The neighborhoods near downtown Indianapolis are seeing an infusion of money and interest, and faith communities are taking note.
Several congregations on the fringes of the metro are sending resources towards downtown, in an effort to grab millennial attention and reach underserved neighborhoods.
Brandon Mott represents some of the new ways of thinking about religious outreach. He didn’t start a church — he started a coffee shop and community center.
The Lincoln Center opened recently and runs after-school programs, an event space and a coffee shop. Mott is in the middle of remodeling the back and the second floor of the building into a laundromat and office space that can serve the surrounding neighborhood.
He sees the opening of a community center as directly related to his weekly Sunday worship. Mott still attends the same church he grew up in, and most of his funding comes from churches.
“Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor, and those are not two commandments but one,” Mott said. “They’re intertwined.”
Though the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood, located southeast of Downtown, has seen an influx of money and development, Mott says the center is intended not just for newcomers, but for long-time, low-income residents who need a place to gather and grab $1 coffee.
“We want to be here for everyone,” he said.
According to data from the Internal Revenue Service, there were about 578 registered Christian nonprofits in Marion County as of August 2016, with total revenue reported of $14 million, nearly double the revenue reported a decade earlier. Revenue from other types of religious organizations and religious advocacy organizations raise the number to $37 million.
The church on the corner or the interfaith center next to the park may have an impact larger than members’ spiritual well-being. Older sacred spaces, especially, often have an economic impact on communities, contributing more than $1 million in value to the area each year.
Religious membership grew by about 10 percent in Indianapolis between 1980 and 2010, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. That data tracks with a slight growth in Christian membership in the country as a whole.
Jed Fuller started a ministry in the Old Southside neighborhood in an effort to harness that growth and influence the neighborhood.
Fuller is moving his family from Eagle Creek Park as part of a project led by Mount Pleasant Christian Church, based in Greenwood. He’s renovating an abandoned house, installing a pocket park on Union Street and revving up programs and ministries geared towards the surrounding community.
His goal, he said, is to make sure that revitalization near Downtown doesn’t leave low-income residents behind.
“I have a passion and a calling to make disciples,” Fuller said. “We see churches failing, and it’s not because God is failing, but because we’ve failed neighborhoods like this.”
Not everyone may expect Christian outreach to take place down the block, but Fuller said the project on the Old Southside has been exciting, and he’s looking forward to getting neighborhood projects off the ground.
One of his upcoming projects is partnering with the Fuller Center to build two houses this fall. He’d like to make sure they go to current residents of the neighborhood, so that they can go from renters to homeowners.
Not all neighborhood-focused work is new to Indy. The Englewood Community Development Corporation is a 30-year project on the east side that grew out of a historical church.
Englewood has watched new nonprofits and faith-based organizations tumble into the neighborhood over the past decade, chasing the neighborhood’s redevelopment and new residents.
Sometimes, said co-director Joe Bowling, those faith-based groups begin new things before they’re part of the community. He cautions them to slow down and learn the neighborhood first.
“If you’re new to a neighborhood, don’t try to do anything of significance for 10 years,” he said. “Wait for the opportunity to be asked to contribute.”
Plus, there’s nothing really new about following city trends and demographics.
Not all churches are looking to create new organizations or spread across the city. Some are deepening their hold in their current neighborhoods, and hoping Downtown development will help them out, too.
The Rev. Clarence Moore’s church, New Era, is just a little north of the hip neighborhoods near Downtown, but he’s also been thinking about ways to better reach his surrounding community.
“We have been very intentional in refocusing our impact in our community, realizing that our millennial generation, who’s exiting the church in droves, is concerned that the church is more inward focused than outward focused,” Moore said.
To flip that focus, Moore said, the church has started a comprehensive after-school program, advocated for universal pre-K and organized volunteer weekends.
“Churches are doing a lot of great things, but I think that impetus to increase the outward focus is not only expedient, to help ourselves, but also biblical,” he said.
He saw a lot of white residents flee the center of the city. Now, as they return, he’s trying to figure out how to work with them. He could resent the newcomers, he said, especially those who don’t understand the area, but he’d rather join them.
“When there’s economic change you begin to see whole areas of our church begin to flourish, but we need to make sure we’re protecting the fringes,” he said. “The church is maybe the best equipped to speak up for the marginalized.”