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Crime, poverty flavor couple’s outreach

INDIANAPOLIS (BP) — Many families with four small children wouldn’t consider moving to a neighborhood with high crime and poverty rates and crumbling homes — the kind of place you protect your children from, not move them to.

But Barry and Amy Rager — who moved to the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood of Indianapolis last year to start a church — aren’t most families.

“It’s a neighborhood that needs Christ,” said Rager, a North American Mission Board church planter, noting that the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana estimates the neighborhood to be 95 percent non-Christian. “And so that’s another draw to us being here: … if there’s a place where the population of the area rivals the lostness in foreign countries, it’s right where we need to plant a church.”

North American Mission Board trustees, meeting Feb. 3-5 in Indianapolis, connected with Rager and other local church planters during a Catch the Vision tour of the city. The city is one of 32 Send North America cities where NAMB is focusing the attention of Southern Baptists for evangelism and church planting. Indianapolis has only one SBC church for every 19,965 people.

Rager and wife Amy began to sense a call to Indianapolis in 2008 when the young couple attended the Southern Baptist Convention in the city. Barry, then a seminary student, had just taken a senior pastor position at a Kentucky Baptist church and didn’t feel the time was right for a move.

But for the next couple of years the couple prayed for Indianapolis and often thought about what ministry might look like in the city. In 2009 Rager began to talk with a variety of churches about the possibility of their support for starting a church in Indianapolis.

“Every time we set one of those up, it never happened,” Rager said. “We just thought maybe it wasn’t going to happen for us. And so we had prayed that our kids would be missionaries, that they would plant churches. I just assumed I’d pastor established churches in Kentucky.”

But God had an Indianapolis plan for them after all. In the summer of 2012, Jamus Edwards, pastor of Pleasant Valley Community Church in Ownesboro, Ky., approached Rager with an idea. The church wanted to start a new congregation in an urban environment — and they wanted Rager to be the planter.

When the Ragers moved to the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood, they were told it would take months — and maybe years — to connect with their neighbors. In the early days of the last century, the neighborhood was young, growing and and affluent — the place to be in the city. But then new communities began to emerge and became the city’s new magnets.
Decades of decline followed. In recent years there has been a strong effort to revitalize the neighborhood, but it’s still a work in progress.

“It’s a broken place, but the people are strong and resilient,” Amy said. “And they’re beautiful people, and we love them. They just need Jesus. So we’re excited to be here. It is a flavorful neighborhood in that we do hear gunshots. There is crime. But the people are open and receptive to the Gospel in a way that is beautiful.”

Knowing it would likely be tough to get to know their neighbors, the Ragers relied on a tried-and-true tool for making friends — freshly baked cookies.

“We still had boxes around and within the first week I had made cookies for our whole block,” Amy said. “We took cookies to every door. We tried to initiate relationships with each individual.”

The cookies helped the Ragers build bridges with their neighbors. Over the past year they’ve met just about everyone on their block. They also host two small discovery groups in their home. To further build relationships, Barry began frequently working from a nearby Starbucks. Because it was near a college campus, he also has built relationships with a number of students.

The Ragers also lead a monthly worship service that attracts 50 to 60 people as they prepare for the launch of their church. Ethiopians, African Americans, Asians and Caucasians all attend the services.

Though at times, Rager admits, life on the mission field can be frustrating and discouraging, he said the support of Southern Baptists has been critical. One pastor from Missouri regularly calls and texts him with encouragement. He’s also appreciative of one Southern Baptist church in Mississippi that prays for his family every Wednesday night.

“We believe God is worthy to be known,” Amy said. “We believe that He loves us, that despite our brokenness He sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us. And, we believe that not only is He the solution for eternity — which He is — but He’s the solution to life now. … [T]hese people, this city, desperately need to know that He is the only solution that will bring about peace and joy here.”
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board. Click here to watch a video about the Ragers and their work in Indianapolis. For more information about how your church can be a part of Send North America: Indianapolis, visit namb.net/indianapolis. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Tobin Perry