Evidence of the past, present and future blend seamlessly across the grounds of Bluff Creek Christian Church.
The church cemetery, with grave markers from as far back as the 1890s, is steps away from the dazzling 24,000-square-foot worship space built in 2012.
Services are no longer conducted in the Gothic stone structure that housed worship for more than 60 years. But the historic 1949 church has been converted into a space for the teen ministry.
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Look down over the hills of White River Township, and you get a sense of the rural history that has endured in the area since the church’s first meeting in 1827. Turn your head, and you can see the development and growth.
Much has changed in 190 years. But what unites it all is the sense of community at the center of Bluff Creek Christian Church.
“When I was growing up, the church was the focal point of life. It was where you went for fellowship, it’s where you went for social activity, it’s where you went to see people,” said Lanny Duke, a lifelong member of Bluff Creek. “For me, the church has always been the focal point of our family and our lives.”
That focus on community has endured for 190 years. Members of the church are united to help their neighbors, both in Johnson County and around the world. Missions trips to Appalachia, Brazil, India and other poverty-stricken corners of the world help spread Christ’s message by caring for others.
At the same time, programs such as Shoes for Souls — a ministry providing shoes to the needy — serves the most vulnerable of local residents.
The commitment to those causes is what has defined the church, and though the future will likely bring new challenges for the church, it’s prepared to meet those challenges.
“You don’t sustain 190 years and be a viable entity, like we have been, without constantly changing,” said Eric Allen, lead pastor at Bluff Creek. “It’s stayed relevant and viable by shifting when needed.”
Bluff Creek Christian Church was chartered as a Baptist institution on May 18, 1827, in the village of Bluff Creek, near the present day intersection of State Road 144 and State Road 37. Local residents had been gathering in the home of Henry Brown, an early settler of the area, and over the next three years, the congregation met in the homes of other members.
The village didn’t have many other buildings, Allen said. As difficult as it is for people to imagine today, at that time, White River Township was very much near the edge of the American frontier.
“People hadn’t really settled much past the Mississippi River at that time in the U.S. They were still moving west, so there weren’t a lot of building aspects in communities then,” he said.
By 1830, it had moved into a schoolhouse just west of Bluff Creek village, and the first permanent church building — made of hand-hewnlogs — was completed in 1844.
Though the church substantially grew over its history, it also suffered considerable difficulties. None were greater than the fire that burned down the worship building in 1945.
Members had to come together and decide whether to rebuild. They would have to pay for a new building themselves, with no insurance on the church and no loans available.
The congregation pooled together what money they could to start the building process. The church had a food tent at the county fair and used that to raise money for the construction.
By 1949, a new church building made from Bedford limestone officially was dedicated. The structure served as the main worship space until 2012, when the new 24,000-square-feet worship center and classroom complex.
“These were all rural farm families. There wasn’t a lot of money; nobody was very wealthy,” Duke said. “But the work they did, the unification of the church and the way everyone came together was memorable.”
Duke’s great-grandparents were members of Bluff Creek Christian Church, and his family has been part of it ever since. He can remember when the church was the uniting factor in a sprawling farming community.
“In the beginning, it was obviously very, very rural, and even when I was growing up, there were an awful lot of farm families. The building boom hadn’t hit yet,” he said.
Being a farming community, one point of pride for the church members were their food-related events.
“The church was always known for its cooks,” Duke said. “With the regional men’s fellowship, everyone would look forward to coming to Bluff Creek because they’d have homegrown tomatoes, homegrown sweet corn, homegrown green beans. That’s what they took to the fair.”
Serving the larger community has been a key component of the church for as long as Duke can remember. He recalls an effort during World War II, when the church organized a care package collection for all of the soldiers, not just from the church community, but from the entire county.
“History tells us that a lot of men who never ever attended here appreciated Bluff Creek,” he said.
Just as the building housing Bluff Creek Christian Church has changed, so have the people attending it. White River Township has become much more diverse, and the congregation reflects that, Allen said.
People from different cultures and different age groups have added a richness to the church community.
“We have an influx of the international community to the Center Grove area, because people are attracted to our schools,” Allen said. “So we want to make an effort to make sure we’re available to all in that realm.”
Rachel Fish came with her family from Myanmar in southeast Asia. As a student at Cincinnati Christian University, she learned about Bluff Creek’s commitment to cultural acceptance and diversity, and sought it out to serve as an intern this summer.
Of particular interest for Fish has been human trafficking, and she has worked with church leaders and members to help Bluff Creek contribute to solving that issue.
