Traders Point Christian Church’s Leap of Faith

Suburban churches rarely open branches in progressive urban areas, but Whitestown’s Traders Point Christian Church just spent $5 million on a shiny new campus right off Mass Ave. Will it succeed where others haven’t?

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Nearly 300 congregants packed into the Central Library’s Clowes Auditorium on a Sunday morning in January to listen to a church service broadcast from nearly 20 miles away. The audience swayed to worship songs performed by a guy playing piano, then clapped for the Traders Point Christian Church campus pastor, Petie Kinder, who bounded onstage to make some brief announcements. Then the real show began. Electro-pop music filled the room. Motivational messages flashed across monitors on stage, digital blurs of inspiration that materialized and vanished before finally ceding the screen to the man who wants to change the way downtown Indianapolis worships.

At that moment, Aaron Brockett, head of the Indy area’s largest megachurch, was broadcasting from Whitestown to three locations in Central Indiana with a combined 7,000 worshippers. Those at the library had gathered a few blocks from 1201 North Delaware Street, where renovations to their new sanctuary—a project estimated to cost nearly $5 million—would soon be complete.

Brockett welcomed the enormous crowd at the main campus, then formally recognized the group downtown gathered for its first livestream service. A handful of whoops and cheers erupted from the audience. The pastor then moved on to summarize TPCC’s spectacular successes in 2016. Twelve thousand people attended its nine Christmas services. The church collected a Christmas offering and gave the majority of it to a ministry partner in Pakistan. “There are five million people who don’t have access to medical care there, so Pakistan Christian Evangelical Services is going to build a hospital,” Brockett said. “We get to be a part of that by writing them a check for $200,000 due to your year-end giving.” Applause broke out as the churchgoers celebrated the accomplishment. But the cherry on top? Over the last year and a half, the church had raised more than $6 million for its Humble and Hungry initiative. It was nearing its goal of $8.5 million. That money will be used to launch at least four satellite campuses around Central Indiana, including the one that opened downtown this past winter.

All good news, but members still might want to say a prayer. Nationally and locally, conservative suburban megachurches rarely attempt what TPCC is about to try in fairly progressive Indianapolis. For many of them, the cultural barrier is simply too daunting. But with some congregants hailing from more than 25 miles away and the main campus bursting at the seams, TPCC decided the expansion was worth the gamble. If any church can pull it off, it’s TPCC, which has succeeded at just about everything it has tried. The one exception? A short-lived location a few years ago downtown.

 

Believe it or not, the city of Indianapolis is barely older than TPCC. Just 13 years after Indy was platted in 1821, the group began operating as Ebenezer Christian Church. The 10-member congregation grew to nearly 100 by 1853, a rate that has hardly slowed in the century and a half since. Although the group of believers called many different buildings home over the next few decades, it remained in the same general area, first meeting in a log cabin just south of Fishback Creek, then moving to a building in the Village of Traders Point in 1886 (and officially changing the name to Traders Point Christian Church), before finally migrating to 7860 Lafayette Road in 1964, where it remained for 50 years.

In 1983, Howard Brammer became the lead pastor, ushering in Traders Point’s modern era. During his tenure, the church took a socially conservative stance, with politically conservative figures such as attorney Kenneth Starr (of Bill Clinton impeachment-hearings fame) and creationist Ken Ham speaking at the church. Their elder team included Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, who would later gain notoriety for lobbying against gay marriage and his involvement in the RFRA fiasco. By the time Brammer left in 2006, TPCC was well on its way to becoming a bona fide megachurch—1,000 members and counting.

Late that year, the church moved to its Whitestown location, and Brockett, the current pastor, took over. The church’s tone softened somewhat. Brockett ditched the overt conservatism for a more accepting—if not exactly progressive—political position. “We just want to love everyone,” he says repeatedly throughout his sermons.

“We’re not saying political convictions aren’t important,” explains Brockett, “but we aren’t going to give people the impression that they need to vote a certain way or share a particular ideology as a prerequisite to feeling welcomed at our church. We want to be clear about who Jesus is and what he’s offering, because it is for everyone. This is the primary conviction that informs and inspires everything we do.”

A page on TPCC’s website, however, makes its positions on abortion and LGBT marriage clear: no and definitely not.

In any case, lightening up the message must have worked for Brockett, because within three years of his taking over, attendance had tripled from 1,000 to more than 3,000, prompting the church to initiate an expansion in 2011 to the tune of $11 million. By the time the project was finished in 2014, it was already nearing capacity again with almost 5,000 people attending services each weekend, and Brockett predicted they would reach 7,000 in the next few years.

They couldn’t continue to expand their current property indefinitely, and the church estimated more than half of their members lived in areas far from Whites-town. Why not take the church to them? Enter the Humble and Hungry initiative, a fundraising campaign to create satellite churches that stream the main service every Sunday. The project was announced in April 2015, and TPCC made progress quickly, launching a Carmel campus in January 2016 that already draws 900 people each week. But last year, it turned its attention toward a less familiar location, one that will test conventional wisdom about what’s possible for institutions like theirs—downtown Indianapolis.

 

While not everyone agrees on what constitutes a “megachurch,” the term generally refers to a Protestant Christian congregation that draws an average attendance of at least 2,000 people to weekend services. And among megachurches, the satellite approach has become extremely popular to accommodate growth. In 2000, 23 percent of U.S. megachurches were multisite. By 2015, that percentage had jumped to 62. Here in Indianapolis, 10 of the 17 megachurches have multiple locations. Almost all of them, both main campuses and satellites, are in the suburbs.

