Common Ground is changing the face of American Christianity
An inscription on a stone that sits outside of the church at Central and Westfield reads: Central Baptist Temple, AD 1949 The men and women who placed it there wanted to leave a reminder of the building's purpose. Now, it's been passed on to new hands, and that stone is all that remains of the Baptist congregation's presence. While the overarching message that was once preached there remains the same, the means have changed drastically. Heather Armstrong helps lead the congregation in song as part of the Common Ground's worship band.
You can see Ramin Razavi walking down the street in Broad Ripple. With his casual clothes and ponytail, he doesn't necessarily look like the religious type. He probably gets pegged more often as a mountain biker - which he is. But he's also a pastor at Common Ground Christian Church, where he's helping to change the face of American Christianity. It's a church whose primary goal is spreading Christianity while discouraging the use of the word "evangelical." It is also a place where people are finding strength in house churches - small, weekly groups of likeminded church members.
The substance of the place is different from what might typically be identified as evangelical. While teaching conservative principles, the church isn't involved in politics and doesn't make casual worshippers pass a litmus test. The community is open to all.
Bequeathing the church
Common Ground didn't start out as Common Ground. It began as Access, an outreach program of Trader's Point Church of Christ. But it soon outgrew its host.
Jeff Krajewski, the young adults minister at Trader's Point, led Access. He's 33 years old, with a clean-shaven head and a face that alternates between intense gaze and easy smile. The church's senior minister suggested leaving. Krajewski wanted to take Access somewhere where it could become a focal point for Christianity among young adults.
"We started praying. I remember we sat around a coffee table and prayed." Krajewski's steering team for Access did what came naturally: asking for intervention.
At the same time, another congregation was praying for intervention. But it was in a very different place than Access. Central Baptist hadn't kept pace with the times. Its membership was dwindling, and its congregates feared what would happen when they were gone. They wanted a group of young and vibrant Christians whom they could leave the church to.
Time and time again the members of Common Ground cite God's mission as the reason for where they are in their lives - how they came to Common Ground, how they came to Indianapolis, how they became Christians. And the circumstances that led to Common Ground's inception serves as a primary example. A Trader's Point minister's friend introduced Krajewski to Central Baptist's stewards.
Access became Common Ground in September of 2001. Common Ground took over Central Baptist in what its members would call a match made in heaven. Incredibly, they received the valuable Broad Ripple location and the charming building for free.
While Krajewski was leading Access through its early years, a student at Miami of Ohio named Ramin Razavi was trying to find his purpose in life.
"I had gotten to the point in my life, where in high school I was very successful, everything I did went really well. I was an all-state runner, I was, like, third in my class, I had friends, my dad bought me a red Mustang with my track time as the license plate ... I was just very full of myself. And I got to college and I wasn't the fastest guy on the team. People liked me, but I wasn't lauded as any kind of relational superstar. I was just another person in the mix. And it started to make me question where my identity was found."
Razavi turned to a captain of the track team in his quest for identity. The captain shared the "today reality, that I could have a direct connection with God. And so he shared that with me and asked me if that's something that I wanted to be true in my life, and I was like, 'Of course, dude!'"
This sort of enthusiastic religious outburst is second nature for Razavi. His speech is filled with "whoa," "like" and "totally." It's not the speech that's normally associated with evangelicals in the public mind. But Razavi found comfort in Miami of Ohio's chapter of the Campus Crusade for Christ, a nationwide evangelical group with a strong presence at colleges.
When Razavi graduated from Miami in 2000, he knew he wanted to devote his life to his religion. He went to seminary, and then left it. Through another chance meeting, what he calls "a divine intersection," a friend introduced him to Common Ground.
He was attracted to the church's unique methods. Razavi says they're "going back to the simple, biblical model of what church is." He became an intern pastor at Common Ground. After a year, he felt that his mission still hadn't been fulfilled, so he stayed on.
Common Ground is returning to what it sees as the biblical model with its house churches. The appeal of Common Ground lies in its mix of youthfulness and religion. The Bible is the focal point of services. Worshippers are encouraged to bring their own and take notes. It's an unusual sight for the hipster haven of Broad Ripple - men and women in their 20s walking to church. This Bible-based approach is mixed with the rock music that starts the service off.
The music is something that comes up again and again when Common Ground members talk about what originally attracted them. It's light, contemporary rock and the songs have names like "Blessed Be the Name." The sort of music you can hear on 93.9 ("The Song: Positively Uplifting Radio").
It is not a church that preaches liberal doctrines, but Krajewski shies away from calling it an "evangelical" church: "We do not want to be defined with the typical stigma that comes with that term."
They do, however, want to be defined by what they term the "orthodox principles of Christianity." There are no women elders at Common Ground. Krajewski preaches against homosexuality. But Common Ground is unaffiliated with any larger group, so it can avoid taking an organizational position on these contentious topics that might drive away some more liberal worshippers. Krajewski doesn't see Common Ground as part of a culture war, and he frequently stresses that Common Ground has "no platforms, no agendas."
Krajewski believes in extending an open arm to the gay community, even proposing outreach efforts to AIDS hospices. But this doesn't change his opinion on the morality of homosexuality.
