Lakeview’s Vision for a Diverse Church Spans 100 Years
STORY // Jennifer S. H. Smith Photos // Natalie Hardy
Lakeview Church, on Indianapolis’ west side, reflects the neighborhood where it has been ministering for 100 years. As the neighborhood demographics changed in recent years, Lakeview also changed. Today, Lakeview’s vision is to be a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural church located at the edge of the urban and suburban world. It’s a counter-cultural, gritty vision 100 years in the making.
Diversity 100 Years Ago
Lakeview’s drive to follow God’s heart, despite fearsome obstacles, has been present since its beginning in 1918. Founded by traveling evangelist Maria Woodworth-Etter in her later years of life, Lakeview has always bucked church trends. In fact, Lakeview was founded by a woman before women could even vote in America.
Born in rural Ohio and with little formal education, Maria felt God calling her to preach, but was hesitant, as women preachers were practically unheard of in her day. She didn’t begin her ministry until after she had lost five of her six children to various diseases. Brokenhearted and without the support of those closest to her, she still felt the urge to preach the gospel. Finally, at age 35, she felt Jesus saying, “Go now, and I will be with you.”
Although she began small, Maria’s ministry grew quickly and soon she was crisscrossing the country preaching Jesus in huge tents to tens of thousands of people. She attracted crowds as large as 25,000 and preached without any public address system. She had no planned itinerary and often changed routes as the Lord led her.
As momentum grew, her crusades were followed by newspaper reporters from around the country. In 1884, The Topeka Daily Capital said that she “is unquestionably a very sincere and unselfish Christian woman, devoting her life to bringing men and women to the faith of Christ. She claims no unusual power for herself. Her addresses are plain, forcible, and earnest, reaching the heart of common people.”
Nevertheless, many also mistrusted her means and doubted her sanity. Maria faced severe discrimination and was arrested multiple times for public disturbance. Even her own husband did not share her calling to the ministry, and wanted nothing more than to stay on their Ohio farm. Eventually, she and her husband divorced due to infidelity on his part, and she continued her ministry solo. She pressed on in her preaching and wrote nine books on God’s supernatural power. Her crusades focused on the Holy Spirit and physical, as well as spiritual, healings. Multitudes came to see these miracles and thousands gave their lives to Jesus under her ministry.
LAKEVIEW IS BORN
In 1918 at age 74, Maria sensed God calling her to build a permanent worship space. Lakeview Church’s original 500-seat tabernacle was built on the west side of Indianapolis where Maria preached until her death in 1924.
Lakeview’s vision for a multicultural church dates back to Maria’s desire that all people hear the Good News. Her crusades included rich and poor and all ethnicities experiencing the power of God together. Early photographs show multiple ethnicities and Native Americans at her crusades. In fact, it was Italian immigrants, Thomas and Lyda Paino, who took over leadership after Maria’s death. For the next 70 years, Thomas Sr. and then his son, Tom, would lead Lakeview. During these years the church grew to more than 1,500 people despite losing the original building to fire and having to rebuild. Passion for reaching people all over the world increased and Lakeview gave away millions of dollars toward world missions.
THE PASSION FOR DIVERSITY
In 1994, current Lead Pastor Ron Bontrager transitioned into leadership from his previous role as youth pastor. Over the years, Lakeview had become a primarily Caucasian congregation. However, God was igniting a passion for diversity in Ron’s heart, as the neighborhood around Lakeview was changing from a more homogeneous suburban to a diverse urban setting.
When Ron was attending a racially diverse church in a university town—years before becoming Lakeview’s pastor—God birthed a desire in his heart to have the Church more accurately reflect the diversity of heaven. It took a long time for that dream to become a reality.
“I knew that God desired Lakeview to be a representation of God’s family,” said Ron. “His multigenerational, multiracial family. We discovered how rich a multicultural church becomes because each culture brings something needed. For example, at Lakeview, our African and Asian families brought a needed passion for prayer. With America in a new season of racial tension, we desperately need churches where all races worship and break bread together, where old fears can melt and honest conversations happen. These walls are never easy to break down, but this is why Jesus came – to make us one new humanity.”
According to the findings of Lifeway Research Group, it seems that many believers don’t grasp why diversity is important. Many sense that it could be difficult or uncomfortable. But are the benefits worth the pain?
