Every Sunday, the members of Blue River Baptist Church gather to celebrate their faith.
They sing hymns, listen to a sermon from Pastor Justin Surface and reflect on the Bible verses that instruct on living a virtuous life.
But instead of meeting in a quaint historic building or a modern mega-church, the Blue River members meet in the banquet room of the Edinburgh Holiday Inn Express.
“The purpose of the service is coming away from the busyness of life, the temptations of life, and coming together as a people to encourage each other,” Surface said. “As long as we have a place to go, that’s all that matters.”
While Johnson County has its share of congregations spanning nearly 200 years, a new crop of churches are forming to meet the changing religious needs of the area. Meeting in hotel banquet rooms, schools and community centers, these church plants are an attempt to evangelize to the thousands of county residents who don’t call any particular church home.
“God has wired some of us to be entrepreneurs, and we like starting something,” said Ken Dalton, pastor of Village Bible Church in Greenwood. “You normally find with church planters, you get bored just keeping it going, so we like to start something new.”
Church planting has grown as the impression that existing churches are not prevalent enough to meet all the needs of Christians.
According to North American Mission Board, which helps churches reach new members, Indiana has one Christian church for every 1,500 to 1,800 people.
Evangelical groups felt the need to provide new faith opportunities and spread to ministry to more people.
Converge MidAmerica, a network of mission-based churches in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, saw an increase from 86 churches in 2000 to 186 in 2011. Those churches now reach 50,000 people.
Driving that effort is a wave of young pastors who are eager to spread the word of Christ and reach a new audience of Christians.
Surface, 26, and his wife, Cassie, 25, were installed as the pastors at Blue River Baptist Church in March. The 12-member congregation formed in 2008, but the resignation of the pastor left the future of the church in doubt.
When the Surfaces moved to Edinburgh from Cincinnati, the church had just lost its meeting place at the Edinburgh Community Room.
Justin and Cassie Surface had been pastoring for a church in the Cincinnati area when they felt called by God to move back to Indiana. Both are originally from the area — Justin Surface from Bargersville, and Cassie Surface from Mooresville.
“He put it on our hearts to move to Edinburgh, even though we weren’t exactly sure what we were supposed to do,” Justin Surface said.
‘Ready to work together’
Though they initially intended to plant a new church in the area, an acquaintance approached them about Blue River Baptist’s pastor resigning.
The opportunity to lead an existing congregation was tempting, but they were hesitant until God gave them an indication that this was the right move for them.
That sign came as multiple people associated with the church contacted the couple.
“A week later, I got a call to come fill the pulpit while they were looking for a new pastor,” Justin Surface said. “The beautiful thing about this was, the Lord put us at the same place at the exact same time to where we were all ready to work together.”
After preaching at Blue River Baptist for three months, the church leaders approached them about becoming the full-time pastor. The Surfaces prayed about the decision and in January accepted.
Though the church is five years old, the Surfaces and church founders both look at this as a reset of the church community.
Since taking over at Blue River Baptist, the Surfaces have worked to become familiar with the church family. They have conducted meet-and-greet sessions at an Edinburgh coffee shop to sit and talk for a while.
Cassie Surface has been meeting with women and teens in the church, hosting game nights or just sitting and talking over dinner.
Because the church didn’t have a pastor over the summer, members are more active and willing to help with the administrative duties than at larger congregations.
“All of them were serving, going into the community and setting up booths. Even though they didn’t have a pastor, they still wanted to reach people,” Cassie Surface said.
The church’s focus, inspired by the Book of Jude in the Bible, is having compassion and making a difference.
‘You can lose your focus’
That drives Blue River Baptist’s spirit of inclusiveness, Justin Surface said.
“Sometimes in churches you can lose your focus. You’re not focusing on Jesus Christ or the Bible. You’re focusing on things going on in society or other preferences,” he said. “We want to live by having compassion and loving people.”
Planting a church starts with a group of people who have faith in what they’re doing, Dalton said. Finding a group of people who want to be part of the community you’re trying to start, who share a vision of what a church should be, is the key component.
Suddenly, this group meeting in someone’s living room or a vacant office can announce the start of Sunday worship, Dalton said.
“They may not have incorporated, they might not even have a name. But they have a date where they’re going to start meeting,” he said.
Dalton has been planting churches since graduating from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. His congregations have taken hold in Illinois, Arizona, California, Idaho and Colorado.
His experience as a pastor has shown that, too often, people find themselves disconnected with their own church community.
“When churches get larger, we find that people become spectators instead of participants,” he said. “New church plants succeed because a lot of participation is required from everyone.”
In 1997, he and 11 other adults founded Southside Bible Church in Greenwood.
Reaching the unchurched
Research revealed that many Johnson County residents didn’t consider themselves part of any one church community. They were spiritual free agents.
“With that in mind, we decided we just need to be planting churches to reach those people,” Dalton said.
Southside Bible Church grew from the initial 12 members to a congregation of about 1,000 people. At that point, it was time for Dalton to move to his next church plant.
He helped launch Village Bible Church in 2012. The group meets weekly at the Greenwood Community Center.
On a typical Sunday, about 125 people attend services. Dalton, the lead pastor, is teaching a series on the Book of Revelation.
The vision is to teach the Bible one verse at a time, as well as giving people the knowledge and skills to live through Scripture on their own.
“We want to do everything we can to equip our people to be self-feeders, so they can teach themselves the Bible during the week,” Dalton said.
While Village Bible Church itself is a startup, it also contributes to the creation of other new church plants. Members provide financial backing for congregations just getting started.
Dalton also helps coach young pastors on how to ensure their churches succeed.
“If God wills it, I’d love to plant 10 more churches in Johnson County and the southside. If we’re right about the number of people without a church, there is a need,” he said.
Jim Clayton started planning a new church in the mid-2000s. He found Johnson County to be an ideal place to plant; research showed a number of people who had stopped attending church or did not identify as part of any one congregation.
Starting in 2008, he and his wife, Jodi, started hosting a Bible study in their home. After a year, the group decided to plan their own launch. Journey Church officially met for the first time in September 2008 at Northwood Elementary School in Franklin.
“For me personally, I didn’t know why I was going to seminary. I was going to learn the Bible. God was calling me to start a business, and church-planting is entrepreneurial. I’m a risk-taker,” Clayton said.
“When we started, my wife and I knocked on doors, asking what they were looking for in a church, specifically trying to find what they were missing. These people had been hurt and frustrated and felt like they didn’t belong. Once we got to know people, started designing a church to meet those needs that wasn’t being met here.”
From a initial group of about 30 people, the church now draws about 200 each week. It has been forced to upgrade facilities three times, now meeting at Canary Creek Cinemas for its seating capacity.
For Blue River Baptist Church, the next step is finding a permanent home.
Though the banquet room at the Holiday Inn has been a good experience for the church, a fixed location will allow Blue River Baptist to take root and look to grow. The church voted in mid-April to move into an existing church building in Edinburgh and will have their first service on May 4.
The Surfaces use a Bible quote to explain their hopefulness for the future. Ephesians 3:20 reads, “Now unto him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.”
To them, that offers proof that if they trust in God they can achieve the goals they’ve said.
“The Lord can do that if we believe he will. We believe he is going to do something we can’t even imagine,” Justin Surface said. “It may be three years, it may be 10 years. But it may just be a week.”