The reason most megachurches set up shop in the outskirts is fairly intuitive. In the ’70s and ’80s, many urban areas already had established community organizations and social structures. But according to Scott Thumma, who is the dean of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and has spent decades studying megachurch trends, the suburbs were brand new and lacked that sense of community. Large evangelical churches filled this void, he says, creating community where there was none. They shaped their ministries around young families who had just moved to the suburbs from the city or another part of the country, and the churches developed a culture that fit that. Socially, economically, politically, and racially, downtowns of large cities tended to be the antithesis of the suburbs, so very few suburban churches tried to make that cultural leap.

“I know of one other church with a suburban campus that then launched an urban one,” says TPCC’s downtown pastor Kinder. “It’s Flatirons Community Church out in Colorado. There aren’t a lot of churches that have done it.”

With the TPCC main campus at capacity and plenty of congregants driving up from parts of Indianapolis, however, Brockett and company were willing to consider the unconventional. When an anonymous church member offered to buy an old Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall on the corner of 12th and Delaware for $2.9 million, they snapped it up. The sale closed in early 2016, and they estimated that it would need another $2 million in renovations before it would be ready for worship. Eager to start meeting downtown, TPCC held its first few services at the Central Library before the new building was ready in February.

Although the new $4.9 million campus is beautiful, TPCC will need a lot more than the 300 people showing up every Sunday for the largest service to make it worthwhile. The Colorado church, Flatirons Community Church, had a pretty bumpy ride when it first launched its downtown campus in 2015. In the end, its original location in a historic downtown theater didn’t work out, and it had to move out of the city’s core, although it remains in Denver.

“Churches get used to the brand they create,” explains Flatirons campus pastor Zach Weingartner. “People in the city definitely are different than people in the suburbs. We had to figure out how to make a service that was different and appealed to the downtown crowd.” They had a younger demographic than any of the other campus locations and had to reevaluate the service and the building’s atmosphere to reflect that.

Parallels can be drawn between Flatirons and TPCC. Mass Ave (perhaps Indy’s best-known gay neighborhood) is right down the street from the latter. And the church’s corporate vibe doesn’t exactly jibe with the aesthetics of the Old Northside, where neighbors take pride in the historic preservation of their homes, and a billboard company’s proposal to put up electronic signs was controversial. TPCC isn’t oblivious to the differences.

“We have a core group of people who live in urban Indy who have been an active part of our church for several years, so we’ve learned from the shared perspectives of all kinds of people,” says Brockett. “But we recognize that there are social, political, and economic differences between the suburban and the urban contexts that we must be aware of.” They should be aware of contextual differences. After all, this isn’t their first foray into urban Indianapolis.

 

In 2008, TPCC experimented with an offshoot called Response Church. It met in the Salvation Army across from Old National Centre, and was started by downtown residents who were unaffiliated with Traders Point at the time. Shortly after a local pastor named Jake Nelson and his associates started Response, Traders Point began partnering with them. At the end of 2011, Traders Point brought Nelson on as a staff member. It’s unclear exactly what happened (TPCC declined in an interview to provide an explanation), but within a year or two, the church had closed.

Traders Point is hesitant to compare efforts like those to the new downtown campus. The Old Northside location is more than an outreach ministry. It’s a full-blown campus, and the first time “Traders Point Christian Church” will be emblazoned across the front of a building in Indianapolis. One can only guess about TPCC’s goals because, when asked how they hoped to get involved in the community, if they anticipated challenges, or what type of attendance would make it successful, the church didn’t offer much insight. Kinder frequently cited “God’s guidance” and insisted, “We don’t care about numbers. We focus on loving people.” They chose the location because a number of people were driving to the northwest campus from the downtown area, although neither Kinder nor Brockett would say exactly how many.

Perhaps Indy’s thriving downtown now dovetails nicely with Traders Point’s demographic. Thousands of people have moved to the city’s center since 2010, and in 2013, the average person moving there was 27 years old and made around $80,000 annually. Other area churches are seeing that demographic change reflected in their congregations on Sunday. St. Mary’s Catholic Church sits about a mile away, and has seen its church grow from 200 families to around 700 in the last three years. Both Mass attendance and church giving have increased by 30 to 40 percent in that time as well. “We are experiencing a lot of growth with millenials moving in, singles and couples, but also with retirees moving into downtown from the suburbs,” says Father Carlton Beever, St. Mary’s pastor.

There also aren’t any other big evangelical congregations like Traders Point downtown. Although churches abound in Indianapolis, many of them are Catholic, Episcopalian, or more traditional Protestant ones. And the modern evangelical churches that do exist tend to have low-key, intimate environments, nothing like the high-tech productions and charismatic sermons that draw thousands of people to Traders Point.

So far, TPCC is doing at least some of the things the few successful urban satellite churches do. According to Thumma, the megachurch researcher, there are three common characteristics among those: They recruit leadership from people who already live downtown; identify current church members who live in the target area and ask them to attend the new satellite; and let the new congregation create the liturgy and other trappings that surround the sermon. Traders Point did not recruit leadership from downtown. Although Kinder and his family moved from Brownsburg to the Herron-Morton neighborhood as soon as the satellite was announced, Thumma doesn’t think that really counts. “It would be ideal if they went there because that’s who they were, not because that is now their mission field,” he says.

TPCC definitely meets the second criterion. During the year between purchasing the building and starting services, it held monthly meetings for downtown residents who wanted to attend the Delaware Street location. Regarding the third, it’s too early to know how tight a grip the church will hold on the new campus.

Church leaders at TPCC insist they have no concrete plan or target objectives for the larger expansion, and that God is guiding the process. As leaps of faith go, $4.9 million is a big one—especially when the intention is to fly in the face of accepted wisdom. The rewards for a megachurch that could tap into the state’s largest market would be huge, though. The meek may inherit the Earth, but downtown Indy is up for grabs.

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