“The multiethnic experience is not without its challenges,” says Executive Pastor of Ministries, Drew Bontrager. “But we’ve found it to be a beautiful and rich way to grow closer to Jesus.” Having a multiethnic church means that the next person in the small group circle may have a vastly different view of the world and of God. But, as believers in Jesus, it is often during the difficult times that growth occurs. When faith is stretched, it can grow much stronger.
Jesus said to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We often find it easier to love people like us, but loving those who are fundamentally different from us to be much harder. When layers of differences – gender, race, culture, or age – are added, love becomes all the more difficult. However, this is where the Holy Spirit’s power is released.
Pastor Brian Cobb, Executive Pastor of Operations agrees. “Fear of the unknown always keeps people separated and promotes exclusivity. Exclusion is completely counterproductive to the message of Christ. Yet, when inclusion is allowed and celebrated in a church, the wall of fear is broken down. Cross-cultural relationships are formed and the culture of a church is forever changed for the better.”
“Our people are growing. Getting into each other’s worlds. Listening with the intent to understand, not to try to agree or disagree,” says Drew. Lakeview has modified many ministry methods and allocated resources differently to reach the needs of a more diverse body. Many small groups and classes meet at the more “neutral” ground of the church building to remove layers of culture or tradition that may make group members uncomfortable in each other’s homes or neighborhoods.
The heart of faith in the Creator God is that He endows each human with His image. That image is reflected differently among diverse cultures. Investing in relationships with people who love God but see the world differently, places people in a unique spot where their understanding and love for God can grow deeper. Lakeview’s members are learning to confront and destroy barriers to relationships across ethnic, racial, and generational lines. This sounds a lot like Jesus. Pastor Drew agrees.
“We are understanding the love of Jesus in more deep and complex ways.”
Lakeview’s staff reflects this intentionality by empowering a diverse leadership team to meet the needs of a diverse community. The staff includes men and women of a variety of ages from White, Black, Latino, and Asian backgrounds. “Doing multiracial church would be extremely difficult without a diverse staff,” says Drew. “We hired staff that would be able to uniquely reach different pockets of our community.”
Lakeview’s diversity goes beyond skin color, however. As the neighborhood changes, people from more than 40 nations call Lakeview home. In past decades, Lakeview gave away millions of dollars to spread the gospel around the world, but in 2018 the world has come to the neighborhood. How would the church respond?
Lakeview now intentionally meets the needs of their new immigrant neighbors and embraces how “world missions” looks completely different than it did just a generation ago. Many of Lakeview’s newest ministries, including a Christian daycare, Immigrant Welcome Center, and food pantry, were developed to help meet the needs of the diverse population. Other ministries focusing on thriving in a multicultural environment assist members who may struggle to understand Lakeview’s diversity. Classes about raising cross-cultural kids, for example, help parents develop a heart for all people, and better understand the culture of their kids.
True unity amid diversity means that people don’t just all assimilate, but recognize and validate each other’s unique challenges and learn from each other. Leaning in and listening to another leader’s unique perspective and style is humbling. It requires God’s power at work in our natural, selfish weaknesses. Drew says leaders from diverse backgrounds “have to have a seat at the table, not just to reflect the passion you proclaim, but to let their diversity influence the church culture.”
God Doing Something New
The passion for a diverse church and intentionally forming and leaning into multiracial and multicultural leadership is vital to sustain growth and unity. But, at the end of the day, if God’s transforming power doesn’t show up, diverse ministry is just an unattainable dream.
“Just as it took a work of the Spirit for the first century church to accept a multiracial church that included Gentile believers, so it takes a mighty work of God’s Spirit for our 21st century church to do the hard work of understanding and growing together,” says Drew.
For 100 years, Lakeview Church has been breaking down barriers of color, culture, age and economics. By embracing the challenge of diversity, Lakeview’s unique blend creates a beautiful, rich environment that looks a little bit like heaven.
LIVING IT OUT
Employ: Start with diverse leadership. Reflect the community.
Go further: Allow that leadership to change the church culture.
Rely on: Ask God for help.
Be brave, heart open: Get into each other’s worlds.
Go beyond the surface. Seek to understand before being understood.
Remove barriers, extend bridges: Rethink how you do what you do.
Think outside the box to reach people.
Adapt: Seek to meet the needs of the community around you,
even if their needs change over time.