“It’s been a wonderful experience so far. I don’t think I’ve met a church that’s been this warm and welcoming,” she said. “People are very willing to listen to your story.”
Decisions were made in the past decade to be a more contemporary church, infusing the traditional values established since its founding with modern approaches to serving Christ.
“My generation has always looked back at the history and the legacy, and don’t want to change things because that’s the way it’s always been done,” Duke said. “The attitude that Eric’s brought to us, that’s what it is all about. We’ve been saved; now we have to go out and save others, and we’ve worked hard at that.”
Every other year, church members go on a mission trip into the Amazon basin to provide medical care to the poor in Brazil. Those in the teen ministry do mission work in Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country, to help residents build shelters, repair homes and do other work.
Shoes for Souls is one of the most recent and ambitious ministry of the church, Allen said. Volunteers collect footwear for children and teens who wouldn’t otherwise have safe shoes to wear.
The ministry is just over one year old, and already the church has seen an immediate impact.
“It’s great to see the number of people in need who are being met through that,” Allen said. “People from the community come, have never been involved in the church, but they’ve seen what we’re doing and just want to give shoes.”
With the 190th anniversary approaching, church leaders have been scouring past records and archives to get a sense of history. Older members have been interviewed to share their memories, and old photographs collected from the years have helped give a visual sense of how the church has evolved.
Even those aspects don’t tell the whole story, Allen said.
“As people have passed on, we don’t know all the really detailed history. But if you think, over 190 years, how many people have come to Christ, we wish we could track those numbers,” he said. “If you think hard about what that number is, it’s hard to fathom.”
On Sept. 10, the church will have a community-wide celebration to recognize the chartering of Bluff Creek Christian Church. In addition to worship service, officials have planned tours of the campus, games and a picnic lunch.
Artifacts and memorabilia will be displayed in a museum-like exhibition connecting the timeline of the church with major events in Indiana and U.S. history.
The public is invited to take part in the festivities. Just as the people of White River Township and beyond have been an integral part of the church history to this point, they will also define what Bluff Creek can be moving forward, Allen said.
“We don’t want to focus only on the history. We want to be aware of it, and be inspired it, and use it as a springboard for the future,” he said. “How do we do another 190 years, and continue to do so as a thriving ministry for God?”
Bluff Creek Christian Church
Where: 6286 W. State Road 144, Greenwood
Founded: May 18, 1827
Members: Average about 200 people
Leadership: Eric Allen, lead pastor; Jeremy Towne, associate pastor; Bryan Ottney, youth pastor
History of church
May 18, 1827: Bluff Creek Christian Church, a Baptist institution, was founded when residents began meeting in the home of Henry Brown.
Sept. 15, 1827: The first people to join the church after its founding were baptized and confessed their faith.
1830: The congregation began holding services in the schoolhouse building located a half-mile west of the village of Bluff Creek.
1836: The church withdrew from the Indianapolis Baptist Association and became non-denominational. Construction on a new house of worship made of logs started.
Oct. 12, 1844: The rebuilt church was dedicated, and the church was reorganized.
1854: The log church was torn down and a more substantial frame building was erected in its place.
Jan. 1, 1855: The new frame building was dedicated and the first services were held.
1884: An attempt to move the frame building was made, but failed. The church ended up being torn down and rebuilt on the site of the current Bluff Creek Christian Church.
1916: An expansion project added brick veneer to the existing frame structure.
Feb. 20, 1945: Fire completely burned down the church building. Services were moved to the gymnasium at Center Grove High School, and plans were made to rebuild a new structure.
May 1947: The congregation held worship services and Sunday school in the basement of the newly constructed church building.
April 17, 1949: The main auditorium of the new building was finished in time for Easter services.
May 22, 1949: The building, made of Bedford limestone, was officially dedicated. Shortly afterward, a new parsonage was built.
1962: The church building was expanded to include 1 6classrooms for children and youth, as well as a nursery.
2010: Plans were made to expand. Adjacent property was purchased, the parsonage demolished and the existing building renovated.
July 22, 2012: The new 24,000-square-feet worship facility was opened.
Bluff Creek Christian Church
190th anniversary celebration
When: Sept. 10
Where: 6286 W. State Road 144, Greenwood
Schedule: 10:30 a.m., worship service; noon, catered picnic luncheon
Information: The event is open to the community. Food and drinks will be provided, and free will offerings will be accepted. A historical display about the church will be featured in the lounge, and magician Daniel Lee will do a magic show.
RSVP: People are asked to let the church know who is coming and how many in your party. They can do that online at bluffcreek.org or by calling the church office at 317-422-5718.