In a sermon on July 25, he spoke on his attitude. "And I want to ask your forgiveness if you sit here today, and have experience with the abusive or the coercive people who have wielded the Gospel of Jesus as a sword. Make no mistake, sin is real, it affects our relationship, and what we are looking for, that desire of our hearts, cannot be found unless we come to Jesus who tears that veil that keeps us between us and God, we cannot come to him unless we confess that sin, that we are a part of that sin, and that he alone justifies us or makes us right to be in God's presence. We can come, we can come with all the baggage that we have."
In talking with Razavi and Krajewski, it becomes clear that their true passion is the house churches, the places where they focus on the "tangible meaning" of Sunday services.
A house church is an unusual mix of a support group and a classroom. Each house church has three to four leaders. Their optimum size is 15 people. NUVO took two trips to a house church in Broad Ripple.
The first was a social gathering. About once a month, the members of the house church that Razavi usually leads have a get-together where the focus isn't on Sunday's service. On a warm Tuesday night, they gathered to enjoy some barbecue. The conversation was relaxed. The conversation turned back to religion again and again. The people there knew each other well.
The house churches seem to reflect Krajewski's "no platforms, no agendas" idea. There was everybody from Cheryl, an artist who talked about her trip to an artists' group in Vermont, to Jonah, a fervent born-again who talked about a "prayer furnace."
The house churches usually meet to talk religion. At another meeting, in a packed basement, Razavi led the group in song and prayer. His job was to methodically focus the members on Sunday's message from the Book of Acts.
These house churches are the most critical part of Common Ground's mission. They see them as the tool to bring the church back to its roots, mirroring the practices described in the Book of Acts. The house churches are where the message is given: "The church is not a collection of individuals, rather it is a community of interdependent people following after Jesus," as Krajewski put it in a sermon.
Off to Boulder
The message has some mixed implications for the church. This sense of community is an extremely effective way to get people to come back - it's impossible to leave a house church without having a half-dozen people ask you to return. The community of Common Ground is similar to the social networks sprouting up on the Internet; it's built from the ground up, person by person.
But another part of the message puts the church at odds with today's society. Krajewski also says that "Materialism is an enemy because it promotes individuality." He doesn't want people to "live and sustain life on [their] own." The house churches are a way of keeping their members in check. The close friends that people make in a house church stay with them throughout the week. It becomes significantly more difficult to "stray" from the doctrine when you have little life outside of the church.
Razavi describes these friends met in the house churches as "companions to walk the journey of life with."
And so Ramin Razavi is now going to grow Common Ground in the most unlikely of places: Boulder, Colo. The Buddhist capital of Colorado. A place with an evangelical population of less than 2 percent.
Razavi, true to form, is unshaken and effusive.
"What we foresee happening is it being a very organic growth. Something where we're going to take about 12-15 people with us who want to do this, and we'll start meeting in a home in Boulder, in town. And as they meet more people in Boulder and share with them what we're doing and they become a part of the community, and that group grows, we'll do birth of that community. And at that point we'll have two home groups meeting on a Wednesday night in the town of Boulder. And at that point on a Sunday we'll have larger community expression and worship and there'll be some teachings from a Bible."
Razavi and his wife, Natalie, will take part-time jobs. Common Ground is recruiting a dozen people to go with them. It's an astonishing proposal for people with comfortable lives and jobs, the stable, friendly people that Common Ground thinks will help the community grow.
We spoke to two of those people, a professional couple with a toddler who didn't want to be identified because the father hasn't informed his employer yet. Over a spaghetti dinner, they described their thoughts about the Boulder relocation.
When asked if they had told their friends outside of Common Ground of the Boulder plans yet, there was a noticeable pause. "I was trying to think of who my friends outside of Common Ground are."
Religious devotion isn't the couple's sole reason for their move. The wife has family close to Boulder. But their decision is still dramatic. They'll be moving 1,100 miles and losing a home. Realty prices in Boulder are too expensive for them to afford a home there. Their standard of living in other areas will also take a hit.
Her philosophical view shows the tangible effects of the anti-materialist creed of Common Ground for at least two of its members. "What's valuable to God? People. What's valuable to us? Stuff."
It is people like the members of Common Ground who are fueling the new wave of evangelism in America. It's different from the traditional conception of the movement. Krajewski calls it "post-evangelism." Its members are open to new methods of proselytizing. They fueled the success of The Passion of The Christ. And with Razavi biking down the trails of Colorado, they will likely capture more hearts and minds.
Heart of God
Up on Flagstaff mountain, on a scouting trip in Colorado for the church, Razavi met a man from Indianapolis who had moved for "spiritual reasons."
"And so we just started talking to him, and he said, 'Man, the thing that's hurt me the most is that born-agains think that George Bush is the arm of God ... that hurts me a lot, because I don't like the way that he empowers people to kill other people.'
"And I said, 'Well, man, we don't believe he's the arm of God either.'
"And so we had this wonderful discussion about the heart of God, about the heart of God being love and compassion and forgiveness and mercy and that that is the very core of who God is. It was an amazing conversation because both of us left encouraged. He really desires to come and visit our church community when we start. It was a really, really cool interaction with him."
Common Ground Christian Church
3151 N. Central Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46220
at 9 and 11 a.m.
and 7 p.m.