North Liberty Christian Church was founded in Marion County, Indiana, in 1839. I’m told it’s the third oldest church in what is now Indianapolis. I found this 1855 plat map at the Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis Digital Collection that shows the church, which is labeled on the map below.
The church was surrounded by farms for miles. Indianapolis was nine miles away along the Lafayette Road, the diagonal road on the map just east of the church. Lafayette Road is still there. It carried US 52 during most of the 20th century, and today is a heavily traveled four-lane city street. But in 1855, Lafayette Road was certainly no more than a dirt wagon trail. By horse, a man could ride to town in a couple hours – unless it had rained or snowed, in which case the road was impassable. So these farm families spent most of their lives around their land. In tough times, these families could turn only to each other. For this reason, I’m sure they built community. That they built churches like North Liberty Christian Church and worshiped together reflected the community they naturally built among themselves. Evidence of their community remains – the names on the map above are on the headstones in the church’s cemetery. This 1937 aerial photograph of the region, which I got at the City of Indianapolis’s Indianapolis General Data Viewer, shows that the church was still surrounded by farms even 71 years ago.
As late as the early 1960s the area was overwhelmingly agrigultural, even though Interstate highways were built less than a mile from the church to its east and west, and a couple farmers sold out and early suburban neighborhoods were built on the land. I’m sure the same farm families were working the remaining soil. It would take more research than I can do with online maps to know how the church had changed by this time. I feel sure, though, that these same farm families still formed the core community of North Liberty Christian Church in 1973, when it had added enough members from elsewhere that they needed to double the size of their building.
You probably guessed that the remaining farmers sold out over the next thirty years. When I first came to North Liberty Christian Church a few years ago, here’s what the area looked like, also from the Indianapolis General Data Viewer.
The farmers are gone from the land and the church. The names on the headstones are just quaint history to all but a handful of longtime members. And what do you think happened to the church community? Many of us choose our churches today because of doctrine or comfort or the programs they offer, and we change churches as our needs change. Most of a congregation’s families don’t see each other except on Sunday. Our lives aren’t centered around place as they were 170 years ago. We don’t have to depend on our neighbors anymore. What created community in 1839 doesn’t exist today.
I don’t think Hoosier Reborn turns his nose up at community – rather, he decries trying to force community within the modern church because it can ultimately separate us from others. I think a hidden point there is that we can’t be the light of the world if we’re in community only with our church.
Our modern mobility, wealth, and independence have let us rely less on our neighbor. I’m a poster child for that. I live alone for the most part. I make enough to own a nice but modest small home in Indianapolis. I have good health care, mostly paid for by insurance, and so illness is not much of a worry. I drive 10 miles each way to and from work every day, where I spend eight hours with people I never see otherwise because they all live elsewhere. I have met two of my neighbors but have never had a conversation with them. I’ve never even seen whoever lives next door to my south! I have friends at work, friends at church, friends from college, and friends from other times in my life. Some of them met each other last year when they helped me move into this house, but otherwise their circles don’t overlap.
Yet I still need connection. So do you. This hasn’t changed since 1839. I have put together my family of sorts from the people I’ve encountered along the way, and we do what community does – encourage each other, whack each other upside the head when we need it, and help out with things we can’t do by ourselves (such as move into my new house).
So then what should the church’s role be in community, given that its backbone role has evolved away? Please share your thoughts.