When that door closed, I was wondering what was next, and that’s when Braden called me. He shared his vision for the church and left me to decide. It was my Nineveh. I knew I was being called here, but I didn’t want to go. The vision Braden shared began a transformation in me, and following that call has been the most positive and unexpected experience in my life.
Molly: Much of my ministry experience was happening in the context of wrestling with God. My last church experience left me homesick for family. In prayer, I felt that God was calling me away, but I had no direction of where I was going. When I was contacted by the rest of the team, my initial reaction was to say no, but after the vision was shared with me, I knew that this was the place God was preparing me for.
When did you come here and what was the attendance then?
Braden: We started in March 2015 and the church was running about 130 at that time.
So, it’s been a little more than two years and now the church is averaging 450, so attendance has basically tripled. How did that happen?
Braden: White-hot vision and mission. It wasn’t something I brought here. It was something the elders and I prayed through together. It was obvious to us that something was seriously broken, so we prayed for a God-size vision, and that’s when we came up with the words, “Love Roachdale.” It’s on our shirts, our walls, our building, and our hearts. We said, “If it’s on our building, we’re going to be committed to it!”
We exist to love our community like Jesus, and that’s what pulls us together. We want to be a church more prominent inside its community than inside its church walls; we want people to experience the love of God by just driving through our town. It’s a vision that comes from the last chapter of Ezekiel as the prophet sat in a broken city and envisioned a new one with the name, “The Lord is There.” Every week more people are pouring in because this town needs a lot of love.
Brandon: Every exit of our church building points to another small community a few miles away. Over each exit, we have a sign that says “Love” and then the name of that town. It keeps us focused outward.
Lindsey: You can’t love who you don’t know, so we have to know the people of our community in order to love them. We know their names, their connections, and their families and extended families. Families gather here [at the church building], but life happens out there.
Every year we put on four major carnivals just to meet people and give families an opportunity to create memories. We don’t have to push people to come to church—they already know who we are and they show up. Twice a week we minister in the schools, because in tight-knit communities like Roachdale, the people trust us based on the relationships we’ve built over the years.
Molly: We also lead Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Opportunities like that happen even when we’re just out walking the dog. And this isn’t just a staff thing . . . the whole church is taking on this personality now. The schools tend to be the heart of small communities, so we pour a lot of our resources into them. We feed the teachers, buy school supplies, purchased a sound system for them, and do a lot of our events there.
Tough question: How did you deal with the old guard?
Braden: Every church has them, but they were ready for something more. They trusted us, and I wanted to be careful to hear where they were coming from. That generation understands sacrifice, and we are standing on the shoulders of their accomplishments. They understand the idea of giving up something you love for something you love even more.
Some of the changes we’ve brought have been difficult, but having their grandkids and great-grandkids coming to church speaks to something deeper. The default in our culture is to believe the tension is between the young and the old, but I don’t agree with that. I think its inward versus outward thinking. Most of the tension in worship styles today is between two inwardly focused groups catering to their own desires.
One of our struggles has been how we can efficiently use our space. We have an early traditional worship service in the old sanctuary and then, in about seven minutes, transform the space into a children’s worship area for our later two services. It’s a big challenge.
How is this ministry challenging you?
Molly: All of us are in positions that are new to us. A Bible-college degree doesn’t prepare you for your job or the environment that job is in. You can feel like you’re in over your head and experience a desperate need for God to fill in the gaps. It’s during those times we remember that God started the church with incompetent people, so that helps us to feel right at home.
Lindsey: I remember two years ago, in March . . . we had just moved here and were trying to get our footing when we got a large amount of snow on Sunday morning. During our main service, I counted 16 people at church. That morning, Braden and I had just found out we were pregnant, and my heart sank. I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into and if we were going to have a job or a future. There were no children here that weekend except ours. Today, we have more than 120 children each weekend. That’s a new challenge, but I’m definitely thankful for it.
You’ve definitely outgrown your facilities. Previous ministries provided you with a lot more tools. How do you manage with so much less?
Braden: Our previous ministry had a $100,000 budget for a youth group of just over 30 kids. Lots of ministries are over-resourced but don’t produce. We don’t concentrate on what we don’t have—we strive to get the most out of what we do have and put whatever is left into our community. We do have limited space and limited funds, but our people are our greatest resource, and God has been very generous with them.
Would you recommend a ministry like this to other millennials?
Brandon: Since we’re from here, there’s a lot of grace. They’ve allowed us to make mistakes, and we’ve definitely made them. I don’t know how easy that would be if we didn’t have those relationships.
Braden: There needs to be trust equity. Our circumstances have to be pretty unique. So many seeds were planted when we were kids here, and the harvest is coming now. They’ve given us the freedom to do it. It’s very hard for millennials to do ministry like this unless some real ownership and authority are given to follow God’s call. If a church hires a millennial but keeps him stuck in that same old model of ministry, it’s probably not going to work. I think there has to be a space for them to lead, and if they are given permission to reach out to their generation, that would be attractive.
The older generation has seen the sun go up and down far more than us, and they have the wisdom, but they need to give us the authority to reach our generation and pursue innovation. The younger generation wants to have that Lion King moment when Simba comes back to Pride Rock. We grew up on that movie. It is definitely attractive to do ministry like this if the environment is right.
So, what’s next?
Braden: One of our oldest elders—who’s getting ready to retire from the board after decades of service—told me recently, “Every little town needs a church like this one.” We are going to keep loving Jesus by loving this town, and if he gives us an opportunity in another town to spread that influence, we’ll step up to take it. We’re not going to stop blazing these trails.